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Review: Pacific Rim Broke My Heart

By 07.11.13

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Do me a favor: don’t read this review until Monday, okay? I would feel derelict in my duties if I didn’t review this movie on opening day, but honestly, I don’t want to ruin it for you. I still remember that feeling of anticipation I had. This was going to be so good, you guys! The non-remake, non-sequel, non-cartoon, non-comic book sci-fi movie event of the summer! The big, silly blockbuster that proved that blockbusters could be more than just reimaginings of existing crap, more than just slapping flames on toys we loved as kids! I loved that feeling! That feeling is worth more than any review, any worldly knowledge, more than your potentially wasted twelve bucks! DON’T BITE THE APPLE FROM THE TREE OF PACIFIC RIM KNOWLEDGE! STAY PURE AND INNOCENT AND HOPEFUL FOREVER IN A PRE-PACIFIC RIM VIEWERSHIP EDEN OF BLISSFUL IGNORANCE!

It was a beautiful pitch, wasn’t it? Alien Godzillas have risen from the ocean to invade Earth and the humans have built giant robots to punch them in the face. Stop right there, perfect. If I was a movie exec and Guillermo Del Toro had walked into my office with that pitch, I would’ve greenlit three sequels and given him all of the cocaines. I wanted desperately for this movie to be good. I wanted to be the good guy fighting for another good guy by writing a good review. But after having seen the movie, it never gets further than that: a pitch. It’s some brilliant concept art in search of a movie. It was like they’d only invented the thinnest of pretexts for why anything might be happening, and the characters caricatures standing around had to force the action along by screaming convoluted exposition at you. There was hardly a story, there was barely even cause and effect. Stuff just happened, seemingly at random, according to the split-second whims of the creator, and he’d have to hurriedly explain why, using his dopey prop characters like ventriloquist’s dummies. It was like watching a nerd play with his dolls for two hours.

In Max Landis’s Man of Steel rant, he said “I’m interested in movies where character drives story. Movies where story drives story don’t really interest me.”

I mostly agree with that statement, but I’m not an idiot, I didn’t go into this Robot Jox vs. Godzilla movie expecting a Merchant-Ivory film or some Reservoir Dogsian character drama. I promise, I wasn’t expecting Pacific Rim to be character driven. But I did need one actual character. One. One solitary human being about whom I could give even the wateriest of shits, or even a robot with some personality. Instead, I got a collection of shrill stereotypes straight out of a Michal Bay movie toplined by Maverick‘s Match.com profile.

It didn’t bug me that the characters were clichés, it bugged me that they were only the most crudely sketched clichés, where we were supposed to fill in the gaps ourselves, like trying to recreate George Clooney’s charm using only a paparazzi photo of him watering his plants. Since Guillermo Del Toro seems to want so desperately for his lead to be Maverick, let’s take Maverick for example. In Top Gun, Maverick was a brash young pilot who played by his own rules, which was a cliché even then, but even so, we at least got to know him – he had hopes, dreams, fears, a girlfriend, a cool motorcycle, some dudes he played gay volleyball with, and a favorite cereal. With Charlie Hunnam, who charmlessly plays Raleigh Becket, leader of Pacific Rim‘s silly name brigade, we get, like I said, a dating profile. A couple snapshots – here is with his shirt off, here he is being brash, a quote about “work hard, play hard” – his “personality” just a couple of hackneyed sentences offering only the vaguest sense that he’s the type of guy who might be in an action movie.

Not only that, but Pacific Rim is so sloppily made that Raleigh’s constantly reinforced brash cocksure-itude doesn’t even really seem to be a factor in whether he wins or loses his robot fights. Maverick was a cocky prick who made moves so bold that he was unpredictable and it gave him advantage over the enemy. Thus, there was a narrative reason for his characterization. In Pacific Rim, you’re never sure why the Jaegers win or lose. They just disobey whatever Idris Elba says, and sometimes that’s good and sometimes it’s bad. Seriously, he’s like the worst military commander portrayed on film since Hitler in Downfall. Thus, Raleigh’s brashness serves no real purpose, it just feels like “Well, we did this because that’s what action movies are supposed to do.”

Idris Elba’s character is named “Stacker Pentacost,” incidentally, and they all work out of a place called “The Shatterdome.” If the movie was better, the silly names would be endearing.

