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The cinematic world needs more Guillermo del Toros and fewer Michael Bays. So why, for the love of originality, did del Toro suddenly switch teams? From the release of its first trailer, Pacific Rim seemed somewhat—and I’m talking a tad—promising because of its esteemed writer-director, who had chillingly enchanted audiences with the dark but fairy-tale-like Pan’s Labyrinth and amused both comic-book nerds and those who don’t even know what a graphic novel is with the surprisingly witty Hellboy. (Let’s not speak of the trying-too-hard Hellboy II: The Golden Army or yawn-inducing “horror” flick Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, which del Toro produced and wrote.)
But just the 30-second teaser for del Toro’s latest brought to mind one thing: Transformers. And bonus—kind of—it would be released in 3-D. Post-converted 3-D, that is. Um, was this a joke?
No, just del Toro trying to cash in on a practically guaranteed money-making summer tentpole, one in which good prevails over evil, action trumps story, and heat-escaping, let’s-leave-our-brains-at-the-door viewers will cheer when things go boom. Pacific Rim will have these people cheering a lot.
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Del Toro fans, however, will be checking their watches. The story, which was co-written by Travis Beacham (whose only previous feature experience is penning 2010’s Clash of the Titans and Dog Days of Summer), is set in the near future and centers on the battle between humans and kaijus, which is a Japanese word for “giant beasts.” The film actually opens on a promising note, with a brief, terrifying, and clearly edited scene of the first U.S. kaiju attack in San Francisco in which one of the giant beasts sends cars and people flying off the Golden Gate. The 3-D is good, too.
It would be more promising, though, if it weren’t for the I’m-reading-the-phonebook narration of our leading man, kaiju fighter pilot Raleigh (Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam, who is so bland and devoid of personality that he makes Paul Walker look like the life of the party). Raleigh’s co-pilot is his brother, Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff). Instead of piloting planes, they helm big robots—so really, the movie isn’t exactly Transformers, but Transformers vs. Iron Man. They work under the supervision of the ridiculously named Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, finally allowed to use his native British accent, at least most of the time), a former pilot himself.
Co-pilots must mind-meld—or “drift”—with each other in order to operate their machine in synchronicity, and when Yancy is killed, Raleigh is left without a partner. It doesn’t seem to matter for a while, though: The script isn’t very clear on this, but after a 20-minute opening that details several attacks, the story jumps five years into the future and Raleigh is working construction. Apparently the attacks stopped and fighters were no longer needed; soon, however, Raleigh is called to duty again and reluctantly reassembles with his team, droning to Stacker, “I can’t have anyone else in my head again.”
But if Raleigh wants to go back to saving the world, he has no choice. After seeing the skills of apprentice Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Raleigh demands that she be his co-pilot, to the reluctance of her mentor, Stacker, with whom she has a deeper relationship than Raleigh knows. Also part of the crew is researcher Newton Geiszler, who’s played by Charlie Day and seems to be meant as comic relief, though he’s predominantly a source of highly irritating screeching. Hellboy’s Ron Perlman shows up as well, though his caricature-like character, some kind of black marketer, could have been omitted completely.
There are so many battles and so much destruction in Pacific Rim, all edited frenetically, that the film gets really boring really quickly. It’s no surprise that its look is dystopian—all the rage these days—with some pieces of the set seemingly borrowed from the Total Recall remake. Other films you’ll be reminded of: The Hunger Games, The Host, Cloverfield, Battleship, a touch of The Perfect Storm, and any number of Godzillas. The 3-D pops more than recent releases, especially the post-converted ones, but it gets distracting. Is the viewing experience truly enhanced if, say, it looks as if the arm of foreground character is in your face when he turns sideways? Worse, the kaijus and fighter machines look so similar, it’s difficult to tell whom you should be rooting for.
The early soundtrack, at least, is intense and Inception-like—but then composer Ramin Djawadi seems to give up, offering eye-rolling uncertainty/action/triumph clichés. The entire film is a cliché, really, with zero creativity or subtlety in dialogue (“Let’s get the bastard!”), story arc, or development details. Del Toro employs a shaky cam. There’s a big speech. Lots of insistent/barking commands and gape-mouthed staring at screens. And if you think it all might end on a down note—come on, it’s summer. And summer should never be del Toro’s season.