A Look Back: “Pacific Rim”.
After several viewings, I’m still left with the question of why Guillermo del Toro made “Pacific Rim,” his gleefully boneheaded tribute to the monster-crushing, badass robo-dreams of 13-year old boys everywhere. Surely, he doesn’t need the money that badly. Why just look at that elegant, packed-to-the-gills haunted house he’s managed to buy himself. And yet one of the reasons that “Pacific Rim,” in spite of its considerable technical achievements, ends up feeling like vastly less than the sum of its parts is its lack of an urgency, or purpose, in the director’s respective canon. Compared to this stiff, overblown rock-‘em-sock-‘em epic, “Blade II” feels downright autobiographical.
Of course, I’m being too harsh. The Mexican director’s “Hellboy” films were both profitable while retaining their gonzo-gothic auteur’s stamp and his second installment of the “Blade” franchise was funny, deliciously gory and dazzlingly imaginative. That alongside his independent triumphs — the modern-day magical realism of “Cronos” and the timeless, Cocteau-esque horror of “Pan’s Labyrinth”, his masterpiece- would establish him as one of the defining cinematic voices working in motion pictures today. He is a slave to his indulgences, as many fine filmmakers are, but he’s also in possession of an imagination that is practically without rival in genre cinema (I may reserve that one title for del Toro’s fellow geek cineaste Edgar Wright, who turns genre exercises into deeply personal, funny/sad autobiography).
So why, then, is “Pacific Rim” such a drag? I, for one, am no grouch: I was fully prepared to enjoy Del Toro’s Sea-Monsters-vs.-Giant-Robots extravaganza in all its brainless glory. It is regarded amongst many as del Toro’s most successful mainstream picture — a label that prompted me to give it both a second and a third viewing (life’s too short for a fourth). But this is, seemingly, less an extension of the director’s own obsessions and interests than another loud, clanging and anonymous sensory attack that has more in common with the “Transformers” franchise than anything by H.P. Lovecraft. Hell, it ain’t even “Godzilla”. While del Toro is clearly having a ball channeling his inner geeked-out adolescent, he’s seemingly forgotten to extend his invite to nerd out to those in the audience who value things like consistency, restraint and character development. Shooting most of its key fight scenes in the rain turns out to be a harbinger of things to come: “Pacific Rim” turns out to be simultaneously soggy and assaultive, and far from the brainless good time that it should have been.
One of the film’s central problems comes with the casting of British hunk Charlie Hunnam as a maverick pilot who can’t follow orders (yawn) and who is obligated by the terms of the screenplay to get the girl, save the day, etc. I know clean-cut, all-American heroes in movies like this aren’t supposed to be Laurence Olivier, but Hunnam here has seemingly only three modes: brooding, sexy and sexy-brooding. When called upon to do anything more than sulk and let his simmering good looks do the heavy lifting for him, Hunnam — who has an admittedly striking presence, and might do well with an action-movie role that’s more interestingly written than this one — falls flat. His Hero With A Purpose loses his brother in a horrific skirmish in the early goings and is soon called into service of the “Jaeger” operation… that is to say, a series of top-flight military robots that are mankind’s last line of defense in a war with a bloodthirsty plague of monsters known as the Kaiju. This matter comes down on high from other than Stringer Bell himself, Mr. Idris Elba. Unlike Hunnam, Elba is a consummate thespian and he owns every scene he’s in — one wishes we had more of his character’s tortured theatrics and less of the silly, unconvincing sort-of romance that blossoms between Hunnam’s character and a delicate Asian flower (Rinko Kinkuchi) whose own terrible experience with the Kaiju feels ripped out of a mid-60’s Toho flick (it’s also, visually speaking, one of the more beautiful passages in the movie, save for a hallucinatory battle through the neon-ensconced streets of Hong Kong). Charlie Day shows up as an irksome, shriek-y scientist/Kaiju expert that’s explicitly intended to be a stand-in for Del Toro himself and, true to his style, he yells a lot and isn’t very funny. I imagine his goofy second banana might go over well with some of the more undiscerning little kids in the crowd, but even that might be a tough sell. Only the gruff, wigged-out Ron Perlman makes an impression, relishing in his Del-Toro-role du jour as a kooky (and vaguely Jewish) dealer of Kaiju body parts, replete with fake gold teeth and a Liberace wardrobe. He struts and swaggers and gnashes his teeth, and his colorful weirdness is something this drab movie could have used more of.
Del Toro still sketches these scenes with the admirable enthusiasm of a lifelong geek, but for the first time, his staggering visual imagination can’t make up for risible dialogue, transparent characterization and murky, mostly incomprehensible fight scenes. He made up for this brief stumble in a modest way with this year’s kooky, similarly overblown “Crimson Peak,” which traded a juvenile monster fixation for unabashed, 100% earnest Gothic Romance. Hopefully del Toro can leave the histrionics behind soon and make something in the vein of his odd, moving early features like “Cronos” and “The Devil’s Backbone” (his FX series “The Strain” sports beautiful production design in the vein of an 80’s-era John Carpenter flick, but is otherwise pretty dull). I know there’s a world where the sounds of nerds clamoring for more movies like this one would result in a “Pacific Rim” trilogy but as much as I love this filmmaker and am willing to forgive him for the occasional misstep, I must say that I really don’t want to live in that world.