Expectation can be a terrible drug to come down from.
With only the tiniest bits of information and foreknowledge, one can allow oneself to be intoxicated by the rush of expectation that comes from approaching a new film, especially one with a dynamite premise from a beloved filmmaker (in this case, Guillermo del Toro). The mingling of the anticipation leading up to those first frames and the seemingly fulfilling opening moments can bring forth a kind of immeasurable joy, creating a wave of euphoria that, as the film goes on, crests, breaks, and then rolls back, taking with it the sediment of pleasure and leaving behind only the flinty bedrock of a single thought:
This is all there is.
This may seem an odd complaint to level against a film such as yourself, Pacific Rim. After all, your trailer and marketing promised two things – monsters and robots, and the epic battle between the two – and in that sense you delivered. During the course of your two hours there are indeed giant monsters, and giant robots, and we do get to see them engaged in city-flattening brawls.
So what is the problem? Why, if you gave me the only two things you told me I would get, did I feel so deflated and underwhelmed and disappointed upon leaving you?
Because, Pacific Rim, you could have done more, or at least done what little you did do better. It may not seem fair of me to allow my hopes for what you could have been to so greatly affect my estimation of what you are, but for God’s sakes, man, look at you! A mid-summer action film bursting with entertaining and capable character actors, ramped up with big-budget special effects, and helmed by one of the most inventive and heartfelt genre directors currently working. You should have been rare, you should have been bold, you should have been special. You should have been more than the dull, faint, repeating echo of your premise alone.
Blame the bulk of my unhappiness on Guillermo del Toro. From his intimate work in Pan’s Labyrinth to his bombastic romp through Hellboy and his mastery of tone in Mimic, del Toro has proven that he not only has an eye for stunning visuals in terms of creature design and aesthetic composition, but that he is also able to keep a firm handle on the human core of even his nonhuman characters. Yet your characters are stock and static, seemingly born with substandard action film clichés coded into their DNA. There is the hero with a tortured past, the plucky love interest with lots of book smarts but no practical experience, the brash rival, the stern commander, and the goofy lab techs.
These characters begin on a note, and continue to pound that note in the slight hope their monotone could be mistaken for character consistency. Their place in the narrative is delineated in bold exposition delivered in staggeringly firm declarative sentences that echo in the metal-hulled halls of various factories and hangars. The rival openly states his disdain for the hero; the hero openly states his interest in the girl; et cetera; et cetera. They feel things for no reason, but helpfully say their feelings aloud. The do things on a whim, and then helpfully explain not only their purpose in doing these things, but the outcome of the thing they did. Explanation takes the place of reason.
Maybe none of this would truly matter if you didn’t spend so much time trying to convince me that these were people worth caring about. Some characters get backstory filled in, some do not, but all of them have to have at least one meaningful conversation with another, thus stalling you from fulfilling even that meager promise with which you enticed us into the theater to begin with.
And what of that, the brutal brawling between bot and behemoth that we were all promised? These fights do occur, but somehow the intense showdowns lack any kind of excitement or reason. During the course of the film we are told that killing the monstrous Kaiju was so easy at first that it became a kind of propaganda, though to what ends we are never told. Yet each fight seems to begin with a sense of staggering ineptitude before the Jaeger pilots are finally able to pull out some kind of last minute gambit.
Weapons are conveniently forgotten about; blows are exchanged without having any noticeable effect. This could be forgiven if the fights had any kind of dynamism or intelligence to them, but they don’t. There is never any sense of the flow of the battle, of the tide turning, of the opponents engaging in a dance of death that will leave one of the felled. They are just two dumb foes brutally pummeling one another until the plot dictates that one of them die, at which point one of them dies.
And I can’t even begin to describe the way the visual choices of camera angle and shot composition rob the battles of any sense of meaningful scale for the most part.
So what is there to you, Pacific Rim? Flat, formless, and ultimately underdeveloped characters interacting through dialogue and pacing befitting the story a young child would make up for his parents on a long car ride. Joyless, banal actions scenes that don’t do enough to create a sense of awe, excitement, or even tension beyond the reptilian joy of watching to big things smash into one another as smaller and weaker things fall to pieces.
I suppose in some way this is what you promised, and this is what I got, so I ought not to be too hard on you. Yet I can’t help the fact that I expected more. I expected a refreshing and innovative and riveting experience. I expected the one-of-a-kind wonder that del Toro so often delivers on the screen. I expected the melding of horror and humor so singular to him, not the soulless and ultimately monotonous spectacle you actually delivered.
As I said, expectation can be a terrible drug to come down from, and so to anyone who might still be thinking of courting you, Pacific Rim, all I can say is this – keep those expectations low, or the crash is going to hurt more than the meager rush can justify.
Thinking of what might have been,
Brian J. Roan