The advertising tagline for Pacific Rim is “Go Big or Go Extinct,” and on the evidence of the film itself, Guillermo del Toro is conveying that message to all other directors of summer action epics. The Mexican auteur’s latest work is a behemoth among behemoths, the kind of grandiose cinematic spectacle that should redefine all future uses of that term. The film obliterates conventional notions of scope and opens unrealized doors for just how environmentally immersive the film medium can be. And if only the screenplay was emotionally immersive, del Toro would have a complete film on his hands.
“Style over substance” is an oft-used critical bon mot, but in the case of Pacific Rim, it truly feels as though so much energy was spent on the staggering, peerless craft that the story was merely an afterthought, trumped and quite literally belittled by its base concept. Rather than allowing a screenplay to organically grow into the enormity we now see on the screen, it seems like del Toro started with the enormity and wrote backwards to fit that mold. And yet what a mold it is, the most audacious, spectacular, and, indeed, expensive monster movie ever mounted. Witnessing the results of such an ambitious filmmaker’s vision is spellbinding. But then I think of the story, and I ponder what could have been.
For an idea of that, look no further than del Toro’s earlier filmography — The Devil’s Backbone, with its thematic kink and emotional heft, and Pan’s Labyrinth, driven by the horrors and wonders of childhood. Even the Hellboy films, del Toro’s first forays into mainstream tentpole filmmaking, are edgier in tone and content than virtually any of the the other myriad comic adaptations to grace screens in the last decade. The ever-present trend in del Toro’s work is that what’s on the page is every bit as important as what’s on the screen. With Pacific Rim, it seems like the page was shredded to bits by a ravenous Kaiju.
“What’s a Kaiju?” you ask. It’s a 2,000-ton otherworldly monster, one of many that emerge from the sea and wage massive assaults on the Earth. In a lengthy and impressive prologue, we learn that these attacks are periodic but devastating, and have carried on for years — so long, in fact, that we had to adapt by formulating Kaiju-sized weapons to defend our planet. Those weapons are the Jaegers, massive robots that make the Michael Bay Transformers look like the original Hasbro toys. At its core, that’s what Pacific Rim is — a Monsters vs. Robots Battle Royale.
That blessed simplicity would result in lame-brained summer fun; it’s in the details where things get murky. The Jaegers must be operated by two people who connect via a “mental handshake” to sync their movements and engage in a “Drift” that allows them to essentially battle as one. Our hero, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), was a former Jaeger pilot who now represents humanity’s last hope, since Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) reboots the Jaeger program because there are now “Category 4 Kaijus” that are bigger and badder than their forebears. Or maybe they aren’t merely new stages in evolution, posits geeky-funny American scientist Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day). Maybe they are steps in a multi-tiered plan to destroy the planet. So the doc goes to a black market Kaiju parts dealer (Ron Perlman) to buy a Kaiju brain and form a mental connection with it while Raleigh teams with a diminutive Kaiju scholar (Rinku Kikuchi) to pilot a defunct iteration of the Jaeger… you get the idea. The simplicity of the battles is sublime, but the story smothers the joy. With the right context, intricate details could have made the film could soar, especially on del Toro’s watch. Instead, they swallow the movie whole, allowing the concept and certainly the characters to get lost in a bog of pseudo-science periodically capped with seismic clashes of metal and goo.
But what awesome clashes they are. Film is supposed to be an immersive medium, but you haven’t fully immersed until seeing Pacific Rim — preferably in IMAX 3D. For all the impressive dimensional advancements of Avatar and Hugo, Del Toro is working on another level here, with effects so refined and 3D cinematography so magnificent that the film isn’t so much a viewing experience as it is an interactive one. Wincing and jolting and covering your face are common repeated reactions to this breathtaking action and filmmaking. That filmmaking is enough to recommend on its own, but with a little more attention to his screenplay, del Toro would have delivered something really special. Pacific Rim is seminal, but it is not a classic.