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There is only one reason why anybody would want to endure Pacific Rim. That reason happens midway through the movie, when a giant robot faces off against an acid-spitting monster in Hong Kong. The robot is dragging a cargo ship, as robots are apparently wont to do. It lifts the ship up, grips it like a baseball bat, swings, and smashes it against the monster’s head. The monster staggers and falls. The audience hoots and hollers. For an instant, Pacific Rim has matched its cartoonish premise and its chaotic ambition, and all seems right in the realm of the fantastic.
Too bad you’ll have to slog through everything else just to get to that point.
Pacific Rim is precisely as big and dumb as a movie about monster-fighting robots deserves to be. It’s colossal, both in size and stupidity. It’s a movie born of spectacle — towering, massive, unsustainably titanic spectacle — and, as a result, it reveals how a filmmaker’s boldest ambitions can often enable his worst instincts. Guillermo del Toro willed this ridiculous slug match to life, but he gave it an awfully fitful existence.
The story opens in the near future, when aliens known as “kaiju” begin to attack the world’s cities. These pissed-off monsters don’t arrive from the skies, but rather through an intergalactic portal resting on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Humanity’s last hope to stop the kaiju is the “jaeger,” an enormous fighting robot that’s controlled by a pair of pilots who must literally read each other’s mind to operate it correctly.
The terrible downside to that neural connection? If your co-pilot dies, you experience their last moments just as they do. This is what happens to Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, perpetually on the verge of sneering), a jaeger pilot who watched a kaiju snatch his brother out of the co-pilot’s seat in a battle gone awry. Raleigh barely survives, and soon after, retires to work a dismal construction job on the shores of Alaska. He’s eventually lured back by his former commanding officer, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who wants to launch an all-out assault against the kaiju with the world’s last remaining jaegers. (Let’s stop and appreciate that name for a minute. How great is it? Stacker Pentecost! Say it to yourself. Stack-er Pen-te-cost. It sounds like the name a con man would use if he posed as a Bible salesman.) Of course, that means Raleigh needs a new co-pilot. A vengeance-seeking rookie named Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) fills the bill, and after some initial rejections she finally suits up alongside him to kick some kaiju ass.
To anyone familiar with del Toro’s work, this premise appears to have all the signs of greatness. A visual maestro with an uncanny eye for the spacial geography of an action sequence, del Toro’s idiosyncratic style seems tailored for concocting Lovecraftian monsters. And here, he was essentially given a blank check to invent as many horrors as he pleased. This is easily del Toro’s biggest, most ambitious movie. So, why is it also his most derivative one?
In a summer chock-full of reboots, sequels and altogether unnecessary “tent pole” blockbusters, Pacific Rim stands out for somehow being less than the sum of its many separate parts. The story only progresses by way of banal action tropes. Each character can be relied upon to say exactly what he’s thinking at the exact moment he thinks it. Del Toro borrows a thousand pieces from a thousand different sources, and yet, lacks the joy and self-awareness he needed to hold it all together. The result resembles moviemaking by Lego, not by the inventive director who made Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II: The Golden Army.
Pacific Rim is the sort of movie where a grown man smiles knowingly at a dog, and then the dog barks happily in response. Where people still live in cities along the Pacific Coast despite a decade’s worth of evidence that there’s nothing a kaiju loves more than stomping around San Francisco, Hong Kong or Sydney. Where the only thematic consistency is an extraordinary reliance on cliché, and characters are about as emotional as a block of wood. (Remember: We’re expected to believe these characters don’t just want to share a significant mental connection, but have to if they want to survive!)
Pacific Rim asks us to be fools, but doesn’t bother to step over its own low intellectual hurdles. Even when we’re lining up to see something as childishly delightful as robots fighting aliens, a movie needs to be more than that. Otherwise, we’re simply paying to watch overactive boys smash their toys together.