CAPSULE: Giant monsters are attacking the world and Earth defense forces send giant robots to fight them off. Guillermo del Toro co-writes and directs his improved approach to monster movies of Toho Pictures of Japan. He tries a much more complex view of the conflict with more detailed images and bigger explosions. It all could have been good but complex science fiction ideas are placed into a banal overall plot. The visual images are more compelling than the characters are. The new ideas fail to raise this above pedestrian fare. Rating: high +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10
In PACIFIC RIM a huge cap on the ocean floor covers a gateway to another world. Now it opens up, releasing monsters from the lid.
After Toho Studios had Japan's first international hit movie with their GOJIRA (a.k.a. GODZILLA), they decided to try a sequel. They had a second beast of the Gojira breed--having destroyed the first one. To give the story a little extra excitement they had a second giant beast to fight Gojira.
This became a formula for Toho, having multiple huge fighting beasts in a sci-fi film. These films would build up to monster wrestling matches. Soon a parallel genre of giant robots was spawned and Toho would frequently have giant monsters fighting robots.
Right now Japanese giant monster films are in hiatus, but Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro is trying his hand at making a kaiju film. Incidentally the Japanese word "kaiju" really means "mysterious beast" but is used for large-scale monsters such as Godzilla. With very few exceptions Toho monsters (and robots) were played by men in monster suits. Del Toro uses no men in monster suits, as digital technology has made that unnecessary. Del Toro has made his kaiju less man-shaped, but his giant robots are still in the form of giant armored humans. In del Toro's film, giant robots need two people simultaneously in mind-meld with the robot and each other. The two people and the robot all move in unison. This method of controlling the robots is arcane and would quickly wipe the pilots out with exhaustion. If we use drones today for warfare, it is not clear why the pilot controllers would have to risk their lives actually being inside the hulking machines.
The special effects are far superior to Toho's monster suits. But Del Toro has improved only very minimally on what is the big problem with Toho's kaiju films. GOJIRA is the only Toho kaiju film with anything even approaching an engaging plot. There was a lot of room for improvement on Toho's stories, but for del Toro this was a wasted opportunity. There is really almost no characterization in PACIFIC RIM's script. With only one cadet do we find out why she want to kill the kaiju. The rest are characterized little more than "good soldier wanting to do his duty."
Much of this plot could have been taken from a 1990s "Godzilla" film with callow young fighters going into battle against kaiju. In fact, with the exception of the origin of the menace there is not a lot in PACIFIC RIM that does not seem borrowed from previous films, some from kaiju films, and a lot of INDEPENDENCE DAY recycled here. There is a pep talk to the troops that seems a lot like an impotent version of the speech in INDEPENDENCE DAY. Even the motive for the alien invasion is almost identical to what it was in INDEPENDENCE DAY.
Perhaps in an attempt to make the film atmospheric del Toro has much of the action happening in the night and in rain or in grungy or wet buildings--sort of grime tech. Perhaps the special effects artists use dark and rain intentionally to hide mistakes. But it does make the film harder to watch. Shaky scenes flash by too fast to really take them in. One can see everything on the screen and still not follow what is happening. The 3D version may even make this problem worse. In many of the fight sequences it is very hard to tell what just happened much less even who is winning. The use of CGI technology gives us more interesting kaiju than previous films had. For them the actor playing Godzilla was put into a suit and the images of him were no more complex than was the suit. This version could show organs and mouthparts that Toho could never show. Someone had to work on every square inch of the bodies of the kaiju and robots' bodies. The backgrounds could be more complex also. But they did not make the scenes that much more compelling, just more realistic.
Del Toro correctly realizes this is not a film that requires star power. Ron Perlman has a relatively small role as a dealer in stolen kaiju body parts. The only other actor whose face rang a bell for me was Bern Gorman of "Torchwood". The film is dedicated to the great effects animator Ray Harryhausen and to Ishiro Honda, director of several Godzilla films. This is ironic. Rumor has it Harryhausen was negative on Honda and his man-in-suit monster films. And this film dedicated to the two of them uses neither technique.
In many ways this is the best giant monster film ever made. And in many ways it should have been better. I rate it a high +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1663662/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/pacific_rim_2013/
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper