Much hullabaloo has been made about Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim." You have two groups of people: those who are excited for it and those who think it looks like a glossed up "Transformers." While the former staunchly defend the director (as they should given his track record of quality), can they really blame the latter? It's hard to deny that the trailers, almost all of which focused on the action heavy sequences, were making a correlation between the two and reaching for that demographic. The good news is that this is no "Transformers." Its approach to similar material is markedly different, both in tone, style and storytelling. It's nothing particularly amazing and it's certainly not one of del Toro's best, but it's well made, gorgeous and it has some truly terrific action.
In the near future, humanity is at war, but not amongst ourselves. Whatever petty problems we had before ended when we were one day invaded by a giant creature we eventually dubbed the Kaiju. At some point, a fissure between two tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean opened a portal between two dimensions, allowing these beasts to come and wreak havoc. In response, humanity built giant robots to fight them. These machines, called Jaegers, are controlled by two pilots who link their brains together to become one. However, the world governments are phasing out the Jaeger program because it is quickly becoming clear that as the attacks become more frequent, we're unable to keep up. Their plan is to build a giant wall, which quickly proves to be futile. In the meantime, the military, led by Stacker (Idris Elba), changes their categorization into a resistance and plans to hold them back for as long as possible, eventually concocting a plan that could end the war for good.
The first thing one notices when watching "Pacific Rim" is its surprising focus on its characters. Contrary to something like the aforementioned "Transformers" movies, which were less interested in story and more in making things go boom, the film crafts its narrative around the people. The trailers may indicate otherwise, but there's more story here than action. Unfortunately, the story is relatively uninteresting, mostly traditional and filled to the brim with action movie clichés like the late movie motivational speech and the celebratory crowd welcoming a hero home after a big victory. These moments do little to complement a movie that is already struggling for conflict, seen most noticeably by the forced human quarrels between bickering pilots, one blaming the other for their current predicament. All of these moments are supposed to build these characters and give us a reason to invest ourselves in them and their plight, but they are perfunctory at best and don't do a particularly good job bridging the action scenes together.
But in the moment, those action scenes will make you forget all that. Guillermo del Toro does a magnificent job of portraying the scope of what's happening, slyly placing objects in the foreground to contrast between the hulking monstrosities in the background, toying with our perspective and giving us a true idea of how massive these things are. When one of the creatures or machines go flying through the air towards a major city, we know this isn't going to be like Iron Man falling out of the sky and taking out a previously well-constructed block of road; it's going to result in catastrophic damage and lives lost. The seriousness of what's happening is rarely lost on the viewer (aside from the comic relief scientist played by Charlie Day, who is horribly miscast here). In particular, the terrific finale and a nail biting sequence that takes place, no joke, on the edge of space, are mind-blowing. With a score that complements its scope, "Pacific Rim" gives off the feeling of a truly epic Hollywood blockbuster.
The reason these action scenes work as well as they do is due to a calm editing style that isn't reliant on frenzied cuts to manufacture a sense of excitement. They're occasionally bogged down by some unnecessary zooms, nighttime darkness and lens flares brought on by nearby bright city lights, all of which make what happens a tad hard to see, but for the most part, they stand as an excellent example of how action should be filmed and presented.
Unfortunately, it all comes back to those characters, all of whom are flatly written and blandly portrayed. For example, Charlie Hunnam, who plays our protagonist, Raleigh, speaks in a whispered dramatic tone full of sentiments and recollections, but he can't properly convey the required emotion needed for the role. The opening sequence shows the loss of his brother in combat, whom he was mind-melded with at the time, so the memory of his death, all of his brother's feelings and fears, are trapped in his head, but you wouldn't know it based on his performance. He basically walks around and scowls for two hours and then the movie ends.
With all that said and with all those problems, including characters that are focused on, yet are still uninteresting, "Pacific Rim" still manages to work, mostly due to the wonderful Guillermo del Toro and a surprisingly effective use of 3D. It really is striking to see the size of the creatures off in the distance in relation to a helicopter up close, making that otherwise impressive flying machine look like a child's play toy, and the 3D really helps accentuate that. Despite the majority of its pre-release hype being undeserving, "Pacific Rim" is a fun, if a bit shallow, time at the movies.