This is a story about love.
I love giant monsters. Better, I love movies about giant monsters. Can’t say for sure exactly where it started. Could be any combination of factors. A natural affinity for animals, a human instinct to admire vastness of scale. Childhood visits to the Museum Of Natural History in Manhattan. The dinosaur skeletons. The mastodon statues. That gigantic blue whale. Winning a book in a contest in elementary school, a storybook about KING KONG ’76, a movie already several years old by that time and maybe not that great but enough to win the character, along with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange, my love for life. A yellowed picturebook from THE BLOB ’56 found in the local public library. That time my uncle sat me down to watch MIGHTY JOE YOUNG, which led me to get over my silly issues with black and white and got me to go watch the original KING KONG. Catching GODZILLA ’86 on New York’s Fox-5. The ending of GHOSTBUSTERS, where the city is terrorized by a multi-story Marshmallow Man. Mr. Stay Puft isn’t technically a kaiju, not any more than Kong is, but please try to imagine how much thought I’ve devoted to that technicality over the years. You can’t.
I think about giant monsters all the time, all the time, ALL the time, well into so-called adulthood. All you have to do is follow me on Twitter and wait. That’s where my imagination most often goes. Most guys have Playboy and football on the brain, I have radioactive mutant lizards and gargantuan apes. This just plain isn’t a concept of which I expect to tire. A female admirer once said to me, “I’d like to visit the inside of your mind.” I warned her to “Be careful. Godzilla’s in there.” There’s one for the internet dating profile. The point is, I’m one of the select group of maniacs who very much wants to see this genre return to prominence in a big way. 2008’s CLOVERFIELD was a fun step in the right direction, and we have a new GODZILLA movie coming down the pike, from the director of MONSTERS, but the most recent attempt to address the topic arrived this past summer, in a creative, inventive script by relative newcomer Travis Beacham and directed by the highly-regarded Mexican fabulist, Guillermo Del Toro. Del Toro made MIMIC, PAN’S LABYRINTH, and the HELLBOY movies, and is one of the few people on Earth who may love this stuff even more than I do.
So why did I not love PACIFIC RIM?
PACIFIC RIM opens on a future Earth that has been invaded by giant monsters, which are known as kaiju, the Japanese word for “strange creatures” which has come to define the giant-monster-movie genre. The kaiju enter our world through an inter-dimensional gateway which is located deep in the waters of the Pacific Ocean — hence the movie’s title. The movie’s smartest moments are its first, as we learn all of the above through a barrage of news reports, in which brief sightings of the kaiju we paid to see are craftily parceled out, and this early exposition scatters a ton of fun details such as the fact that kaiju shit is radioactive and cancer-causing.
Humanity’s solution, in PACIFIC RIM as it has ever been in Japanese anime, is to construct gigantic robots called Jaegers which have the capabilities to kick the crap out of giant monsters. “Jaeger” is a term with a history in Japanese pop culture, but the word originally comes from a term related to hunters and hunting. Travis Beacham’s script, if you’ve seen a draft, has pages of glossary terms, many of which never make it to screen, but there’s no doubt that the world of PACIFIC RIM has been thoroughly imagined. That attention to detail and exuberant imagining is one of its strengths, particularly compared to so many American blockbusters of recent vintage.
To my knowledge, the concept that PACIFIC RIM adds to the kaiju genre is the idea of “drifting.” This is a kind of telepathy that connects the two human beings who serve as co-pilots of the massive Jaeger machines. No one person can drive these things alone. It takes two to make ’em dance, and the truly talented duos are the ones who connect closest in “the drift”, the mental headspace where the two pilots get on the same page to get the Jaegers moving. A guy named Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, of THOR and PROMETHEUS and yes, he was Stringer Bell in The Wire) is the commander of the Jaeger pilots. When the kaiju have a surge in deadliness, the Jaegers become less effective, and the world’s leaders cut funding, turning instead to the construction of huge walls as a last-ditch effort. But Stacker won’t give up on the Jaeger project, and he, like RAMBO‘s Colenol Trautman, goes to recruit his best pilot back into action.
