Directed by: Guillermo del Toro || Produced by: Guillermo del Toro, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent
Screenplay by: Travis Beacham, Guillermo del Toro || Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Rob Kazinsky, Max Martini, Ron Perlman, Clifton Collins Jr., Diego Klattenhoff
Music by: Ramin Djawadi || Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro || Edited by: John Gilroy, Peter Amundson || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 132 minutes
One film often held as a counterpart to Michael Bay’s brainless, vapid, shallow, product-placement saturated Transformers films (2007, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2017) is the fan-favorite, middling box office success by Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim. According to its supporters, Pacific Rim (henceforth, PR) is triumphant in most every respect where the Transformers series fails — its action sequences are coherent and exciting, rather than repetitive, confusing, and forgettable, while its characters are endearing, sincere, and a positive influence on the story.
I agree with half of that assertion.
While I had some fun watching the film a couple times over the past half decade since its release, I nevertheless submit to my undying contrarian instincts to give East Asian action movie fans, kaiju-fans, and Japanese animation fans a reality check: del Toro’s Pacific Rim has far more in common with the loathed Michael Bay flagship enterprise than it has in contrast. In fact, I often think of PR as “the good (re: better) Transformers movie,” rather than Transformers as “the bad (re: awful) PR.”
That is not to troll del Toro, PR, or its rabid fans, but rather a haphazard summation of my broader ambivalence toward the film. When comparing it to other recent monster or kaiju-themed blockbusters such as Gareth Edward’s Godzilla (2014) or Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ Skull Island (2017), I find it neither as cinematic and intense as the former, nor as fun, well paced, and stylish as the latter. I suppose each viewer’s individual reaction to any of these films will be subjective to a certain extent, given how there are only so many ways to shoot a digital FX-heavy throwdown between titanic cinematic action figures.
What elevates Godzilla and Skull Island above its B-movie brethren for me are their respective directors’ commitment to auteur style beyond the principle action set-pieces. Many complained about Godzilla’s lackluster characters and general lack of presence of its titular creature, but rewatching the film verifies Edward’s support for staging, sound design, and unforgettable anthropocentric cinematography that enhances the God-like nature of its monsters. Conversely, Skull Island focuses on efficiency and storytelling fluidity, using archetypal yet functional characters to build toward each set-piece, whereby both monster and man are mortal. Editing, pacing, and the sheer diversity of its action scenes are its greatest weapons. In both Godzilla and Skull Island, human characters accentuate the scale of their films’ money shots and FX, rather than distract from them as in Michael Bay’s features. It is hard to say the same for PR.
My biggest problems with the film are its two leads, played by Charlie Hunnam (see Sons of Anarchy [2008-2014]) and Rinko Kikuchi (see Babel ). Both are talented enough actors given the former’s success in television and the latter’s versatility in a variety of film genres, but in PR they represent a low-point for del Toro’s acting direction. A few reasons for their poor performances and worse chemistry have to do with language and accents; in Kikuchi’s case, her questionable English fluency leaves her character robotic and stilted throughout the narrative, limits her emotional range, and handicaps her arc; Kikuchi often switches to Japanese mid-sentence in various scenes, to which her costars have a difficult time reacting. In Hunnam’s case, his dialogue with Kikuchi is handicapped by the aforementioned language barrier, and he struggles with both maintaining a North American accent as well as conveying tone, gravitas, or emotion in monologues and voiceovers.
What makes matters worse is the bizarre, inexplicable plot device del Toro uses as the bedrock of his script and his characters’ development. For some reason, PR’s world of kaiju–jaeger combat involves multiple pilots who control their humanoid mechs via a “neural bridge,” which shares the mental stress of punching a giant monster in the face. This is a roundabout in-world mechanism to force del Toro’s characters to work together, build relationships, and defeat a common foe, but in execution is akin to building a trebuchet to launch oneself to work when a car or bicycle will do. The mechanics, internal logic, and hackneyed, inconsistent portrayal of “the drift (re: teamwork device)” are both overcomplicated and yet too simplistic to be effective means for character development.
I foresee PR’s fans lambasting these critiques by pointing out PR’s cast and jaeger function have remarkably little to do with the film’s set-pieces, and in a sense, they have a point. However, Hunnam and Kikuchi’s bland on-screen performances and the intricacies of how the jaegers’ neural bridge works are the lion’s share of PR’s screentime. Truth be told, PR has little kaiju action outside of an impressive set-piece near the end of the film’s second act. A brief prologue that introduces Hunnam’s lead and a rushed climax provide the finishing touches on a story that simultaneously feels bloated and over-edited.
What works in PR’s favor are its much ballyhooed set-pieces, which, despite feeling more like human-sized boxing matches than titanic duels between demigods, are fun and flavorful. Frequent del Toro and Robert Rodriguez collaborator, cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, takes advantage of his digital filmmaking stock, exploding every frame with color and utilizing extensive world-building touches in set-design. Composer Ramin Djawadi adds yet more flavor through a memorable soundtrack composed of strings, intense percussion, and catchy guitar riffs.
With all that in mind, I could recommend Pacific Rim wholeheartedly to dedicated monster enthusiasts or fans of Japanese animation, and yet I would hesitate to recommend it to literally anyone else. The film isn’t ruined by terrible characters or an insufferable sense of humor the way the Transformers movies are, but simply not being in the same area code as Michael Bay’s black hole suckage of terrible action filmmaking isn’t reason enough to support it. Its characters are at best a neutral component; Hunnam’s lack of charisma and Kikuchi’s incoherent stammering may be evened out by Idris Elba’s memorable screen presence, but its standout action centerpiece is hard to justify an hour’s worth of buildup and a lackluster conclusion. In the end, while Godzilla and Skull Island may not be excellent films, I still argue they remain good monster films, which is more than I can say for Pacific Rim.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Guillermo Del Toro’s enthusiasm for monsters and Japanese animation is on full display, and it’s difficult not to enjoy the boyish charm and personal touch with which he fills this cinematic world. His best weapons are Guillermo Navarro’s use of color against the film’s artistic design and in coordination with Ramin Djawadi’s stylized soundtrack.
— However… Guillermo del Toro proves his filmmaking abilities are limited outside the realms of monsters and horror. The story’s emphasis on a confusing, uninteresting plot device is baffling, as are Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi’s performances. The film’s climax feels rushed and unearned, contrasting with the rest of the film’s plodding, slow pace.
—> ON THE FENCE: Like I said, it’s hard not to appreciate the movie’s throwback style and genuine nostalgia, but that alone cannot overcome the picture’s fundamental weaknesses and total lack of appeal outside its core audience. Maybe this one wasn’t worth “saving,” China.