These characters are so. Fucking. Boring.
Pacific Rim (2013)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro
Warning: spoilers ahead.
2013 was supposed to be the year that saved big screen science fiction. When this summer’s lineup began filling out, I had more anticipation for this movie season than I’d had in years. Names were popping up like Blomkamp, del Toro, Shyamalan (fuck the haters), Abrams, Cuarón, Wright (and Pegg and Frost), and startlingly, there seemed to be more original properties on the horizon than sequels/adaptations: Elysium, After Earth, Gravity, Pacific Rim, Oblivion, Ender’s Game, Star Trek Into Darkness, The World’s End, etcetera. From what I saw of the trailers, these movies didn’t look like your typical disaster porn invasion movies, á la, Battle: Los Angeles or Transformers (except Pacific Rim, though its premise justifies, and even necessitates it) nor were they part of the insufferably relentless deluge of Marvel/DC sequels and spinoffs (except Into Darkness, whose trailers gave it the tone of a Dark Knight movie; y’all looking forward to Thor: The Dark World?). I loved the designs I saw in the Oblivion trailer, I liked the visual approaches of After Earth and Ender’s Game, and I love the idea of Sandra Bullock leading a stranded-in-space drama.
But then Oblivion came out. The critical consensus was that it was bland and derivative. I made excuses: obviously it’s bland with Tom Cruise leading it, so whatever. I was sure After Earth would be good! But then it came out, and was panned. Since I like even Shyamalan’s hated movies, I was going to give it the benefit of the doubt (obviously the critics would hate it), but even one of Shamylan’s biggest defenders, Greg DeLiso, hated it completely. Well, it’s essentially a vanity project for the Smiths, not really a Shyamalan original, so whatever. I was sure Star Trek Into Darkness would be good! But then that came out, and apparently made no fucking sense outside its predictably absurd action set pieces. I didn’t think Abrams would settle for a cash-in sequel, but apparently he didn’t want to make it in the first place, so whatever. They say three makes a trend (as a Real Life Scientist, I can say that’s bunk, but I digress) and I wasn’t so starry-eyed with optimism that I couldn’t see the trend forming. The worry began to set in. Pacific Rim looked like a Transformers movie, but it was del Toro! The Devil’s Backbone is my favorite ghost movie ever, and Pan’s Labyrinth is still timeless. In fact, del Toro’s never really made a bad movie. As uneven and blandly superhero-y as it is, even Hellboy 2 has visual energy and cool fantasy designs, and Perlman’s snark sustains it well enough. So here comes Pacific Rim, a true del Toro pet project, a deserved opportunity for him to play with more expensive toys. The kid in me was pumped at the prospect of anime-inspired mechas literally wrestling with Lovecraftian sea monsters.
But then Pacific Rim came out. And almost immediately, everybody forgot about it—in the US, it’s ticket sales have dropped over 50% each week since it came out, and its domestic gross hasn’t even made up for half its production costs. Maybe it’s safe to say it’s a dud. After seeing it, it’s no wonder. Yeah it’s got giant robots punching sea monsters, but it still managed to bore me. I was bored enough that I started thinking about all the other movies and shows that it rips off (despite del Toro’s claim that he didn’t want to reference any other fiction). Its plot is lifted almost beat for beat from Independence Day (the final couple scenes are essentially copied shot-for-shot), with Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s eternal attack-drama-attack-drama-attack structure providing the foundation.
It begins with an extremely awkwardly paced prologue of sorts (right after the obligatory, prematurely load-blowing bombastic opening battle, of course). The “protagonist” (I hesitate to call him that, because he has precisely zero personality and essentially no character arc whatsoever, and at least three other main characters look exactly like him) is a star jaeger pilot until his brother co-pilot is killed in a battle with a kaiju. The trauma of experiencing his brother’s death through their mind-melding (required for piloting the mechas) forces him out of the jaeger program, and he becomes a construction worker. The US jaeger program leader, a similarly personality-less brass suit played by a disinterested Idris Elba (“Where’s Wallace?”) pays him a visit on the job and implores him to rejoin the jaeger program. Why? Because he’s the best, I guess, for some reason, even though he hasn’t piloted a jaeger in years and the one he knows how to pilot has since become an outdated clunker compared to the modern models. The whole scene has a sweaty, working-class vibe to it, kinda like the similar recruitment scene in Armageddon, though without any of the humor or personality or fun. This all plays out in only a couple minutes, and barely any time has passed before the protagonist (I forgot his name because he doesn’t matter at all) is back in the jaeger hangar. It makes you wonder why they included that whole sequence at all, since the protag’s personal struggle with his brother’s death never really comes up or plays any role in the story whatsoever.
