Monday, July 15, 2013

This is not a contrarian review of PACIFIC RIM

I hate contrarian reviews.  They're a fact of life in the world of geek pop culture and there are no shortage of people going out of their way to attack something that's fairly widely loved.  (Conversely, there are those who declare widely disliked works to be unfairly evaluated gems.)  What I hate most about those reviews is that they sometimes turn from examining the film to insulting the audience.  ("You may have liked MAN OF STEEL, but that's only because you're not smart like me, who is somehow able to engage the film on a superior level that delivers an objective verdict that an intelligent person could not overlook the flaws in this film.")  Popular consensus can be "wrong" but you win no points by calling your audience idiots.

So let me say this at the outset - if you enjoyed PACIFIC RIM, I'm happy for you.  See it again in IMAX 3D, buy the blu-rays, read the ancillary tie-ins, go crazy.  There is a lot I found entertaining in the film myself, but I suspect that since I didn't come out of the theatre declaring that Guillermo del Toro had made love to my eyeballs, this is a review that will anger people.  Remember back when I complained that we're no longer allowed to have a middle-ground reaction to a film? That we have to love it or wish death on those involved?  Yeah, this is one of those middle-ground reviews.

The bulk of PACIFIC RIM takes place in 2020ish, about 8 years into a war between humanity and giant Godzilla-like monsters called kaijus.  The invaders are emerging through a dimensional rift at the joining of two techtonic plates in the Pacific Ocean.  The world has come together to fight these monsters, who emerge with increasing regularity.  For a long time, the only effective weapon against them has been Jaegers, giant robots controlled by two humans. The drivers are connected by a neural link called The Drift, which demands that the two minds be as compatible as possible.  A side effect is that the linking of their minds also links their memories and it's possible for a person to be lost in the memories of either themselves or the other person.

Most of this is exposited in an opening montage sequence with voiceover explanations.  Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh Becket explains what it was like to live through the first few attacks and brings us up to speed. We learn how the Jaegers work and that the Jaegers and kaijus eventually became a part of pop culture, with the Jaeger pilots being as celebrated as rock stars.  It's a lot of world-building that's just tossed at us in a fairly packed sequence.  I have to admit that if I was reading this in script form, the info-dump would probably set my teeth on edge.

And yet, in a world where every major tentpole now seems to spend so much time on world building that it's hard to find one that runs less than two and a half hours, I kinda admired the brevity.  The story that del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham wanted to tell was clearly one about the end of the war, not the beginning.  It would be unfair to knock it for that choice, but MAN would I be really interested in a prequel that showed the world reacting to these things for the first time.

The best parts of PACIFIC RIM are when the action is bombastic and the actors find the right tone that mesches with that excess.  Ron Perlman's performance as the scene-stealing Hannibal Chou is pretty much the platonic ideal that every actor should be reaching for.  Unfortunately, no one is as consistent or as enjoyable to watch as Perlman.  I'll admit that I liked Charlie Day and Burn Gorman's scenes quite a lot, but they weren't devoid of hamminess.  Idris Elba was dependable, but didn't leave much of an impression.

Hunnam doesn't quite carry the movie.  Whatever you felt about MAN OF STEEL, almost everyone walked out of there declaring Henry Cavill a star.  Hunnam gives a mostly bland performance and we can't peg all of that on the script and the direction, even though del Toro seems to be allergic to subtext.  If a character point is made in the script, you can count on del Toro to overemphasize it to the point of bludgeoning the audience.

Rinko Kikuchi is just straight-up awful as Mako.  I really, really hate beating up on one of the few major female roles in this summer's tentpoles, but there's no getting around the fact that there was not a single moment of her performance that I believed.   She's not helped by being tied to the single weakest element in the film - the budding romance story.

Kikucki's chemistry with Hunnam is just short of flacid, which forces del Toro to over-sell their attraction with his directing.  Their first meeting could have been played as a moment where the two of them causally find each other attractive, but her mooneyes performance and Hunnam's reactions push this all the way into "they fall in love instantly" territory.  I'm fingering the direction here because I can easily imagine that the scene on the page was less blunt and could have even taken more of a "two attractive people sizing each other up" approach.

