One of the reasons I love going to the movie theater is that it can show off a level of spectacle an average home theater can never match. No matter how big the TV screen, and no matter how many speakers, there’s no substitute for what a movie theater can offer. Plenty of blockbusters attempt a level of spectacle that can do the big screen justice, but it’s not simply a matter of bigger being better. There has to be weight and detail and a way for it to all come together that transports us into a world that’s larger than life. With Pacific Rim, director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro has pushed the boundaries of not only increasing the size of the spectacle, but also in providing an imaginative premise where giant robots and giant monsters wrestle within a colorful, fleshed-out world. Unfortunately, it’s a world where all of the style struggles to provide substance to the thin plot and flimsy characters.
Set in the year 2025, humanity is in its seventh year of war against giant alien monsters known as “kaiju”, which emerged from a portal deep within the Pacific Ocean. In order to fight back, the world banded together to create giant mechs called “jaegers” that require two pilots to link minds in order to operate machinery. However, the kaiju invasion is becoming overwhelming, and the jaeger program is on its last legs. Former pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) is reluctantly pulled back in by project overseer Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) in order to make a last stand against the kaiju. With the help of rookie pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Raleigh attempts to beat back the invasion alongside other jaegers from different countries. Meanwhile, scientist Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) is hunting down a kaiju brain, which may provide the key for closing the portal.
The movie never ceases to impress with the scale and sheer power of the fights between the kaiju and the jaegers. It makes Transformers‘ Autobots and Decepticons look puny by comparison, and that’s partly because del Toro understands the physics he wants for his battles. Not only does everything have weight so you can feel every blow, but the fights resemble wrestling matches rather than something based on quick, clean hits. It’s an all-out brawl, and I was shocked at how much pain I felt at every hit even though the only thing being damaged was a giant robot.
Sadly, that level of empathy comes from the jaegers being more interesting than the people inside them. Each mech, no matter how briefly we see them, has its own personality. They have fun names like “Gipsy Danger” and “Striker Eureka”; they weren’t churned out factory style, but carry the signs of their origin country like the imposing, utilitarian Russian jaeger Cherno Alpha as opposed to the World War II bomber decals on Gipsy Danger. Even the knuckles on Gipsy each have their own little decal. It’s a nice touch especially when that knuckle is gigantic and you’re seeing it swing into a kaiju’s face.
Del Toro tries to carry over these little details to his human players. They all have catchy, ridiculous names like Hercules Hanson (Max Martini) and Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman). There are minor but distinctive physical features like Mako Mori with her blue highlights, Geiszler having tattoos of kaiju on his arms, and kaiju organ dealer Chau wearing a costume to match Perlman’s scene-stealing performance. All of these little details make the designs pop and help bring some more color to the world, but they’re just characteristics. They’re not characters.
Surprisingly, for a filmmaker who has always devoted such care and attention to his characters, del Toro has vastly underserved his protagonists. Beckett would be one of the most forgettable heroes in years if his blandness wasn’t so striking. I’ve been told that Hunnam is great on his TV series Sons of Anarchy, but he couldn’t seem less interested here. He reads his lines with all of the enthusiasm of someone ordering take-out, and his emotional backstory—he lost his brother while fighting a kaiju—is never resolved. He quits for five years, Pentecost pulls him back, and Beckett leaves his fears and doubts behind. At most, he’s Mori’s cheerleader, which causes him to butt heads with the over-protective Pentecost.
The only upside to Beckett is that he at least provides the words and actions that give Kikuchi and Elba something to do. Their 1.5-dimensional characters would be almost as unrewarding as Beckett, but the actors find some semblance of a heartbeat. Mori is cute, determined, and we can understand why Beckett would want her on his side even though the two barely have any real connection—their emotional relationship is through their mental bonding known as “the drift”, which is an unrewarding shortcut that’s nothing more than flashes of images, and allows each pilot to see inside the other’s memories. Mori has a stronger relationship with Pentecost even though they never “drift” together, and although the entirety of their backstory is never spelled out, their chemistry is all we really need. It also helps that Elba commands every scene he’s in, and is more fearsome than any kaiju.
But we’ve seen these kinds of relationships before, and they’re perfunctory. They’re the tiny dab of glue needed to connect us to the glowing, inspired world del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham have created. Most movies couldn’t get away with coasting on the bare minimum, but del Toro makes it work because he’s brought us into the excitement of seeing a modern-day mash-up of classic monsters with futuristic mechs. We’re not going through the motions of expecting a character from a licensed property to do the thing we’re expecting he or she to do. The unfortunate expectation in Pacific Rim comes from a predictable story that’s designed to get us to the set pieces.
And the set pieces are worth it. They are pure action bliss. As meager as the story can be, it’s serviceable enough to provide the pretext for some of the best action scenes I’ve ever seen insofar as their design. I may not particularly care about the pilots, but what they’re piloting and how they use it is astounding. Del Toro not only fills the screen with his creations, but always keeps the geography intact. It’s not a mess of limbs and what we assume to be punches. Every strike is seen, and every impact is felt. And when del Toro unveils the secret weapons the kaiju and jaegers have at their disposal, the picture can illicit cheers (as it did at my screening). Watching this action unfold, I can’t help but feel that seeing Pacific Rim in any format other than a massive screen would be a let down (the 3D post-conversion is fine; it neither helps nor hinders the movie).
At its best, Pacific Rim is an exciting, exhilarating reminder of why we go to the theater. We go to be transported and we go to be to be overwhelmed. That gigantic screen has an immense power, and it takes immense vision to truly take advantage of what it has to offer. Audiences are retreating away from the theater, and given the poor quality of service and push towards home entertainment, the retreat is understandable. Plenty of summer movies provide big entertainment, but it’s also material that can translate to a decent home theater system. Pacific Rim is the blockbuster experience at its most forceful, most thrilling, and most breathtaking. If only its characters shared that spirit.