When Orson Welles went to Hollywood in 1940 and arrived at the studio, he called it “the biggest train set any boy ever had”. Out of that, we got Citizen Kane. Today, we get movies like Pacific Rim. It’s a movie that reminds me of that joke in which you get a child an expensive toy and all he wants to do is play with the cardboard box it came in. Because that is all Pacific Rim is. It’s a blockbuster of a toy engulfed by cardboard characters with cardboard emotions with a cardboard set up and a cardboard plot as flimsy as that metaphor suggests.
The basic idea is perfectly fine. A rift between dimensions down deep in the Pacific Ocean is allowing gigantic creatures to come through and attack mankind; as is fairly obvious, this is not by accident, but at the behest of some ugly creatures who have worn out their own place of existence and need to colonize. To combat these creatures, gigantic robots have been built that are piloted by pairs of people who have close, though not quite psychic, relationships to each other. Yes, that’s right. This is basically Godzilla v. Transformers…not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.
Six years later, the bad guys are winning and the good guys are just now deciding that it might actually be a good idea not to just fight the creatures in a rock ‘em, sock ‘em manner, but to more fully investigate and actually do something about the trans-dimensional fissure itself. And by now all the governments in the world have dropped all conflict and come together to combat a common foe, in true Susan Sontag, 1950’s sci-fi style. But since Asia is now perhaps the major importer of American films, the final pair in the final robot in the final fight are a hero from the USA and a refugee from Japan (though in keeping with proud U.S. tradition, the American hero is played by a British actor).
The cast is filled with a bunch of B-listers and refugees from various TV series: Charlie Hunnam; Indris Elba; Diego Klattenhoff (who wins the award for best name); Max Martini (oops, sorry, no, Max wins the award for best name); Robert Kazinsky; with Charlie Day and Burn Gorman in the roles of C3PO and R2D2, though without those tin cans’ more appealing personalities. And c’mon, if truth be told, though many of these actors have shown talent, this is still the sort of cast you end up with when, for whatever reason, you can’t get the ones you really would have liked to have had. Only Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi (who in true formulaic tradition, becomes Hunnam’s partner) perhaps escapes this description, though you wouldn’t know it by the performance she gives.
What’s so surprising, as well as frustrating, is that for a story that has at its center the need for deep, almost psychic bonds between people, no couple—not one—shows one whiff of charisma. This is probably because every performer is pushed over the top in their acting with performances that are robbed of the remotest sign of subtlety. When the special secret guest star, the inevitable Ron Perlman, is eaten by one of the monsters, I turned to my friend and said, “well, we know they don’t keep kosher since they just ate a bunch of ham”.
The screenplay is by Travis Beacham, with dialog at the level of his previous foray (“Release the Kraken!”), and by Guillermo del Toro, who also directed, in the manner of a police officer reduced to traffic cop (I don’t think we’re in Pan’s Labyrinth anymore, Toto).
One of my most painful movie going experiences in recent memory.