This wasn't a movie that needed a love story, though I can see what they were going for with the idea that Mako and Raleigh needed to learn to develop their "neural handshake" so they can work together in harmony.  I can get behind that as a concept if there was more conflict between the two of them.  There's a slightly predictable subplot between Raleigh and another Jaeger pilot who thinks that Raleigh's inexperience and attitude are a threat to the mission.  (Yeah, it's basically Iceman/Maverick.)  It feels like a more logical development of the "working together" concept would have put these two in the same Jaeger and forced them to work as a team.

Instead Mako's development is only partially realized.  She's traumatized after having survived a Kaiju attack as a child and her first time in the cockpit of a Jaeger ends badly when she is forced to relive that memory and nearly blows up the military installation in a haze of confusion.  Not unreasonably, she's grounded after that.  Look, if one of the seven people you were trusting with the fate of the Earth suddenly cracked up and nearly razed your base with a plasma gun, you'd take away the keys to their war-toy too.

And yet, when urgent circumstances arrive as the film approaches the third act, Mako is pressed back into service to co-pilot with Raleigh.  It's one of the most unmotivated developments in the film.  We've already seen that there are at least a dozen candidates at that base who could be qualified to be Raleigh's partner - why not draft one of them?  Why would get back into the cockpit of that machine with the one person who had a major freak-out the last time they used it.  Literally anyone else would have made more sense.  After all that, it seems a bit too easy and unearned that the two of them suddenly are capable of working in harmony. I know I'm swimming against the tide here, but Mako was a big miss for me.

I saw this film with two friends and while we all walked in hoping to be blown away, as we exited, we had one of those conversations where we kept asking questions about the film, gradually finding more and more elements that just didn't work for us.  Throughout this review, I will include their questions/observations in italics, many of them drawn from a post-film text chat, the rest paraphrased from our post-film discussion.

Quick! Tell me the name of any character in this film besides Mako!

Fuck you.  Ummmm... Hannibal Chao... and...

Yeah, I got nothing here.  I had to have Wikipedia open to get the character names right for this review.

For as big as the movie was, the world felt really small.  After 20 minutes or so, it's like the outside world didn't exist.

I can't really argue with this.  For all the set-up about the drivers being celebrated as major celebrities, it's ultimately a throwaway detail that feels under-exploited.  Even when we venture into the city, we don't get a feel for much beyond Hannibal's operation.  My friends were also bothered by a lack of reaction to the destruction of the Rift at the end of the film.  They wanted an "Ewok Celebration" kind of moment.  I hadn't thought about that until they brought it up, but I agree something like this would have given more finality to the defeat of the Kaijus

So the world government's big plan is just to build a wall?  Even if the Jaegers have been less effective than before, they've still got to be more effective as an offensive weapon.

I admit it's a dumb plan.  But I also don't find it implausible that a government would come up with an idiotically stupid defense plan.  The real issue here is one that comes with the infodump.  We're told straight out that the Jaegers are these awesome defense tools and that their controllers are considered massive heroes.  Then just as quickly, the film reverses course on that and has to sell us on the idea that the Jaegers aren't so awesome after all.  It's a weird transition to make, particularly when it comes with a time-jump of several years.

Maybe it would have been better to set up the Wall from the start as the real endgame, with the Jaegers being a stopgap that until recently had been doing an extraordinary job of holding the line.

After 10 years of these things attacking the coastal cities, why the fuck do people still live there?

Um, beachfront property.

Dammit. I don't have an answer for that one.  I guess you could point out people stay in California despite the threat of earthquakes, but that's hardly the same thing.

At least the bunkers are effective... oh.

Dammit, now you're reminding me about the odd story beat that has the Kaiju seemingly able to sense Charlie Day after they shared a mind-meld link.

Alien mind-meld.  Independence Day anyone?

