While entertaining and immensely likable, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim misses being a truly great action picture because of the very thing that’s supposed to be at the core of the film: the action scenes. Here we have a film — in the spirit of the old Japanese kaiju (giant monster) movies — in which the theoretical point of interest is the rock-‘em-sock-‘em antics of these giant horrors going best-two-out-of-three rounds with the giant robots mankind has built to defend us. With that in mind, it probably wasn’t the best idea to have every such grudge match take place at night, in the pouring rain or at the bottom of the sea. In other words, it’s mostly too dark to really see just what the hell is going on — even though the rapid editing and close compositions assure us that it’s all very exciting indeed.
I might be willing to cut the battle-editing style more slack if I hadn’t just seen the brilliantly coherent action scenes in The Lone Ranger, but I did, and this action pales in comparison. It’s also nothing like the tomfoolery of the old Japanese movies. I didn’t expect the men-in-costumes wrestling silliness of Godzilla vs. whoever, but couldn’t these big guys at least have squared off on opposite sides of a Japanese castle like in the old days? Apparently not. Instead, what we get is murky modernity in a movie with its heart in the past. (Ishiro Honda — the grandfather of the kaiju movie — would just be perplexed by these monster battles.) The surprise is that the movie largely overcomes these hangups.
What makes Pacific Rim work — and work far better than it probably has any right to — is the way del Toro embraces the movie’s deliberately corny tone. It may not really look like Japanese sci-fi from 40 or 50 years ago, but it’s every bit as goofy — and delightfully so. The film’s science is charmingly preposterous with its mind-melding (or whatever its called) giant robot operators. For that matter, the whole idea that the best hope for a defense against these huge monsters lies in the creation of 250-foot-tall robots to punch the crap out of them is … well, pretty darn silly, but in a good way. Much the same can be said for the movie’s characters. They have the charm of something from childhood — starting with the Buckaroo Banzai geek-chic look of Clifton Collins Jr.‘s central control operator. We even get Charlie Day and Burn Gorman (who seems to be channeling Victor Spinetti’s mad scientist in Richard Lester’s 1965 Help!) as comedy-relief science nerds who’d have been perfectly at home in an Ishiro Honda picture. The hero (Charlie Hunnam) is stolid. The heroine (Rinko Kikuchi) is suitably devoted to her mentor. And her mentor (Idris Elba) shouts a lot of absolute nonsense that somehow manages to sound believable. But best of all is the way that del Toro pulls off the unlikely feat of making this flapdoodle work on a rudimentary emotional level.
The real question is whether the viewer can embrace del Toro’s nonsense in the way the director intends — not to mention whether the viewer can get past the suspicion that the man who made Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) is frittering away his talent on a project like this. I’m not entirely sold on that myself, but I do recognize that this is a wholly personal project and a daring one from a financial standpoint. After all, this is an expensive movie without a big name cast and without any kind of name brand to draw viewers. (A lackluster opening weekend bears out the idea that this is a folly in terms of money.) Even so, it’s a kind of glorious madness that entertains despite its flaws, which is more than I can say for most of the big summer releases. The question is whether you can mind-meld with del Toro’s goofiness. Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action, violence and brief language.
Playing at Carmike 10, Carolina Cinemas, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande