Movie Review: Pacific Rim- Although Conceptually Intriguing and Entertainingly Absurd Guillermo Del Toro’s Latest Film Lacks Both Lasting Science-Fiction Braininess and Creative Soul

pacificrimTwo words come to mind that are generally synonymous with Mexican director/writer Guillermo Del Toro, an undeniably creative auteur who has a familiarity with various pop-culture mediums, multiple mythologies, and a keen sense of original storytelling, and those words are passionate and imaginative. Whether it’s the brooding vampiric mythos of his debut film Cronos, the dark escapism of his fantasy tale Pan’s Labyrinth, or even the colorful superhero interpretation of the Dark Horse Comics character Hellboy there is a distinct feel, tone, and beauty that links all of his varying yet inventive pieces together. His latest passion project Pacific Rim, a blend of Japanese pop-culture influenced monster films with a live action anime intention, undoubtedly shares a great deal of characteristics a majority of his other films possess, including his odd humor deviations, impeccable detail, and a particular visual tone, and yet doesn’t possess enough to distinguish itself from the rest of the summer blockbuster parade of mediocrity. Pacific Rim opens with the potential of a truly original and intriguingly conceptual work for the science-fiction genre but the film not only leaves behind the braininess early on for too much loud, abrasive brawn it also doesn’t possess enough heart in the lumbering beast of a film machine to make a true link between the director’s passionate fun and the audience’s potential sympathetic investment. Del Toro’s intentions with Pacific Rim are clearly about making pleasurable absurdity with self-consciousness towards the ridiculousness of his own premise but it is unfortunately anchored down by its stilted dialogue, inappropriate uses of humor amidst often times boring drama, and incredibly limited performances interpreting apathetically developed characters. Instead of getting a usual dose of Del Toro creativity through makeup artistry, distinct set designs, and beautifully imagined characters we’ve been given a rather hollow and undoubtedly dumb CGI-fest of giant monsters, giant robots, and giant destruction which for the most part is amusing though highly disappointing. Though Pacific Rim contains a myriad of blockbuster clichés they are presented in a humorously self-referential fashion through Del Toro’s signature imagination but the final product feels limited by the expansive use of freewheeling special effects instead of enhanced which is the usual outcome for a majority of typical, loud, and expensive blockbuster films.

Describing Pacific Rim as the awful blend of Godzilla vs. Transformers is a bit degrading to the signature inventiveness of Guillermo Del Toro who has utilized the best influences of Japanese pop-culture to create his own unique apocalyptic scenario coupled with a beast mythology that is unprecedented in detail that inevitably gives his film an undeniably fresh authenticity. The film launches you immediately into the fictional reality that Del Toro has cleverly created where a specific breed of alien life called the Kaiju (Japanese word for “Giant Monster”) have found a transporting portal from their world to ours that’s found between two tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean. In order to preserve the human race from extinction the world unites together to create the Jaeger program (German word for “Hunter”) which consists of giant “Power Rangers” like robots that are piloted by two individuals who are connected cerebrally to each other and control either the right or left hemisphere of the robot’s brain. Where the film loses control of its own intriguing concept, both in the created historicity of the Monsters vs. Humans war and the cerebral science-fiction development, is through the drastic quickness and ambivalence in setting it all up in its first 10 minutes giving the film zero breathing room to let the two concepts unfold beyond drab narration and light exposition. Taking in all the information all at once becomes a bit tiresome and does a disservice to protagonist Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) who seems as strictly archetypal as any hero can be from the very start and never gets any more complex as the film develops. Pacific Rim has a conceptual and original foundation that gets lost through the special effects excess where the science-fiction elements, such as the cerebral connection between pilots, is ventured superficially and the humanist elements, including the thinly developed characters, aren’t evident throughout the entire film. Perhaps the disconnect can be found in the fact that Pacific Rim isn’t solely a Guillermo Del Toro concept since it was concocted and partially written by fellow screenwriter Travis Beacham (Clash of the Titans) leaving us to wonder how the concept would have developed had Del Toro took full control over the writing elements. Though the script possesses some inventive origins, Del Toro’s signature use of character humor (that doesn’t always land), and some heavily detailed action sequences the lack of quality in the dialogue and the character development is what severely weakens Pacific Rim’s conceptual originality and overall amusement.

