Stars: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Diego Klattenhoff, Charlie Day, Max Martini, Burn Gorman, Robert Kazinsky, Ron Perlman | Written by Guillermo del Toro, Travis Beacham | Directed by Guillermo del Toro
What I like to do when I write a review of a film, is think of at least one half decent pun with which to accompany it. Some would say 90% of good, proper film criticism is dedicated to punning. As a fan of humour and wordplay, I honestly believe the implementation of a good pun is the highest form of humour and as close as one can get to touching the face of God Himself via the medium of silly jokes. To accompany this review, I believe I’ve come up with my best ever pun to conclude it with. The preceding words are just noise.
Pacific Rim is the new film by Guillermo del Toro. People like del Toro because he makes interesting, well-designed films with humour and humanity that challenge the preconception that genre movies are with less artistic merit. In spite of this, I thought Pacific Rim looked like it was going to be a big dopey bag of balls, mostly due to its striking resemblance to the Transformers franchise, Battleship and other such films where army guys shout at arrays of blurry pixels and explosions for two hours. Now you may like the Transformers films, which is fine, but you can’t argue that they’re clever, quirky or have interesting humanist angles, descriptors you would normally apply to del Toro’s work thus far.
In the world of the film, the earth is under persistent attack by mass-off monsters from another dimension called kaijus. They emerge from an inter-dimensional tunnel near a gap in the tectonic plates in the Pacific. Why the gap is specifically here, as opposed to say, downtown New York City, is never really addressed. In order to best these beasties, humankind has built similarly mass-off robots called jaegers, which are piloted by two people via a psychic connection between each other and the machine. The first part of the film gives a neat potted history of all this, but the main body of it takes place some twenty years on from the first kaiju attack, where the jaeger programme has had its funding cut in the face of an increased number of invasions and big walls are being built around the entire Pacific coastline. Which seems sensible, right? The four remaining robots, under the direction of Idris Elba’s commanding officer Stacker Pentecost are tasked with doing what they can with the resources they have left.
Despite expectations as low as the ocean trench from which the kaiju emerge, I broadly liked the film. There’s an awful lot in it that is well below the standard from which I’ve come to expect from del Toro, but it manages to be just about humorous, exciting and solidly put together enough to avoid being a dog’s dinner. Key to its success is del Toro’s world-building skill. Pacific Rim’s universe may not be particularly realistic but it’s inventive enough and consistent within its own rules to work on screen. Thankfully, it doesn’t take itself too seriously and this is embodied best through Charlie Day’s wacky scientist character, who embarks on a voyage of icky discovery whilst providing comic relief. His B-plot often proves more interesting than the main robot-on-monster action, especially as it strays into body horror territory. Finally, as you would expect from del Toro, the creature design is pretty great and because the film isn’t directed by Michael Bay, the camera focuses on them long enough during the fight scenes not only for you to get a decent eyeful of what the gribblies look like but also to more or less understand what is actually happening in said fights.
It’s not all good though. Whilst I understand a lot of elements are introduced either to bolster the film’s tribute to old-school Japanese monster movies, or to explore various themes, or simply for added spectacle, little effort is made to justify this stuff in the actual story. For example, no one questions that giant humanoid punching robots are in fact the most effective weapon against the kaiju, rather than say, an effective air force with some guns. Similarly, the two-pilots-with-a-psychic-link device is a functional method of exploring the relationships between the characters but in real life, after discovering it’s necessary to have two intimately connected pilots, whose connection may or may not break down at any moment depending on their mental stability in what could conservatively be described as stressful working environments to operate the robots, wouldn’t you just go back to the drawing board? And whilst it’s necessary to deploy no small amount of suspension of disbelief when watching films of this nature, Pacific Rim really takes some quite stupendous liberties with the laws of physics that brought me out of the plot on more than a couple of occasions.
Added to the fact that we never really get under the skin of any of the characters, the majority of which speak exclusively in military movie cliché (Elba’s St Crispin’s Day speech is laughable rather than stirring and makes Independence Day’s version seem filled with stately grandeur) and you could make a decent argument for Pacific Rim being a bit of a stinker. But somehow, it seems to work, getting by mostly on humour, superficial charm and a pace that’s just about quick enough for you not to dwell too long on its flaws before the next big set piece. It’s over two hours long, a running time that would normally have me quivering in revulsion so it’s remarkable that I didn’t find the length of it especially troubling. For a film about giant robots hitting things, it’s actually pretty okay and for that we should say domo arigato, Mr del Toro.
Pacific Rim is in cinemas across the UK from Friday 12th July.