Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is much like the monsters it gives us: interesting to look at but big, loud and dumb. It tells of a future in which alien monsters called Kaiju come to Earth through a dimensional portal in the bottom of the ocean and terrorize coastal cities. Humanity’s response has been, it seems, to build giant fighting robots called Jaegers, controlled by humans, to pit against these Godzilla-like leviathans. As the creatures get bigger and badder and come more frequently, Earthlings must up their game or figure out a way to destroy the portal and stop the attacks for good. This is a pretty dumb concept but so is an island amusement park in which the attractions are dinosaurs and that worked for a movie. What dooms Pacific Rim is that it’s more concerned with how it looks and sounds than how it feels, which is typically bored and with eyes in some state of rolling.
The movie follows the travails of Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a former Jaeger pilot who lost his brother years ago in a fight with a Kaiju and hasn’t been the same since. You see, the ability to control these 50-foot robots requires two brains, melded together and synced to the machine’s movements. Raleigh and his brother were so compatible that they made a wonderful piloting team, until a Kaiju got the best of them and left Raleigh without a partner (in one of the movie’s more acceptable lunacies, it requires the pilots to be in the physical robot itself to work; it seems to me that if the machine is operated by brain power, that could be done remotely, but it makes for a more engaging action sequence, and the movie needs all the help it can get). As the Kaiju get bigger, the Jaegers become less effective, and the government experiments with other options like walls to prevent the monsters from killing the populace (they don’t work). Desperate, the head of the Jaeger force, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), recruits Raleigh to try Jaegering again but with a different Jaegering partner.
His new partner is Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), an attractive cadet with no experience who Raleigh is to train up. Tell me if you think you know where this is going. The rules-driven Mako assesses Raleigh with the standard, “You’re a loose cannon and out of control and I don’t like you,” line which is just another way of saying “You are exciting and heroic.” If there’s any doubt in the viewer’s mind that these too will be in love before the credits roll, it is removed in the very next scene when Mako is embarrassingly caught staring at Raleigh changing in a locker room. Into this mix are a pair of oddball researchers played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, Kaiju experts, who might have found a way to stop the attacks for good. All it will take is uninteresting dialogue and countless numbing fights between robots and aliens.
It’s hard not to think of Pacific Rim as a climate change parable. These beasts come out of the ocean, they attack coastal cities, they are labeled categorically, as in “a Category-4 Kaiju,” and characters talk about their battles with the Kaiju as heading into a hurricane. There’s even a storyline suggesting that the Kaiju had been waiting for Earth to have the exact environmental conditions they were looking for, conditions that, thanks to human pollution, have been achieved. This isn’t a part of any of the movie’s publicity. Del Toro doesn’t acknowledge such a parallel but it’s there. But why? This doesn’t rail against the phenomenon, nor does it offer any enlightening cure against it; it provides only sensationalism. There’s something almost cynical and unsettling about making an action movie of so little consequence and thought on the basis of, at best, people’s anxieties and, at worst, a catastrophic planetary disaster. If it wasn’t so slight, I would liken it to making an exciting popcorn movie about the 1931 China floods. Imagine if The Impossible (2012), the harrowing movie about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had been pitched at the level of Top Gun (1986) and you get a little idea of the tone of Pacific Rim.
That’s a complaint about the conception of the movie, which is tasteless, as if it were created to promote “Global Warming: The Ride.” The thing is, its execution is relatively flawless. It is like a ride: exciting, engaging, endlessly visual, the type of filmmaking Del Toro has made his name on. And though it’s clichéd, it has many of the right kind of clichés, the familiar aspects that produce familiar reactions, cheap as they may be. The out-of-luck hero with a past, the new green recruit in need of a mentor, the wizened authoritarian with compassionate center, the goofball scientist. And every action in the last hour has an emotional or physical direness to it: “If you get into that Jaeger again, it’ll kill you,” and so on. You want a big rousing speech? Got it. You want predictable but still oddly satisfying jumps and scares? Got ’em. Father-child issues, both familial and assumed? Got ’em. How about a blinking red bomb countdown? Oh, yeah. Pacific Rim doesn’t break any new ground, but it treads the old ground nicely. Yet for all its visual inventiveness (the monsters are interesting and the robots look as if Takashi Murakami were designing Gort), the movie bogs down, as so many others do, in a loud, incomprehensible, bludgeoning long series of set-pieces in which the defining element is destruction. Perhaps it’s best thatPacific Rim is a thinly veiled climate change metaphor. Our directors can’t get enough of giving us the razing of cities, and audiences seem to be unable to sate the desire to see the annihilation of cities. It’s just unsettling that this one is making entertainment out of the destruction of cities that might happen for real.