Speaking of silly names, the process by which pilots control the giant Jaegers (German for “hunter”) is called a “neural handshake,” wherein two pilots (the process was too much for one brain handle alone!) mind meld with each other and the bot, and each pilot controls a respective hemisphere of the robot brain. How strong their bond is, how well they “drift,” in Pacific Rim parlance, determines how well they fight. So, what is it that makes someone a good Jaeger pilot? Presumably empathy, a strong bond between the two pilots. That’s what they tell us, but then it never actually plays out that way. There’s an Australian father-and-son Jaeger pilot team, with the son playing the requisite Iceman character who doesn’t like Raleigh on account of he’s washed up and too brash. The father-and-son team supposedly are so good that they’ve brought the Jaeger program back from the dead. But if it’s their strong bond (A FIRM NEURAL HANDSHAKE) that has made them good fighters, you’d never know it, because they seem to hate each other and spend the whole movie not being able to connect. It’s like pathological derivativeness, where they had to throw in a father-and-son-can’t-connect plot because ACTION MOVIES, but then shoehorned it into a spot where it actually cuts against the logic of the story.

At one point, his Australian rival yells at Raleigh, “YEAH, THAT’S RIGHT, DISAPPEAR! THAT’S WHAT YOU’RE BEST AT!”

Likewise, when Raleigh teams up with the Japanese schoolgirl version of Kelly McGillis, Mako Mori, we know they’re going to make a great team because of the background music, but other than that it’s hard to tell what makes them compatible. Because she stares at his shirtless body through a peephole like a teenage boy? Because he doesn’t see any other women during the movie? The only hint we’re given as to why she might be better suited to Raleigh than the other pilots is when she beats everyone else at stick fighting. So hey, is it an emotional bond that makes them good at fighting, or is it bow-staff skills? I still don’t know. But if you’re looking for a strong, unique female character, look no further than the demure Asian chick who’s great at studying, emotionally fragile, in love with a white dude, and knows karate.

There are some other characters too, like the Russian Jaeger pilots who are big and platinum blonde and silent and look like Drago, and a set of Chinese triplets who are basically b-boys playing Dance Dance Revolution – both groups styled as cheesily as an eighties videogame. None of those guys get to talk, but the rest of the supporting cast is all wacky comic relief. Charlie Day plays the lead biologist studying the Kaijus, and he’s a slackery Charlie Day-type, who’s paired with a stuttering, straitlaced English (?) mathematician with a preposterous bowl cut. Talk about an odd couple! But the one thing they do have in common is that they’re both incredibly grating. Also, let me get this straight: every country on Earth has come together to defend against giant alien lizards destroying Earth, and they could only muster up two Summer School rejects to study them?

No matter, Charlie Day discovers that he can “drift” with the Kaijus, a process for which all he requires is a functioning Kaiju brain. How to extract a living brain from a thing you have to kill in order for it to hold still? That’s easy, because the Kaijus actually have TWO brains. They’re so big they need another brain to control their whole mass, you see, a phenomenon Charlie Day hurriedly shouts at us as if we were already supposed to have known. So anyway, Charlie Day goes Kaiju drifting and discovers all of the aliens’ evil plans. Remember Brent Spiner in Independence Day? Yeah, it’s like that. But hey, at least there’s an opportunity to blow up an alien portal to Earth, I haven’t seen that in a movie lately.

I honestly wonder if this movie would’ve been better if the Jaegers were controlled remotely, or via artificial intelligence. Then there at least would’ve been the opportunity to give the robots some personality through character design, in a Wall E sort of situation. As it is, we’re supposed to care about the humans inside the robots, and aside from the fact that they’re all dumb clichés with no recognizable humanity, it’s hard to tell how any of their personal attributes are manifested in anything the robots are doing. And thus, all the fight scenes feel like Guillermo Del Toro with a robot puppet on one hand and a Godzilla puppet on the other smashing his hands together while making explosion sounds with his mouth. Actually, I would’ve rather watched that. At least then we’d have this chubby redheaded Mexican with boundless enthusiasm character to care about.

Some of his dolls are cool looking, and the fights that take place out in space or underwater are semi-enjoyable, because at least then we get a break from two big things noisily destroying another city. Congrats, CGI, you’ve mastered smashed-up buildings, now give it a rest. The choreography of fights was always more interesting than the scenery getting smashed, and that’s all but missing here.

Our friend Laremy floated the question of whether Guillermo Del Toro actually understands the nuances of the English language. That he might not could explain how he could go from a brilliantly nuanced film like Pan’s Labyrinth to a ham-hoofed scrawl like Pacific Rim. Del Toro seems perfectly articulate in interviews, but Pacific Rim does kind of feel like Robot Jox meets Top Gun run through Google Translate.

I promise you, there are still some films opening this summer that will restore your faith in the magic of silly summer movies, but unless you have an extreme tolerance for horrible dialog and characters who look like Mike Tyson’s Punch Out stereotypes, it’s not this one. I am sorry, you guys. I wish it was different too. Now please, use the comments section to insult my mother.

GRADE: C-

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TAGSCHARLIE HUNNAMGUILLERMO DEL TOROIDRIS ELBApacific rimreviews

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