Screening Report: Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM (2013) in IMAX 3-D

Charlie-Hunnam-in-Pacific-Rim-2013-Movie-Image2If you see PACIFIC RIM, director Guillermo del Toro’s “Giant Monsters vs. Giant Robots” CGI Punch ’em Up, make sure you stay for the closing credits. There’s a text screen at the very end that may be of interest to classic movie fans.

This film is dedicated to the memories of monster masters Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda.

I found this sentiment heartwarming, but also somewhat frustrating. While I enjoyed PACIFIC RIM  – though not nearly as much as some other folks whose opinions I greatly respect  – one of my issues with the film was the monster design. I’ve not seen all of the films of Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda, but those I have watched include extraordinarily memorable monsters with idiosyncratic design, movement, and personalities.

The giant bad guys in PACIFIC RIM – called The Kaiju, in a respectful nod to classic Japanese monster movies – are, in my opinion, a collection of unmemorable CGI creations that bear little resemblance to the work of those men. While the Kaiju do some interesting things, like spew neon blue goo and shapeshift, they don’t really have distinctive personalities to differentiate them from each other. Knock Classic Godzilla’s rubber suit all you like, but he was a clearly drawn character – a single villain to root against (and, in later films, a hero to cheer).

pacific-rimI never perceived the monsters in PACIFIC RIM as anything more than computer generated cartoon plot devices. With their dinosaur-like coloring they often faded into the dark, CGI skies making whatever unique features they may have difficult to discern. Del Toro supposedly spent lots of time and effort developing the Kaiju, but I honestly didn’t see it on the screen.

Let me stop here to acknowledge that I’m probably the worst person to critique a film like PACIFIC RIM, because I go into it with an admitted bias against contemporary blockbusters. I don’t mind special effects when they’re used to advance the storytelling or to supplement the setting or art direction, but I get bored when CGI removes human beings from the on-screen action for extended periods of time. Lengthy CGI battles between non-human characters always feels to me like watching somebody else play a video game. If the action isn’t grounded in the real world with real people, the stakes are meaningless and I begin to lose interest.

You can argue that genre classics like KING KONG VS. GODZILLA (1962) or any of the many Godzilla spin-offs remove humans from the equation for extended battle scenes. But it was always clear to me, even as a little kid, that there were actual people in those monster suits. And the guys in the cheesy costumes were fighting on practical sets, which also kept things grounded in (an admittedly phony) reality.

making-pacific-rim-robot-concept-artPerhaps del Toro was conscious of this drawback of CGI when he and co-writer Travis Beacham developed the concept of robots inhabited by humans, and controlled by human emotion. I loved that twist, and I particularly enjoyed the neural mingling the partners must engage in when they take control of one of the giant mechanical heroes (here called Jaegars).

But then the humans disappear and it’s CGI vs CGI for ever and ever and ever. I nodded off more than once during the battle scenes, which is pretty hard to do when the bass is rattling your internal organs like a passing freight train. Del Toro is an extraordinarily talented director, but it’s about the work on the screen, not the cachet. And there were long stretches of this film that felt to me like just another dumb, bloated, CGI blockbuster.

I wanted more of the exploration of each character’s anxieties, fears and emotions that del Toro teased us with in those dreamlike mind meld sequences. My favorite scene of the film involves the supercool female hero Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) being forced to relive the trauma she experienced as a young girl when the Kaiju attacked Tokyo. That’s harrowing stuff, and it’s the kind of texture you don’t often get in broadly drawn summertime fare.

pacific-rim-rinko-kikuchiKikuchi is excellent in the film, and del Toro gets major respect from me for giving us a nuanced female leading character in what’s usually a testosterone-fueled genre. But again, I wanted more of her. And I wanted more development of her relationship with the somewhat bland hero Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam). Their pseudo-courtship, which begins with an epic duel, is sadly under-developed, and that lack of connection detracts from the power of the film’s climax. I would also have loved to see  more of Ron Perlman’s hilarious Hannibal Chau. Idris Elba is fine as the cliched “exasperated chief” character, and Burn Gorman is fun as a weird scientist. The other characters felt very familiar, even to someone like me, who generally avoids this genre.

For all the structural inventiveness of the script, it’s filled with genre tropes and dopey lines like, “Let’s finish this!” There’s much TOP GUN-style macho posturing, fighting, high-fiving and shirtless bro’s being bro’s. Snore.

I saw the film in IMAX 3-D at the best IMAX venue in New York City – the AMC Loews Lincoln Square on the Upper West Side. Visually speaking, it was worth every penny of the absurd $23.50 ticket price (with Fandango “service” fees). I don’t see every blockbuster that comes out so, when I do, I want it to be as much of an “experience” as I can get. The post-converted 3-D is so good you’ll think it’s native. I almost never say this, but spend the extra money for 3-D. It’s worth it.

Summation: if you’re a fan of CGI summer popcorn flicks, you’ll probably enjoy PACIFIC RIM. If you’re not, and you’re expecting something that turns the genre on its head, this is not that film. At least it wasn’t for me.

For a somewhat differing opinion, read Lou Lumenick‘s review in the New York Post.

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About willmckinley

I'm a New York City-based writer, video producer, print journalist, radio/podcast host, and social media influencer. I've been a guest on Turner Classic Movies (interviewed by Robert Osborne), NPR, Sirius Satellite Radio, and the official TCM podcast. My byline has appeared in Slate.com and more than 100 times in the pages of NYC alt weeklies like The Villager and Gay City News. I'm also a social media copywriter for Sony's getTV and a contributor to four film-and-TV-related books: "Monster Serial," "Bride of Monster Serial," "Taste the Blood of Monster Serial," and "Remembering Jonathan Frid."
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4 Responses to Screening Report: Guillermo del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM (2013) in IMAX 3-D

  1. Danny says:

    I literally read not ten minutes before this review someone complaining that the problem with Pacific Rim was that they cut back to the human story too often, and that “we’re just here for the fights, why clog it up?” I’m on your side of the coin with this one, as someone who’s seen his fair share of old kaiju flicks, I don’t really feel the need to see two monster just punch each other for ten minutes straight. But, hey, wasn’t it Soderburgh who talked about the guy he saw on an airplane who just fast forwarded films to the explosions? Maybe YouTube special effects compilations are just the future of cinema.

  2. willmckinley says:

    Danny, well the tentpole blockbusters Hollywood churns out now seem to favor the guys who like to fast forward to the ‘splosions (or don’t speak very much English). Eventually we’ll probably evolve all the way back to silent films, or at least movies with no actual dialogue.

  3. I had the same problem with the creature design: they were all interchangeable. The robots all looked alike, as did the monsters. It’s a weird problem for the film to have given Del Toro’s track record … I mean, the creature designs in Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy 2 were incredible. The production designs for Pacific Rim felt fairly generic, though. (And I love Ron Perlman, but he seemed intent on revising the definition of “scene chewing” in this film.)

  4. Aurora says:

    Had zero interest to see this until I read your comments.

    Aurora

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