When Ishiro Honda set out to make “Godzilla” back in 1953, he was greatly influenced by the release of “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms,” featuring the inspired work of legendary stop-motion artist, Ray Harryhausen. In pre-production, the monster at the center of Honda’s movie took on various iterations, from a giant octopus to a hairy ape-like creature with an oversized mushroom-shaped head. The mushroom was to represent the cloud that formed over Hiroshima eight years earlier on August 6th, 1945.
Eventually the filmmakers settled on the dinosaur-like creature we recognize today, but the mushroom cloud remained, if not literally then figuratively, as Godzilla tore through Tokyo leaving a path of destruction that reminded viewers of the horror of Hiroshima. Guillermo del Toro’s monster-versus-robot epic, “Pacific Rim” has no comparable real-world relevance, and that’s fine. A movie doesn’t need relevance or zeitgeist to make it worthwhile.
The Mexican-born maestro behind such distinctive art house titles as “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” and mainstream flicks like “Hell Boy” and its sequel, hasn’t directed a movie in five years. He has had a pair of misfires – his dream project, “At the Mountains of Madness,” a big-budget adaptation of the novella by H.P. Lovecraft which Universal pulled the plug on, and “The Hobbit,” which was taken over by Peter Jackson, a movie del Toro says he still hasn’t seen.
“Pacific Rim” sounds like the perfect comeback for del Toro, a man who exudes a boyish exuberance of the macabre and all things monster, but with the critical eye of a master craftsman. Auteurs rarely make $190 million summer tent pole movies, and when they do, the result often feels cleansed of any trait that makes the filmmaker or his work distinctive. Sadly, such is the case with del Toro’s latest.
Set in the not too distant future, “Pacific Rim” imagines humanity's first encounter with aliens who arrive not from the stars but through a fissure in the bottom of the sea. Called ‘Kaiju,’ they resemble colossal prehistoric beasts whose goal is to wipe out mankind. Our only hope lies with ‘Jaegers,’ an army of giant robots piloted by an international team of our best and brightest. Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket, a Jaeger pilot who is teamed with his brother in the movie’s opening moments as they take on a monster named Axehead who has just laid waste to the Golden Gate Bridge and is lurking somewhere off the coast. Jaeger pilots undergo a mental fusion process called ‘The Drift’ by which they are neurally connected, giving each partner a look into the mind of the other and providing screenwriter Travis Beachem (“Clash of the Titans) a way to inject character into his story.
‘The Drift’ becomes a central element five years after the opening sequence when Becket travels to Hong Kong’s Shatterdome (Pan Pacific Defense Corps headquarters), where Jaegers are engineered and housed, along with an international crew of pilots. There are Chuck and Herc Hansen, a father-son team from Australia, as well as the Kaidanovskys, a husband-wife team of Russians who, with their bleached hair, look like they might break out a triple toe loop at any time. The Wei triplets, Chinese brothers in matching red uniforms, pilot a Jaeger called Crimson Typhoon, while the others have names like Coyote Tango, Striker Eureka and Stacker Pentecost. Oh wait, that last one isn’t the name of a Jaeger, it’s an actual character, the crew’s commander played by Idris Elba.
After a run-in with Herc Hansen, who feels Becket just doesn’t have what it takes, Becket is finally teamed with Mako Mori, (Rinko Kikuchi) who Pentecost rescued as a little girl. Mori is yearning to pilot a Jaeger, but to Pentecost she’s a surrogate daughter and he will do anything to keep her from harm’s way.
Del Toro is a master at creating monsters and otherworldly beasts as he proved with “Hell Boy II.” There he created by hand a wide variety of monsters, some with small cities carved in the top of their heads, or an image of death with rows of eyeballs embedded in her wide black wings.
It’s understandable to have low expectations for a movie like “Pacific Rim,” but one thing seemed certain – the monsters would be imaginative and varied like nothing we’ve seen before. So it comes as a surprise that the new movie features generic-looking monsters. Often shown in dim light, they appear to be nothing more than hulking, lizard-like beasts, while the Jaegers look like extras from “Transformers.” Together, they are the movie’s biggest let down.
The other disappointment is Beachem’s underbaked screenplay. The middle section of the movie, set in the Shatterdome, is meant to flesh out the characters, generate audience empathy and elevate the material to something more than just giant robots fighting giant monsters. This is a worthy aspiration for any storyteller but for Beachem it means emphasizing his weaknesses over his strengths. I don’t know what Travis Beachem’s strengths are, but writing fleshed-out characters with emotional resonance is not one of them. The Shatterdome section of the movie is not quite excruciating but audiences can be forgiven if they become impatient to return to the fight scenes.
The fault cannot be placed entirely on Beachem as del Toro, who elicited excellent performances in “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “Cronos,” struggles with his cast here. Hunnam, who stars on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy,” is adequate at the movie’s center, but he is a natural-born supporting actor and lacks the gravity needed to hold down a movie this size. Idris Elba, as Pentecost, acquits himself well enough but struggles with the wafer-thin characterization the script affords him. And Charlie Day, from TV’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” turns up in what he describes as his first non-comedic role, except his character, Geiszler, a Kaiju expert with the key to defeating them, serves as the movie’s main source of comic relief.
Long-time del Toro stalwart, Ron Perlman has a cameo as the unlikely monikered, Hannibal Chau, a black market dealer in Kaiju remains who Geiszler does business with. His work here is over-the-top and cartoonish, but seems to be more a product of Beachem’s screenplay than of any misguided attempts by the actor to embellish his role. Kikuchi, an Oscar nominee for Alejandro Inarritu’s exquisite, “Babel,” is the only cast member somehow able to overcome the material’s limitations. Her character is confronted with strong conflicts – the paralyzing memory of her first encounter with a Kaiju as a child, her need to weigh Pentecost’s protective nature against her ambition as a pilot, coupled with her growing passion for Becket, amount to a net of contradictions absorbingly portrayed by the actor.
The most miraculous component of “Pacific Rim” is the fact that Warner Brothers greenlit a summer tent pole that isn’t based on existing material, doesn’t have a man with a cape and is not a remake of an earlier, better movie. With all its fantastical elements, it seemed to be a perfect fit for del Toro. It’s been a long time since he’s sat in the director’s chair and most of us awaited his return to greatness with open arms. But with “Pacific Rim” it seems we’ll have to keep on waiting.