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Guillermo Del Toro’s ability as a director can never be put into question because his exceptional skill in getting memorable performances and setting haunting moods, especially with the likes of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, showcases a filmmaker who knows film genre, human sensitivity, and a personal sense of self. However, everything about Pacific Rim is the antithesis of what he’s used to tackling with such expertise including the utilization of puppetry (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy II), unique set designs (Cronos, Devil’s Backbone), and makeup artistry (Mimic, Hellboy) being solely dependent on the expertise of his special effects team. Granted there is an equally impressive design in both the various forms of Kaiju and Jaegers throughout Pacific Rim but in resorting to the high scale of special effects, which understandably is the only way to carry out such an enormous endeavor, there is a lack of organic chemistry that is synonymous with a Guillermo Del Toro picture. His focus has turned from the details in his desired sets and characters to the details of the battle destructions that take place between the giant monsters and giant robots as though we’re seeing a director revert back to his playground days and visually depict a child’s imagination towards giant monsters and giant robots. In this sense there is great amusement to be had and although it doesn’t always result in an understood connection between the director’s perception and the audience’s enjoyment there is an undeniable excitement in the various battle sequences that’s impressively large and equally pummeling. Unfortunately once the overdramatic serious breaks in dialogue or occasionally awkward humorous breaks occur between these heavily detailed battles there just seems to be a lost sense of believability as though everything seems obligatory or wooden and character development and authentic performances just get lost in the formula of it all. To be fair, Pacific Rim does have that innate sense of fun that Del Toro has had for his previous blockbuster films with the Hellboy series and even Blade II but it simply doesn’t have all the other qualities expected of his work, including genuine characters with complexity, naturalistic environments, and an exceptional use of cinematic tone. Because of this full immersion into the green screen world of special effects what ends up getting lost is not only the organic feel of a Guillermo Del Toro creative film but also the performances end up lacking mostly due to the uninventive characters in the script.

As you’re watching Pacific Rim there’s just something a bit off about the performances that can be explained in a few ways, the first being the horridly simplistic characterization and obtuse dialogue contained in the script and the second being that there might be something off on the cultural translation from interpreting anime archetypes through English speaking actors. Anime in its purest form embraces exaggeration in violence, character, and features so it’s interesting to note that a great deal of the performances are exaggerated for effect, either with Charlie Day’s humoristic ramblings as an out of the box scientist or Idris Elba’s domineering stances and phrasings. Even though every single one of these actors from leading man Charlie Hunnam to the great Ron Pearlman is highly capable of delivering believable performances there is something missing every step of the way through the film because everything comes off as too cliché or tonally inconsistent. This might be because translating the Anime style and archetypal dynamics into an English spoken medium might miss the entire point or be lost on the unfamiliar making most of the desired performance impacts seem a bit awkward or inappropriately silly. Del Toro of course doesn’t do anything without a specific intention so this creative choice might be something to get used to or revisit but the initial experience makes it seem as though the actors are entirely wary of their fake surroundings and doesn’t sell the entire project well. What’s refreshing, however, is that this will probably be the only blockbuster released this summer without a huge name actor involved and what is proven, despite the unnatural writing in the script, is that there are a number of capably exuberant and undeniably talented lesser known actors and stars who can tackle these larger than life roles and films. Though there is an annoying rigidity to the performance moments between the large scale battles there isn’t a question that the charming confidence of these actors does indeed sell this completely absurd concept of giant monsters versus giant robots and that’s all you need in order for the film to follow through on its intention.

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Pacific Rim might not distinguish itself entirely from the typical blockbuster summer crowd since it’s completely dependent on an overabundance of CGI special effects and a relentless bombardment of deafening loudness and visual destruction but its initial originality in concept and self-conscious embrace of the absurd makes it slightly more amusing. Fans of Guillermo Del Toro might find some intriguing aspects towards his grand effects, his creative monster/robot designs, and his typical deviations of humor but can’t be denied that it’s by far Del Toro’s worst film in cinematic tone, inventive direction, and overall conceptual dedication. It’s admirable that Del Toro sought out to try and give the typical blockbuster a bit of a brain and fill it with his passion for all things Japanese pop-culture but the final product seems a bit disconnected. Fortunately the absurdity is heightened for an appropriately tongue in cheek tone coupled with action sequences that have a ridiculous amount of detail making Pacific Rim guiltily amusing due to its exceptionally large scale destructions. While there could have been more of Del Toro’s signature strengths throughout the film, such as unique characters, proper development, and a more organic production design, there is no doubt that his perceptive imagination went into every digital detail and design making it entirely his own despite the evident weaknesses. If more blockbusters had the creative passion that Guillermo Del Toro brings to every film than we’d have a more inventive even if still mildly stupid form of entertainment in the typical blockbuster, which needs to happen for the summer lineup to not seem so drastically repetitive. Pacific Rim definitely has some clear issues but because it contains a completely original mythology, impressively large action, and a humoristic touch there is no doubt that it’s a blockbuster worth checking out especially on the fully utilized big screen.

Grade: B-

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