Raleigh Becket has vowed to never step inside a Jaeger again, after a traumatic experience wherein his brother, an all-star pilot and Raleigh’s Jaeger partner, was killed in a kaiju attack. Raleigh believes he’ll never be able to drift again like he could with his brother, but then Stacker introduces him to Mako Mori, a Japanese orphan and, as played by Rinko Kikuchi (BABEL) and not without coincidence, a super-cute lady. So Raleigh and a depleted squad of international Jaeger pilots head out on one more mission to end the kaiju threat.
Now that I’ve got the rather dense recapping out of the way, let me move on to my issues with the film, and then you are invited to blast me for heresy in the comments if that’s how you feel.
First off: Raleigh Becket, the film’s protagonist, is played by Charlie Hunnam, most famous to date for having the lead role on FX’s Sons Of Anarchy, a show I admittedly haven’t seen more than two episodes of in my life. I did see every episode of one-season wonder Undeclared, though, and on that show Charlie Hunnam played the Val-Kilmer-in-REAL–GENIUS kind of devilish charmer. There it worked. Here, we could have used a whole lot more of that guy. Is this how he acts on Sons Of Anarchy? Dour, dull, barely stifling an obvious British accent under a patchy attempt at an American one — protagonists don’t get much less galvanizing. The plot does require the character to be in mourning, the story centers around him regaining his mojo as a monster-fighting ace, I get all of that. But if that’s how the movie is starting out, then it requires a charisma surge that just plain never comes. It’s especially frustrating because you’ve got Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi there, playing much more interesting and unconventional characters. They do get their share of the spotlight, but Charlie Hunnam, at least in this movie, is the dimmer that dulls their glare. We want Val Kilmer in TOP GUN in this role. We want Tom Cruise in TOP GUN. We would probably settle for Jason Gedrick in IRON EAGLE. Raleigh Beckett is supposed to be Luke Skywalker and instead he’s Rod Stiffington. Again, I have no dislike for Charlie Hunnam whatsoever, but he brings very little to this movie. Here he’s basically a cardboard cutout of a handsome blond blue-eyed guy with a monotone voicebox.
Keeping the unfortunate STAR WARS analogy alive, I have to point out that there’s no Darth Vader here. There’s no central villain to rally an audience’s venom around. There’s no one particular kaiju we want to see get stomped by the Jaegers any more than the others. That’s not necessarily a problem, storytelling-wise, particularly in light of the genre, but it becomes one here, since the hero is so inert. We could have used an Alien Queen, a great white shark. The movie theoretically provides one, but it doesn’t resonate. In fact, all of the kaiju — and I’m not the first to point this out — look pretty similar to each other. Worse, with the exception of one EXCELLENT scene (Mako’s origin), all of the kaiju/Jaeger fights take place at night, often in the rain. Cinematographer Guillermo Navarro is a world-class cameraman, but there’s only so much he can capture in such environments, which are rapidly edited as is the standard in modern action films. (I saw the film in the IMAX & 3D projection, and this only exacerbated the issue.) I’m going to give this next argument its own paragraph because that’s how important it is:
When I buy a 3-D IMAX ticket to see a giant-monster movie, I want to see the giant monsters.
I don’t want rapid-fire editing to get me more excited. I don’t want pouring rain to make it artistically moody. I want to see the height. I want to see the detail. I know this is a family film of sorts, but still I gotta say this: SHOW ME YOUR TITTIES, PACIFIC RIM. Why am I straining for a glimpse of the monsters, an hour into the thing? I’d go to an optometrist but I’ve seen enough to know I’m not alone. I do appreciate the killer robot design. I don’t want to be resolutely negative. We get plenty of hero shots of the Jaegers, Howard Hawks & John Wayne style, looking up and admiring those shiny monster-punchers. But I gotta see what they’re punching too.
