Westhoff Reviews: ‘Pacific Rim’ a satisfying CGI slugfest
By Jeffrey Westhoff - editorial@KCChronicle.com
Star Rating: Three stars
Another weekend in this summer of 2013 has arrived and that can mean only one thing, the world is coming to an end again.
In Guillermo del Toro’s visually thrilling but dramatically plodding “Pacific Rim,” Earth’s imminent demise will be caused by enormous sea creatures that emerge from the Pacific Ocean. They have traveled through a dimensional rift that opens in a trench at the bottom of the Pacific.
The world’s governments unite and decide the best way to combat giant monsters is to build giant robots. That’s quite a leap of logic, and if you aren’t willing to go with it you better stay home. Del Toro, who co-wrote the script with Travis Beacham (“Clash of the Titans”), treats this outlandish premise with dead seriousness, which is both the movie’s greatest strength and deepest flaw.
“Pacific Rim” is del Toro’s loving tribute to the movies of Godzilla, Rodan, Mothra and their Toho Studios brethren. These are known as kaiju movies to purists, using the Japanese word for giant beasts, and the scientists in “Pacific Rim” name the monsters Kaiju.
Del Toro simultaneously pays tribute to the related Japanese genre of giant robots, a history that includes Gigantor, the Shogun Warriors and dozens more. The deliriously demented 1960s Japanese show “Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot” proves to be a stronger influence on “Pacific Rim” than any Godzilla movie.
The first surprise, and just about the only one, is that “Pacific Rim” is not the movie you think it will be. It is the sequel to the movie you think it will be. All the stuff about the first monster attack (in San Francisco) and the construction and deployments of the giant robot army, called the Jaeger Program after the German word for “hunter,” is covered in a relatively brief, clip-filled recap at the outset narrated by star Charlie Hunnam. In a Roland Emmerich movie this material would have occupied the first 90 minutes.
Hunnam plays Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket, who co-pilots one of the robots, Gipsy Danger, with his brother (the robots are cybernetically controlled, and early trials revealed one person’s mind could not handle the stress). As they battle a monster off the coast of Alaska, Raleigh’s brother is killed and Raleigh is badly injured. This will be the first in a string of defeats for the Jaegers.
The story resumes five years later. The world’s governments have decided to decommission the Jaegers in favor of barricading all Pacific coastlines with mile-high walls.
The head of the Jaeger Program, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), defies the governments and takes the remaining four Jaegers, including the rebuilt Gipsy Danger, to a still-functioning base in Hong Kong (government oversight of the Jaeger Program is monumentally lax) to wage a guerilla campaign against the monsters. “We’re not an army anymore,” Pentecost tells his followers. “We’re a resistance.”
Pentecost lures Raleigh out of retirement to pilot Gipsy Danger. But who will his new co-pilot be? Raleigh favors Pentecost’s young aide Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, Oscar nominee for “Babel”). Pentecost forbids it, saying he has his reasons. You can guess how this will play out.
The major problem with “Pacific Rim” is that you can guess how most of it will play out. Like Quentin Tarantino, del Toro is a film fanatic who builds his movies from the spare parts of outdated genres. But while Tarantino will twist old tropes inside out, del Toro here presents them as stolidly as the films he borrowed them from.
Look past the trappings of the Kaiju and the Jaegers, and “Pacific Rim” uses the same plot as any war picture about a hotshot pilot with a tragic past and a reckless streak who clashes repeatedly with a principled commanding officer. Del Toro even borrows from “Top Gun” with a rival pilot (Robert Kazinsky) who hates Raleigh’s style.
All the flaws and predictability get blown off the screen once the fighting begins, and fortunately the Jaeger-on-Kaiju action occurs often enough to get the audience’s adrenaline pumping but not long enough to leave the audience exhausted. Del Toro should give other directors of would-be tentpole picture lessons on pacing the CGI mayhem. The most exhilarating battle in “Pacific Rim,” a slugfest in Hong Kong, occurs in the middle of the story, not the end.
Del Toro unleashes his inner 11-year-old during the action scenes, and the inner 11-year-old of anyone watching should be delighted. Actual 11-year-olds will think they are in monster movie heaven. But you have to shut off any knowledge of physics during the fight sequences.
The weak link in the cast is Hunnam, who is a capable actor but a bland choice for leading man. Couple Hunnam’s uninspiring presence with del Toro’s decision to play the plot as straight as an arrow, and “Pacific Rim” winds up a spectacle with just enough monster mashing to satisfy. Yet the story never achieves the mischievous glee of del Toro’s Hellboy movies.
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