Monsters! Robots! Clichés! Not entirely to its credit, ‘Pacific Rim’ has it all.

July 26, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 26, 2013

Every once in a while, there comes along a science fiction movie so novel and so well executed that its audiences stream out of theaters feeling as if they might step out into the night sky and simply take flight.

Pacific Rim, alas, is not such a film; in fact, it’s a badly flawed picture. But it is rather novel, and some of it is very well executed, and it is a fun flick — if one that fails to live up to its maximum potential.

The movie, co-written by Travis Beacham and director Guillermo del Toro, is premised on the notion that some kind of interdimensional rift opens up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. (That happens in 2013 in the film’s chronology — fingers crossed!) The rift repeatedly disgorges enormous monsters known as kaiju, each of which mercilessly pounds one Pacific Rim city or another before it can be dispatched by the authorities. In response, world powers band together to build multiple jaegers, which are similarly enormous fighting robots.

The jaegers successfully put down kaiju until one stormy night off the coast of Alaska in 2020, when a monster plunges its claw into the control pod of the Gipsy Danger jaeger and extracts one of the robot’s co-pilots. That marks a turning point in the war; by 2025, the arsenal of jaegers has been winnowed down to a handful, and humanity is attempting to seal itself off from danger by building enormous, purportedly unbreachable walls. (Oh, yes: And also by moving rich people a few hundred miles from the shores of the Pacific, a throwaway line reveals.)

The only trouble is, erm, that those unbreachable walls turn out to pose little resistance to the kaiju. Despite that inconvenient truth, the world’s nations are unwilling to recommit resources to the increasingly ineffectively jaegers. Consequently, a commander with the extremely unlikely name of Stacker Pentecost (!) embarks upon a last-ditch program to take the fight to the kaiju, rather than continue mankind’s losing game of defense.

Pentecost’s strategy relies upon a newly renovated Gipsy Danger and that jaeger’s surviving co-pilot, a retired “ranger” with the slightly less unlikely name of Raleigh Becket. Not only must Becket be able to step back into the cockpit where his co-pilot and brother was killed five years previously, he must identify and meld with a rookie co-pilot. Unfortunately, the best candidate for the job, one Mako Mori, is a woman whom Pentecost is determined to keep out of the cockpit.

Pentecost’s plan also depends on the two members of his crack — oops, better make that crackpot — science team being able to ferret out information that kaiju haven’t yielded despite a dozen years of urgent scrutiny by (presumably) the world’s best researchers. And it depends on one of those scientists being able to partner with a black market kaiju organ dealer to procure something no one has ever managed to obtain: a living monster brain.

Yes, Pacific Rim is quite the heady stew of science fiction, soap opera and silliness. Yet the entire complicated mechanism is essentially an excuse to justify spectacular special effects shots in which Godzilla-scale creatures crush the Golden Gate Bridge, Sydney Opera House and other less recognizable urban features — not to mention sequences in which the giant monsters and robots engage in the equivalent of hand-to-hand combat. So for all its complexity, the movie boils down to the same spectacle that energizes first graders on a playground: A fight!

To be fair, the fighting in Pacific Rim is generally pretty impressive. (One of my favorite moments comes when a jaeger wields an enormous seagoing freighter like a club.) But too many elements in the film feel surprisingly contrived, clichéd and tiresome.

Take the rivalry between Becket and Australian jaeger pilot Chuck Hansen: It seems to exist more to ratchet up tension than because Hansen realistically would have any reason to express hostility to a fellow pilot. Or take the somewhat ludicrous family connection that is revealed by a flashback sequence in the middle of the film: It’s the kind of plot twist that exists so the screenwriters can try to surprise the audience, not because the plot actually demands it.

The casting of Charlie Hunnam as Becket is another misstep. The British actor (Queer as Folk, Sons of Anarchy) is well-muscled and handsome, but he lacks a certain presence and just isn’t compelling enough to anchor this special effects extravaganza. It doesn’t help that the character’s emotional story arc is completely predictable or that the actor’s American accent sometimes flaunts parody-worthy surfer-dude inflections.

Del Toro, a native of Mexico, has discussed in interviews his interest in crafting a movie that contradicts familiar cinematic stereotypes, especially those showing white American men saving the world. But the ethnic and gender politics of Pacific Rim hardly struck me as novel. The main hero, Becket, is a white American man. Mori is a petite Japanese woman; yes, she is skilled in hand-to-hand combat, but after you take away that and Mori’s fierce desire to pilot a jaeger, there’s very little left to her character.

Pentecost, who in some ways is more central to the story than Becket, is a British black man. But he and Ron Perlman, the Caucasian actor who plays the American kaiju organ dealer, could have switched roles without requiring any changes to the script. Pentecost’s chief deputy and two top scientists are all white men. In fact, although the bulk of the movie takes place in Hong Kong, Mori is the only Asian character who gets more than a line or two of dialogue!

When it comes to stereotypes, the bottom line is this: A movie in which two white Australian male jaeger pilots get far more lines than a mixed-gender pair of Russian jaeger pilots and a male trio of Chinese jaeger pilots just isn’t that ground-breaking.

Maybe it’s unfair of me to complain that a movie about robots battling monsters isn’t very smart, but here we are. Science fiction and action fans who approach Pacific Rim with modest expectations should enjoy the flick. All others should steer clear.

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