Back to the STAR WARS comparison: PACIFIC RIM may not give us a great villain to match the epic feel of the concept, but it does provide us with some comedy relief. Lots of comedy relief. One may say too much comedy relief. In a film where the hero only gets to do mopey and blond, balance is skewed all the way in the other direction with the introduction of two wacky scientist types, an odd couple pairing of two otherwise talented actors: character actor Burn Gorman as Dr. Hermann Gottlieb and the manic Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia) as Dr. Newton Geiszler. Gorman, a Californian by birth, is doing a full-on Colin-Clive-in-BRIDE–OF–FRANKENSTEIN thing, or a more British Jeffrey Combs in RE-ANIMATOR if you want to be more charitable. Charlie Day, by contrast, is doing a hyperactive crystal meth chipmunk thing, like Rick Moranis in GHOSTBUSTERS but with the dial turned up to full blast. Maybe Del Toro thought he was giving us a new C-3PO and R2D2 tandem. You know, for the kids. I don’t know, man. This movie is too dark and scary for the little kids I know, so as an adult you’re basically giving me those two chattering little squirrel assholes from WILLOW.
Charlie Day actually runs away with the movie, literally, as he gets a theory as to how to close the kaiju portal, and heads to the black market where a man named Hannibal Chau is selling off illegally-obtained kaiju pieces, some of which have illicit properties (again, a nice detail). Hannibal Chau is played by Ron Perlman, an actor who Guillermo Del Toro loves. I love him too, as do all self-respecting genre fans. But I don’t believe that Hannibal Chau is as charismatic a character as Ron Perlman can often be as an actor. I don’t believe that the character registers as important enough to the story to care much about, one way or another. He’s a scoundrel, but I don’t think many people besides Mrs. Perlman and Guillermo Del Toro yearn for the character to come back once he exits the movie. So ***SPOILER*** the post-credits scene, where Hannibal Chau returns, having survived being swallowed up by a kaiju, is not the Nick-Fury-at-the-end-of-IRON–MAN moment it could have otherwise been. It’s not even the Avengers-eating-shawarma punchline it should at least have been. It’s a wet fart of a comedic moment that the movie doesn’t need, on top of a movie that to me wasn’t remotely as thrilling throughout as I so badly wished it had been.
PACIFIC RIM has moments of great majesty and dialed-in wit. The final scene (pre-Hannibal-Chau resurrection of course) the moment where Raleigh and Mako are bobbing in the middle of the ocean, clinging together to life, is a sweet image. So too are the tiny touches — the thundering of a passing kaiju causing some seabirds to scatter, or the impact of a battle causing a Newton’s cradle on the desk of an office building to start clacking. This is the stuff you hope to get when you hear that a dream-builder like Guillermo Del Toro is making a movie about giant monsters. Unfortunately, the finest moments are surrounded by elements that don’t entirely work — the “drift” concept being a good one but maybe one fantastic element too much for American audiences, the inadvertently comical fact that Jaeger pilots at work often look as if they’re on elliptical machines, the clash of tones, the lack of a dynamic lead, the fact that when you get right down to it this is strictly a boy’s movie, without enough for little girls to enjoy.
That’s the only problem with love, when you grow up and become a grown-up. If you love hard enough, long enough, big enough, sooner or later, you will experience disappointment. That’s what PACIFIC RIM was for me. I still love giant-monster movies. I probably always will. This won’t change that. No, I didn’t love PACIFIC RIM, but I wanted to love it. I wrote this piece in an attempt to understand why I didn’t. Sometimes the act of thinking critically is itself a rewarding, illuminating exercise. I certainly wouldn’t snipe at anyone who felt differently about the movie. You may well have seen it and liked it more than I did. You may have loved it. Honestly, I hope you did.
PACIFIC RIM is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.
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Tags: Alaska, America, Charlie Day, Charlie Hunnam, guillermo del toro, Guillermo Navarro, Hong Kong, Horror, Idris Elba, japan, Jon Abrams, kaiju, Mexico, Monsters, Ramin Djawadi, Rinko Kikuchi, Robots, Ron Perlman, Travis Beacham