Review: Pacific Rim

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Pacific Rim

In the middle of the summer movie season, it's always a delight to find that one movie that handles its blockbuster premise with some degree of intelligence, that turns out to be an escapist movie for smart people, that offers the surprise of some cleverness or well-earned emotional depth even if the movie is flawed.

Pacific Rim is not that one movie.

Despite being directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, a filmmaker who has brought us some intelligent and emotionally moving stories (Pan's Labyrinth among them), Pacific Rim is fun in the same way as a rickety rapid-fire rollercoaster ride -- and afterwards, you walk away with the same slight dizzy feeling, perhaps leading to mild headache.

Pacific Rim is a movie where robots fight monsters, and if that excites you greatly, details like character development, plot, dialogue and even empathy aren't important. Unfortunately, even that level of enjoyment is tempered in 3D, which causes the screen to look muddy and the monsters to appear as little more than brown blobs with a few pretty lights attached.

In the near future, kaiju-like creatures (see: Godzilla and that crowd) appear from under the Pacific Ocean in a dimensional rift and rampage the planet. Mankind develops giant robots called Jaegers, each operated by a pair of fighters, to combat the creatures. Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) was involved in a terrible tragedy when his Jaeger was damaged in battle, and resolves not to fight again until years later, his old commander (Idris Elba) persuades him that he's needed to save the world. He joins a bunch of other guys and one smart, determined woman (Rinko Kikuchi) in one last grand attempt to keep the monsters from conquering Earth.

It helps if you think of Pacific Rim as a remake of a WWII fighter pilot B-movie -- the same tropes, but much fancier battle equipment. There are a lot of interchangeable ripped white guys with dog tags flinging around their testosterone left and right, although even their drinking and brawling and bragging is a little dull. There's the weary veteran drill sergeant with a vulnerable spot. The skinny smart guy who will never make it in combat -- this time he's two people, both eccentric genius scientists, often providing comic relief. The soldier whose desire for revenge interferes with the ability to perform capably in combat. But Pacific Rim has no John Waynes or Robert Ryans -- the actors do nothing to distinguish themselves in the film. Even Elba seems to be keeping himself in check.

It's disappointing because the movie does theoretically offer a good chance for an emotional/psychological angle through the mind-connecting technology that's needed to operate the Jaegers. I get tired of climactic CGI battles that have no human side -- well, these robots are operated by humans. But the characters have little depth (I had trouble telling some of them apart, and didn't even know two of them were related until the end) so the movie focuses on big rock 'em, sock 'em battles instead. The robots have a realistically grungy look about them that keeps them from seeming too much like a vaporous special effect (if you want to look authentic in an sf movie, always go for the grunge) but it felt like I was watching people play a video game, albeit a quite engaging game at times.

One bright spot of amazement and wonder briefly enriches this muddy monster movie: Ron Perlman. I won't give you any details -- I want you to savor the moments just as I did. Perlman steals the movie to such an extent that the heist tops anything in the Ocean's Eleven series. I wish the movie had been centered around his character instead -- more irreverent and subversive, definitely. Disappointed as I was in this movie, watching Perlman made me hope he and del Toro might team up for another Hellboy film, or anything that lets both talents really shine.

Pacific Rim is a big dumb summer Hollywood blockbuster, a phrase I realize is redundant -- but I'd hoped del Toro would deliver a big smart and thoughtful science-fiction blockbuster, along the same lines as his Hellboy movies. It is a spectacle more than it is a narrative film, so if you think you'll enjoy it, catch it at the best theater possible (again, though, without the 3D). And afterwards, head for a cafe where you and your friends can argue entertainingly about the ridiculous plot holes and inconsistencies.

The argument I keep hearing in favor of Pacific Rim is that it's an intelligent movie because it is smarter than Robot Jox or the recent Transformers movies. That's like saying that Adam Sandler movies are intelligent because they are smarter than Jim Varrey/Ernest movies. And if we are going to grade robot movies on a curve, then the top of the curve is not Pacific Rim ... it's Iron Giant. Pacific Rim may scratch your itch for monster/robot battles, but offers little else.