The idea behind director Guillermo del Toro‘s latest movie is hardly original. The world, not just Hollywood, has made a living on giant monster movies for decades. We’ve also seen a number of giant robot movies, particularly big-budget CGI-extravaganzas in recent years. Even animated movies such as Monsters vs. Aliens have pitted two groups of giant creatures against each other.
More than Blade II (the only watchable film from that franchise) or either of the Hellboy movies, del Toro’s latest is easily his most mainstream attempt at a summer blockbuster. We certainly get the director’s spin on things, and designs of creatures who seem right at home in Hellboy or Pan’s Labyrinth, but the story from the director and co-writer Travis Beacham itself is by the book (and doesn’t even attempt to color outside the lines). The result is a film that feels a lot like a mashup of Robot Jox, Independence Day (complete with last-minute inspirational speech and wacky scientists), Top Gun, Transformers, and various monster movies all spruced up with sexy CGI and de Toro’s eye for creature design.
The world we are thrust into concerns an Earth constantly being attacked by Kaiju (a Japanese term that has been used to describe the giant monsters in various films beginning with Godzilla) who have crossed over into our dimension through a dimensional rift deep in the Pacific Ocean. To combat the giant destructive creatures, the various governments of the world have united to create giant robot fighters known as Jaegers which are controlled by a pair of pilots who use a mind-meld technique to control the machine through their shared memories. The concept creates a situation where a pilot must be paired with a suitable partner (many of those shown are brothers, fathers and sons, or other close relations).
The film opens with the scuttling of the Jaeger program as the Kaiju coming through the rift have become too large and strong for the robots that no longer seem a match for them. Following the opening narration setting up the world, our first real sequence gives us an example of this as Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) and Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) are unable to stop the latest Kaiju attack in a failure that leaves their robot, and one of the brothers, dead.
As the world’s governments have put their resources into building massive (ineffectual) walls and a new super-secret program that’s ill-defined and never shown, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) gathers what little funding he has left and the remaining Jaegers from all over the world and sets up shop in Hong Kong as a private defense outfit. To pilot a recently repaired Mark-3 Jaeger he pulls Raleigh out of retirement and puts the pilot back to work behind the wheel of a giant robot.
Other storylines involve the woman (Rinko Kikuchi) best suited to be Raleigh’s partner, whose promotion to pilot Pentecost is dead-set against for personal reasons which will slowly be revealed, the rivalries inside the Jaeger bunker between the maverick Raleigh and a young hot shot (Robert Kazinsky) who pilots the last Jaeger ever built with his father (Max Martini), and a pair of squabbling scientists (Charlie Day, Burn Gorman) working on discovering where the monsters are coming from and why they are journeying through the rift in ever-increasing numbers.
The CGI-heavy film offers some impressive visuals as well as some sadly distorted shaky cam shots (which make absolutely no sense given nearly all of these sequences are computer generated). The robots are the most interesting characters in the movie. Although more than half of the film is CGI-heavy action we don’t get to spend nearly enough time getting to know the various quirks of the different style of Jaeger.
The same could be said for their pilots. Although the story focuses heavily on both Raleigh’s relationship to Mori (Kikuchi) and his bristling rivalry with the younger Hansen (Kazinsky), we get very little time with the other pilots (Heather Doerksen, Robert Maillet, Charles Luu, Lance Luu, Mark Luu) and even less with the numerous ground crew, systems techs, and engineers who keep the robots in working order on a shoestring budget.
Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures Pacific Rim (the ridiculously long full name of the movie that fits its ridiculous premise) offers up a loud, big budget spectacle with some over-the-top comic relief from the likes of Day and Ron Perlman (in a small role as a Kaiju black marketeer) while also delivering some extended dramatic moments recycled from several well-known films. However it offers up few surprises, as the audience will be able to guess what is coming in this basic underdog-makes-good tale of survival.
Even knowing where the film was going, and laughing at some of the rudimentary character dynamics the film relies so heavily on (never bothering to develop them more than necessary for this brand of movie), I still had an okay time. If you’re simply looking for big robots smashing into giant monsters this could be your guilty pleasure of the summer, but if you are expecting del Toro’s involvement to raise the bar and deliver something more than a stylistic summer popcorn flick then you’re likely to end up disappointed.