I'll argue this. It's a convenient expositional tool, but they handle it better than ID4.  Here it's a deliberate choice to use the mind-link for interrogation and it's justified by the technology that links the Jaeger pilots.  ID4 just used it as a convenient way for the President to suddenly know what the alien plan and motivation was.

This one was mine: if you need a monster to open up the rift/gate/dimensional portal/whatever, then how the fuck do the escape pods get out from the other side?

It's a one-way sphincter? Like a butthole? And those pods are the poop. Totally guessing here.

If the Jaegers have swords, rockets and blaster weapons, why do they spend so much time wrestling the monsters and fighting them hand-to-hand?

Well... a few of those have to be justifiable as "heat of battle" decisions.

But why are they not even TRYING to slice these guys in half from minute one of the fights?

The best I've got is that maybe those are actions that require more refined coordination/communication between the pilots and it takes a while to warm up to that level.  I'm willing to rationalize that, but it is kind of an open question in the film.

And because this text exchange between the other two made me laugh:

"Category 5! We've never seen this before!" Kinda looks the same as the others.

-Went down like a little bitch too.

I really wanted to come out of this film as ecstatic as many of you did.  I didn't want to come out gunning for this film or anyone connected to it.  I did my best to avoid the hype, just to keep my expectations realistic, but I'm afraid I'm lukewarm on this one.   Del Toro has got some really fantastic visuals here - I'd never argue against that - and the VFX are top notch.  It's not a bad movie and it's certainly one that demands to be seen on the big screen. I wouldn't even call my reaction a "thumbs down."  But it also fell far short of being a rapturous experience.


  1. You loved STAR WARS? How did Luke go from a simple farm boy, "What's that flashing red light!?!?!", on the Millennium Falcon to driving the Galaxy's most sophisticated Star Fighter? In less than an hour?

    A weird creature that lives in a trash compacter that was built in space?

    Or Batman. Batman leaps out the window to save his girlfriend leaving the Joker in a room filled with Gotham's rich and powerful. Then they were O.K., because the most diabolical killer and criminal, he just walked away?

    Perhaps it's best to try to understand why and how you can get an audience to suspend their real world beliefs. How does that magic happen?

    1. Luke and Biggs referenced training for the Imperial Pilot Academy in the movie, no EU required. We'd seen him pilot a speeder before, and the Force made it all work together. Overall, it's thin as hell, but it clearly worked.

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  3. Finally! Someone who isn't a Del Toro apologist...

    I agree whole heartedly, and in fact would go as far as to say the film was flat and largely dull. Don't get me wrong, I'm as happy to watch giant robots fight giant monsters as the next guy but I need to give a toss about the outcome, and I just didn't. There was no-one I liked and no-one I remotely cared about. In fact most of the characters just came across as miserable, spoilt brats but the mediocre acting and dreadful cheesy dialogue - some of the worst I've heard for a long time - probably didn't help; the massive info-dumps of clumsy exposition also grated on me. On top of that, the plot was hackneyed and stale with story beats that were so predictable the audience were calling them out as the film went along.

    All in all it was a waste of time, effort and money to make and ditto to go and see. Despite the awful reviews it's received I probably would have had a better time with Despicable Me 2....

  4. What disappointed me the most about "Pacific Rim" was how underdeveloped the alien world was. Why didn't Guilermo Del Torro go into the world of the Kaiju at for a couple scenes?

    A movie is only as strong as its antagonist.

    Buy this addage? If so "Pacific Rim" is an unmitigated failure. Why? Because we spend the whole time with the good guys. And this is from a guy who knows how to do dark. Remember the movie, "Pan's Labyrinth" (2006)?

    That MAJOR gripe aside, I was able to enjoy "Pacific Rim" on its own terms; its a pimped up, modernized Godzilla tale for the 21st century. I through ALL the characterization out the window and just tried to enjoy the spectacle of giant monsters fighting giant robots.

