Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review: Pacific Rim

If you've ever said to yourself, "I enjoy Godzilla movies for their camp value, but why hasn't anyone ever made a more realistic one, with modern special effects?", then you obviously weren't paying attention in 1998 when the execrable Godzilla remake starring Matthew Broderick came out. However, you're in luck, hypothetical monster movie aficionado, because Guillermo del Toro made Pacific Rim just for you, and you'll be satisfied by it. The rest of us will have more mixed feelings.

Pacific Rim is undeniably effective at doing what it sets out to do: make huge robots punch huge monsters and make it look awesome and believable. My giggles of enjoyment occurred during these scenes, which demonstrate skillful design, flawless digital imagery, and imaginative storyboarding. Unfortunately—in this age when special effects are no longer special, but expected—it needed to do more than that to win over that segment of the audience who DOESN'T enjoy Godzilla movies for their camp value, represented by a couple guys we overheard leaving the theater, one of whom said "Well, that was the stupidest movie I've seen in a long time."

Not that Pacific Rim is campy in that Toho way, but it is surprisingly stupid. Moviegoers hoping for a bit of that Avengers/X-Men magic (i.e., a seemingly stupid movie that transcends its subject material) will be in for thousands of tons of crushing disappointment. In terms of dialogue and story originality, it compares unfavorably to a similarly cocky-military-team-oriented film that's among my most disliked films of all time—Top Gun.

The task that Pacific Rim failed at, ironically, is similar to the one that the King Kong remake directed by Peter Jackson failed at. Namely, when your movie's subject matter is inherently corny and you want it to be cool, you have to be sure that nothing else about your movie is corny, or even weak or uninteresting. King Kong was too long, too tonally unbalanced, and (critically) assumed too much affection for King Kong than its audience actually possessed—which came off as corny to viewers who thought "Oh. A very large ape."

Pacific Rim, while much more watchable and kick-ass than Kong was, is also cornier. The dialogue, while mercifully low on "clever" one-liners, was even lower on originality. I've seen worse, to be sure—at least there weren't any You just don't get it do yous or There's one way: my ways—but at times it came close.

The story starts out promising, but ends up thin and only intermittently engaging, reminiscent of Independence Day inasmuch as the nerdy but heroic scientist (Charlie Day) has to figure out the aliens' secret to stop them, with vividly predictable results, including the predictable occurrence of a predictable twist.

The characters are walking cliches, which I can forgive in the case of the fighter-pilot-like leads and their steely, no-nonsense commander (Idris Elba)—because what the hell else could we expect? And luckily, there aren't that many characters to begin with. But perhaps the biggest miscalculation is Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), who fails completely to mesh with what was clearly meant to be a "realistic" cast. It's almost as if del Toro included him because every kaiju movie needs its left-field oddball, like the guy who loves dolphins a little too much in that one Gamera movie. Whatever the reason, the eye-rollingly ridiculous character subverts the film's attempt to be plausible, earnest, and dissimilar to 1998's Godzilla.

So its flaws are many, and distracting, but you can probably list a dozen summer blockbusters who possessed far more offensively terrible versions thereof. I am truly happy to say, however, that when it comes to giant monsters making a big mess, giant robots doing cool shit, and world-building that effectively conveys the stakes, Pacific Rim delivers. All last week I kept thinking "Please don't suck, Pacific Rim; please…don't suck." And for what it is, it doesn't suck. Just turn off your brain and you'll be fine. Or, do like I did—get to the theater waaaay too early, subject yourself to countless commercials and terrible trailers, and your brain'll already be numbed by the time the movie starts. (I just blew the whole racket wide open, didn't I?)

Star Score: 3 out of 5

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