After years trying to dig out The Hobbit from the mire mare of bankruptcy and struggling to scale H.P. Lovecraft’s Mountains of Madness Guillermo del Toro returns to the big screen with an apocalyptic skirmish between massive otherworldly monsters and the robotic resistance created to meet them.
We come to the shores of Pacific Rim with expectations buoyed on by a heavy marketing campaign focusing on the vast scale of the battle at the end of the world. Combined with the anticipation of seeing del Toro return to our cinema screens, and the personal nature of the project for the director, the film itself has much to live up to.
The rich imagination of del Toro has taken us on many fantastical journeys; grimy escapist fairytales borne out of the horrors of war with a macabre collection of beasts and dark, enchanted creatures brought to life. In this film the Mexican director’s love of monster movies and comic book culture is pushed to the fore and he has succeeded in capturing a youthful energy in his Robots Vs Monsters epic.
From the start it is clear del Toro is reveling in his return to solid cinematic ground. The expertly crafted montage detailing the arrival of the monsters, the Kaiju, from a dimensional rift deep in the Pacific ocean and the stunned world’s response, the creation of the Jaegers, is terrifically engaging and there is a keen level of detail to the world-building. The sense of scale, and of the seemingly insurmountable odds, is conveyed perfectly with a standout sequence involving what is thought to be a final battle and a shoreline climax which serves to cement the film’s emotional tone, an element with is crucial to del Toro’s work.
The meticulous styling of this near-future world is a feast for the senses. We are introduced to our main characters quickly and without ceremony, the appearance of the Kaiju (tall as buildings, graceful as a concrete panda on rollerskates) and the Jaegers (vast metal marionettes, controlled by two pilots neurally connected with the machine and themselves) is instantly impressive. Del Toro spends time to establish the magnitude of their battles and Man of Steel’s collateral damage looks paltry in comparison. Though what follows amounts to a last ditch attempt to fight off the oncoming evil with a ragtag band of robot pilots we are already immersed in this strange future and our investment in the FX-heavy conflicts is well set up.
Where the film loses its footing is in the plundering of the cliché graveyard for its narrative. There is nothing wrong with a simple story of Good Vs. Evil, much of del Toro’s work relies on this, and yet in Pacific Rim there is none of the political or social context of his best work and no heart-stopping connection with our heroes. Instead we have personal stories of revenge, sibling rivalry, trauma-recovery and parental responsibility thrown into the mix, diluted and out of focus. Del Toro spoke of recapturing his eleven-year-old self when making the film and the emotional resonance has this sensibility also. We have no Ofelia, no Carlos – even no Hellboy to gravitate towards and the result is a visual triumph with a hollow core.
Technically the film succeeds on almost every level. The weight of the battles is masterfully conveyed and well choreographed and the important sense of scale is assisted greatly by the work from ILM and the production design of Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier. Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi do the best with their leading roles but they too suffer from the meagre depth to their characters. How much you enjoy the film will depend on the value you put on narrative engagement, there are some incredible scenes to behold (the Tokyo flashback sets a high mark for Legendary stablemate Godzilla to meet), the film strikes so few resonant notes that it ends up as an enjoyable ride, one which is forgotten relatively quickly.
Del Toro knows how to have fun on screen and many people will love the outlandish battles which occur, and the stunning set pieces he creates. Unusually for the director the film is a superficial affair, visually striking but hollowed-hearted.