Monster movies need more than monsters. Pacific Rim has more – there are also gargantuan robots – but this isn’t exactly what I mean.
Consider the greats of the genre. King Kong wasn’t only a rampaging gorilla; he was payback for civilized man’s exploitation of untamed nature. Godzilla mourned the atomic horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Cloverfield’s handheld aesthetic captured the way we now filter everything – even large-scale destruction – through personal technology.
Pacific Rim offers … monsters and robots. In the future, alien behemoths begin to emerge from a portal deep beneath the Pacific Ocean. Mankind has built skyscraper-sized battle robots to take out the beasties. (The machines are operated by human copilots residing in the head.) Godzilla vs. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? Sign me up. Yet there’s nothing evocative about Pacific Rim. It never quite tingles your brain the way superior science fiction can.
Yes, I know: the main question is whether or not Pacific Rim tingles your senses. It does a bit, but not enough to coast on that virtue alone. There is one generally thrilling sequence – in which a monster unexpectedly unfurls wings the size of Manhattan – but most of the money shots here feel a dollar short. Nearly all of the battles take place in (purposefully) obfuscating rain and not enough emphasize what should have been the movie’s distinctive attribute: an awesome sense of scale. Director Guillermo del Toro gives us tastes of this – including an early shot of a robot falling to its knees in front of an awed father and son – yet more often than not the face-offs between the towering adversaries are shot too tightly or interrupted by cutaways to the shouting pilots inside.
Pacific Rim never quite tingles your brain the way superior science fiction can.
I could have done without those pilots altogether. They’re supposed to provide human interest, but they’re so generically drawn and woodenly portrayed that the beasts have more personality. Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket, a retired pilot who is recruited by his former commander (a barking, humorless Idris Elba) to return to service. Raleigh is paired with a novice pilot (Rinko Kikuchi) who alternates between dewy ingénue and merciless killer depending on the needs of a given scene. Add a prolonged and unnecessary rivalry with an up-and-coming pilot (Robert Kazinsky) and the movie begins to feel like Top Gun with robots. And no, that’s not meant to be a compliment.
Pacific Rim is depressingly generic in these scenes, especially for a talent like del Toro. His Hollywood forays have always been hit or miss (Blade II, Hellboy II: The Golden Army), yet he’s usually able to squeeze squiggly idiosyncrasies into them. Pacific Rim feels far too often like a studio job, save for an extended (and forced) cameo by Hellboy star Ron Perlman and brief, icky appearances by dog-sized lice that live on the alien creatures.
Del Toro’s best film thus far, Pan’s Labyrinth, captured something beyond its wildly inventive surface aesthetic. A war-set fantasy, it was a dark, adult depiction of the way children escape trauma via their imagination. Surely del Toro could bring something like that to this Godzilla heir, but sadly that’s not the case. Even if you interpret the creature attacks as metaphors for modern terrorism – unexpected, global, destructive – that reading falls apart when you consider the response of the film’s heroes. As we’ve seen from real life, the strategy of going bigger and bombing the bastards hasn’t always worked out.
Why do I insist on allegorical potency from something like Pacific Rim? Because del Toro’s capable of it, for one thing, and because the genre was made for it. In a seminal 1965 essay entitled “The Imagination of Disaster,” Susan Sontag described science-fiction films as “thematically central allegory.” Noting their flowering in the post-World War II era, she observed that almost every variation – be it an alien-invasion thriller or a body-snatching horror – was about “the trauma suffered by everyone in the middle of the 20th century when it became clear that, from now on to the end of human history, every person would spend his individual life under the threat not only of individual death, which is certain, but of something almost insupportable psychologically – collective incineration and extinction which could come at any time, virtually without warning.”
Ultimately, Sontag found all science-fiction films “questionable” because they neutralize real-world horror by fantasizing it (she saw little value in the cathartic nature of this). I don’t entirely agree, but I’m more inclined to see her point of view when it comes to something like Pacific Rim, in which sci-fi elements are gussied up by contemporary special effects but aren’t given any contemporary relevance. Yes, Pacific Rim has monsters. And it has robots. But in this case, that’s not enough.