That sequence does introduce an unused Chekhov’s gun, however—one of several. The protag was working on a massive defensive wall off the coast of Alaska. Some cartoonishly hateable politicians on a TV screen said walls would be a better defense against the kaijus than the jaegers, even though the jaegers have been kicking ass all along and have become the symbol of a new global human unity. But the politicians want the walls, so they scrap the jaeger program, making them into underfunded underdogs with only a few teams left. When this wall-vs.-jaeger conflict came up, I groaned: great, I thought, they’re going to overcomplicate things by injecting some political conspiracy hellbent on ending the jaegers for some nefarious reason. Maybe they’re in league with the kaiju? We never find out though, because the whole thing never comes up again. All it did was turn the jaegers into the underdogs. They never feel like underdogs, they’re not actually the underdogs in some bigger story, they’re just underdogs, I guess, because why not make them underdogs—audiences care about underdogs, right?
The plotting is sloppy in other ways. Essentially all of the movie’s character drama is stuffed into a single scene with two side characters, the Australian pilots, a father-son team, that we barely know and can’t possibly care about. They have father-son issues, I guess. It’s literally (literally literally) established and resolved in a single tiny scene, right before the climactic battle. It boils down to the son revealing that he knows he doesn’t measure up in his father’s eyes or something, and the father learning to love his son, and the son forgiving him or something. There’s no backstory, no explanation, no actual drama between them prior to this; it just comes up and gets left behind. The scene concludes when the camera fixes itself on the father’s face, the music gets dramatic, and he says to Idris Elba something like “You take care of my son. That’s my son there. My son.” It was the only time in the movie I came close to laughing. Other than that scene, there’s essentially no drama between any characters that isn’t merely a cog in the plot machine. There’s some macho posturing, there’s the hint of a romantic spark, but nothing substantive happens with any of this ever. And just like the drama is thin and shoehorned in, so is the comedy. As if to compensate for the movie’s overall crushing humorlessness, del Toro creates two insanely flat comic relief characters. They’re the scientists with what’s left of the program: one a stuffy, ever-irritated mathematician, played suitably by Burn Gorman, and the other a boisterous kaiju biologist played by Charlie Day. They bicker a lot and Charlie Day shrieks a lot, though not as much as in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (thank God for that) but they’re not really ever funny, which is kinda a problem. Their dynamics and the jokes feel forced and rushed.
Their role in the plot is significant, but also perhaps Pacific Rim’s biggest letdown, and reveals the dirth of imagination in the script. Early on, Day’s character thinks they can learn about their enemy by mind-melding with a kaiju brain, so he does. What he learns by mind-melding with a giant inter-dimensional nether-creature isn’t some crazy mindblowing revelation, as ought to be the case with this kind of premise. It turns out the creatures serve an alien race that wants Earth’s resources. They’re gonna kill us and take our planet. When this happened, I groaned again. That’s the big reveal? The whole conflict? It’s fucking straight out of Independence Day. The whole movie plays out like this, with each new twist being blander than the last. The main fulcrum of the plot, a plan to sneak a nuke through the portal to the invader’s own turf (also straight out of Independence Day) is open knowledge right off the bat. The protagonist asks Elba “what’s the plan?” and Elba answers. And the plan never changes and is completely successful. The one scare comes from the scientists’ second mind-meld, when they learn that the plan might not work, given what they just learned. But then they immediately return back to base, inform the jaegers of the caveat, with plenty of time to spare, and the crisis is averted with a small correction in tactics. Their entire subplot instantly becomes totally inconsequential, and the only tension the movie mustered (thin though it was) completely evaporates.
When the action starts, it just goes right into that modern disaster-porn mode of action that every other damned action blockbuster devolves into: buildings crumble as if made out of foam and the image is so crammed with textural detail and particles that it’s often impossible to delineate one thing from another. It gets redundant really fast, though I won’t say it’s not often fun. And I won’t say the jaegers aren’t cool, because they are, but they’re not cool enough to carry the whole movie. The robots vs. sea monster fights are really all this movie has to offer. The characters are incredibly dull, the dialogue sounds like it was written by a committee (of robots), the comedy doesn’t work, the plotting is incredibly shallow, the visuals are exhaustingly busy. The whole thing is numbingly straightforward and predictable.
But Alex, you retort, it’s a movie that’s all about robots punching sea monsters. It’s a big dumb sci-fi action movie—thats not the movie’s fault, your expectations are the problem! Well, fine, that’s true, it’s a big dumb sci-fi action movie. But so was Avatar, and even that had better characters and dialogue and storytelling and action sequences than Pacific Rim. So did Star Wars, so did The Matrix, so did The Terminator, so did Starship Troopers, and for that matter, so did Armageddon and Independence Day. I’m reminded of a recent Slate article that bemoans how the three-act self-writing structure of modern Hollywood has same-ified all the movies we see. I don’t totally agree with the argument—all those movies I listed above fall would fall under this argument, yet they’re (mostly) great, as are countless others. But if any movie I’ve seen this year makes the article’s case perfectly, it’s Pacific Rim. It’s in one ear and our the other. Before you even leave the theater, you’ll have forgotten about it. But 2013 ain’t done yet, and against all better judgment, I’m still looking forward to Blomkamp’s Elysium (alas, that too is getting mediocre reviews), Cuáron’s Gravity, and Ender’s Game and The World’s End. The World’s End can’t not be great. It will be great. It has to be great.
2 out of 5 failed opportunities.