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  6. Maybe this is really a film that requires a bit of ‘genera’ knowledge. This film is a live action anime. There is tons of background info on Kaiju… if you’ve seen Evangelion or any of a ton of other Giant monster cartoons that have come out over the last forty years. (Search Google images for Kaiju) But not knowing that, is kind of like watching Die Hard and not being familiar with the idea of a Terrorist; the word keeps being thrown around and when it becomes a robbery, you’re not clear on what else it could have been.
    The Mind Drift with the alien was one of the best elements of the film. The Humans get some info on the Kaiju, but the Kaiju get info on the Humans too (location and weakness to be specific) So the Kaiju come straight to them, do an EMP and wipe out the ‘resistance.’ I personally was impressed how this wasn’t explained, kind of like the zombie intelligence in I am Legend, but the audience can get it… maybe.
    The whole story of Mako and …. (yeah, casting sucked, and names were weak except for Pentecost – awesome name. Could you find more actors who looked exactly alike? A poster child for more diversity in casting) was the mystery of her relationship with Pentecost. They sleeping together? Then you get the idea that where Raleigh ‘fell into’ becoming a pilot, she’s been training for it her whole life. I saw her initial ‘assessment’ of him as her ticket to the big time, not ‘attraction’ (but that whole shot where she’s looking at his chest like she’s never seen a man doesn’t help this reading of the narrative) But they definitely have a whole yin and yang dynamic that’s bridged because of their shared trauma and hunger for revenge.
    I didn’t like the introduction or clichéd dynamic of the scientists, but they’re supposed to be the short bug eyed guys from the typical Anime cartoon. Like I said, the Drift with Aliens sub plot redeem them in my book. The Hannibal Chau story line… I didn’t need.
    The who question of fighting vs. weapons seemed pretty clear – all of the newer models began to lean more on weapons, less on hand to hand (the triply typhoon, the chest rockets, etc) but these were advances. Raleigh was a scrapper, so his main method was to scrap. And besides, his blasters had let him down before, so maybe you don’t want to depend on those.
    I don’t know, plenty plot holes in the film (like the whole sphincter thing) and everyone floats in ankle deep water, regardless of the depth, monsters and robots alike. But unlike most of the films I’ve seen in a long time, this one was fun. Won’t win any Oscars for acting, but lots of nice flourishes like Clifton Collins all tatted like a former Cholo / Yakuza thug – turned Government technician worker. (Latino actor, Asian-ish name? OK, whatever)
    I too wondered what was up with the UN abandonment of the Jager program, and half expected to see the UN having cut a backroom deal with the Kaiju. And the ending shot was just waiting for a claw to come out of the water. But compared to Transformers, this movie was refreshing, so maybe I’m not judging it on it’s own merits. But I think there’s a whole ‘genre knowledge’ without which, you might be missing out on with Pacific Rim. Bet it does great in the Asia market, though. =)

  7. The shoe frustrated me. a) Why would THAT be the token that Idris Elba keeps to remember the day he found Mako in the rubble? b) Why wouldn't he make her put the shoe back on? It didn't look broken or even that dirty.

    I would've pitched something more along the lines of: twins operating a robot face off against monster in this worsening war, monster tears robot open and eats a twin, remaining twin goes after monster, kills it, cuts the other twin out. The other twin, having been in the belly of the beat, was privy to some biological feature of the monster heretofore overlooked, an Achilles heel that enables the army to destroy the monsters with some new fangled strategy. First though, the twins must patch their robot up and get back to base in time.

    No romance, no father figures, just focus on the two pilots.

  8. Going into the movie, I was expecting that Stacker and Raleigh were going to be in the last Jaeger together (giving the irony to Rules 1 and 2 of Stacker Pentecost Club). As the movie progressed, I was thinking Pentecost would die mid-Drift, but he would help Raleigh overcome his link to his brother's death while dying. His brother was yanked from life unprepared, after all, but Pentecost has been preparing for death all along.

    But, see, no one asked me my opinion of this so that didn't happen.

  9. Agree almost completely. While I liked the movie and was entertained, there's definitely way to much geek love for it. It reminds of the reaction to Looper and Inception. Movie geeks were so starved for big screen sci-fi, they overlooked serious flaws these movies, especially Looper.