Guillermo del Toro seems like an incredibly cool guy. He’s great at reaching out to fans, he’s recorded some of the most entertaining DVD audio commentaries on the market, and he’s also proven to have some legitimate art house credentials when he needs to. His problem is that he seems to sometimes get a little carried away with his exuberance and spreads himself a little thin across a whole bunch of projects that he never actually ends up making. I mean, right now IMDB lists him as a producer, writer, and/or director on five different projects in pre-production including a re-telling of Pinocchio and a TV pilot called “The Strain” (which is based on a series of books which he co-authored). He’s also announced all sorts of other projects like adaptations of “At the Mountains of Madness,” “Slaughterhouse Five,” “Frankenstein,” and “Beauty and the Beast” just to name a few, and we haven’t even gotten into his ill-fated gig as the director of “The Hobbit” before Peter Jackson took over. All this from someone who hadn’t actually succeeded at getting a film made since 2008. At long last del Toro has finally gotten one of his many projects out of his mind and into the real world: a neo-Kaiju film called Pacific Rim.
“Kaiju” is a Japanese word which means “strange creature.” It’s also the name of a film genre which consists of giant monsters fighting one another; the most famous example is of course the Godzilla franchise. In the world of Pacific Rim the word “Kaiju” has been re-appropriated to refer to a series of actual giant monsters that have been emerging from a portal deep in the Pacific Ocean to attack various coastal cities around the world. Earth has responded to this however by developing a line of giant robots called Jaegers that can measure up to these monsters pound for pound and defeat them before they can cause too much damage. However, there are drawbacks to the Jaeger program: each robot requires two co-pilots in order to withstand the burden of their psychological control systems, additionally the Kaiju coming out of the poral have gotten increasingly large and are beginning to outgun what these robots are capable.
As such, the film’s main story begins years after earth has de-funded the Jaeger program in favor of giant concrete coastal wall… because that’s a perfectly logical response to protect people from monsters that can apparently tear through entire cities without too much trouble. When this wall proves as ineffective as you’d think it would, it’s decided to bring the Jaegers back before it’s too late. As such they decide to bring back a veteran Jaeger pilot named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who hasn’t gone “behind the wheel” of a Jaeger since his brother was killed in a previous Kaiju encounter. Still the man in charge of the project, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), believes in him and knows that he’s familiar with the technology aboard one of the last remaining Jaegers. Still, he’s going to have to find a co-pilot fast and get ready, because if Earth can’t find a way to close the portal soon they could become overrun with monsters before they know it.
Sometimes I wonder if we put too much faith in directors, especially when they seem to be really passionate about a given project and that project isn’t a sequel or an adaptation of some best-selling book or something. There’s very little about Pacific Rim that, on its surface, would have me all that interested in it. If they’d released the same trailer but replaced Del Toro’s name with the name of the dude who directed Real Steel and I wouldn’t have been remotely interested. But with Del Toro’s name it was one of my most anticipated films of the year, and after seeing it I have pretty mixed feelings about it.
On of the things that made the film seem so cool on the surface was its cool cast of trendy names like Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, and Ron Perlman. However, it feels like Del Toro had to make a deal with the devil (and by “devil” I mean the studio) to get all these hip names because at the film’s center is a nobody named Charlie Hunnam, a hero who’s so bland and white that he makes Ryan Reynolds look like Samuel L. Jackson. Maybe it’s not fair to take this out on Hunnam, because all that blandness seems pretty inherent to the boring character he’s being asked to play. He’s basically just a less developed and less cool take on the Tom Cruise character from Top Gun and his character arc was just cliché and uninteresting.
Truth be told, the human story here in general isn’t really the best. I kind of get the feeling that Del Toro started out with a list of elements he wanted like giant monsters, giant robots, Ron Perlman, exotic locations, and Lovecraftian alternate universes and then contrived a plot to fit them all in to this self indulgent hash of a movie. It’s also got some dialogue that’s kind of cheesy, perhaps as an intentional nod to old school flyboy movies, but it’s cheesy nonetheless. Still, there’s kind of a dumb charm to it all. This is being described as a neo-Kaiju movie, but it reminded me of the even nerdier Japanese genre: anime. It’s got an interesting world and I kind of wish that Del Toro had found a different format to display it than this sort of mediocre flyboy-movie tribute; perhaps a TV series or a videogame or something that would have allowed more of a macro view of this war against the kaiju.
Speaking of video games, if you thought Man of Steel’s action scenes were long, over-the-top, destructive, and CGI heavy this is not the movie for you. The film is all about big fights between CGI creatures, and while there are theoretically real live people inside of the jaegers, that isn’t always readily apparent. Still, these scenes are at least kind of different from the usual action scenes we see in Hollywood films, so there is value to them. They weren’t transcendently awesome or anything, but they were fun. In fact that could be said about the whole film. I’d say that this probably stacks up about on par with some of Del Toro’s earlier forays into commercial filmmaking like the first Hellboy or Blade II. If he hadn’t gone on to make more respectable movies like Pan’s Labyrinth I kind of suspect that this would have been something more like a pleasant surprise than the semi-disappointment that it is.
*** out of Four