It seems a little pointless to chastise a big budget special effects-driven monster movie for its anaemic characterisation – Pacific Rim is not The Godfather, of course, and neither does it have to be – but my word Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham have such little interest in trying to make their characters (a multi-national, multi-racial team headed up by Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi and Idris Elba) stand out from the usual types that litter the history of this genre it makes you wonder why they bothered to include any human beings at all. The characters are all given something familiar – father-son issues, vengeance, illness, professional rivalry and romantic involvement – as individual motivation, while also at stake is the common ground of the potential end of humanity, and each one seems to have been plucked straight out of The Big Bland Book Of Action And Sci-Fi Cliches: the young male hero brought back into the military because he’s the best goddamn pilot there is, the tough female sidekick, the noble and inspirational speechmaking leader, the bickering nerdy scientists, etc. etc. All of these have been seen countless times before and unfortunately none of the actors involved – save perhaps for an underused Ron Perlman – possesses the standout charisma of a Jeff Goldblum or a Will Smith to memorably elevate their parts and make us care about anything other than the bone-crunching action. The simple plot is equally derivative and is driven largely by expositional dialogue; influence-wise we’re firmly in Godzilla territory, with a souped-up Independence Day-style finale to quash the alien threat.
Not that this is a bad film. Naturally you wouldn’t sit and watch two hours of Pacific Rim in the hope you’ll be treated to memorable characters or a high quality story, even if the absence of both needs to be mentioned; however it does mean that del Toro is free to concentrate on the pounding, city-levelling scraps between giant alien invaders (the obviously-named Kaiju, here to wipe out humanity) and man-made skyscraper-high killing machines (Jaegers, or weaponised exoskeletons, which are our first and last line of defence). When Kaiju and Jaeger clash in the Pacific Ocean, in an area near a portal at the bottom of the sea that allows the creatures to take their violent vacations on Earth, the results are entertaining; when these battles spill onto land many buildings are levelled as the giant gladiators wrestle. Human casualties are unseen and implied, as is the fashion these days.
All of which is fine, but the way in which a film like this elevates itself above the pack is through its characters, its performances and its script, and not the strength of its digital effects (which are, it must be said, very good). The barely-known Hunnam is the lead, a strange casting choice for an ambitious blockbuster, and he copes with the demand without being particularly memorable; Kikuchi is required to do little more than stare upwards with doe eyes and gaze longingly at a male torso for the first hour, but at least things improve for her in the second half; and Elba, playing the ridiculously-named Stacker Pentacost, has a commanding physical presence but struggles with the delivery of his lines. In truth all three suffer from the poor writing, even though they seem to have the necessary enthusiasm, while Charlie Day and Perlman are allowed to ham it up and thus stand out a little more.
This is a film that establishes its history well (the 2013-set prologue explains all clearly, while the rest of the film takes place twelve years later) and includes a series of entertaining and occasionally-imaginative fight sequences. As visual spectacles go it’s good, and that’s where the director’s heart lies, but beyond that there isn’t much to sustain interest; something … anything would have been appreciated, and del Toro has made better.
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro.
Written by: Guillermo del Toro, Travis Beacham.
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman.
Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro.
Editing: John Gilroy, Peter Amundson.
Music: Ramin Djawadi.
Running Time: 132 minutes.