The Conversation

Pacific Rim Teeters Between The Avengers and Sharknado

Last night I went to see Pacific Rim right as Sharnado was premiering on the east coast. It was an odd experience because I spent about an hour reading Sharnado tweets before the film started so I guess you could say I was in a humorous mood when it began. Not a fun, popcorn movie mood but more of a mock-the-stupidity mood. That may be why I spent most of Pacific Rim's 2 hour run time alternating between thinking it was really cool and pretty silly. Rather than claim I've resolved that conflict let me just present both sides.

Cool: As a kid I used to watch Ultraman and Johnny Sokko's Flying Robot. This film is basically taken directly and self-consciously from that world of giant Japanese monsters (Kaiju) vs. good guy robots. It goes all the way back to Godzilla, Astro Boy and Jet Jaguar. This is just a very, very big budget version of those ideas. And, at least for me, those ideas are still fun and the perfect subject for a big budget popcorn movie. It's no more or less silly than The Avengers it's just somewhat less familiar to an American audience.

And wow! I don't know what this film cost but it looks like it was immensely, insanely expensive. The CGI is often spectacular. There are many scenes where you get a sense of the immense scale of the combatants. The Jaegers (robots) and the Kaiju (monsters) in this film are just huge.

The battles are entertaining. I don't want to give away spoilers but you get to see several different robots fighting a series of monsters with different strengths and weaknesses. It's fun as it should be.

Idris Elba mostly makes his part of this film work. He plays the director of the giant robot program who used to be a pilot himself. He is a very good actor. There is one scene in which he conveys such a clear sense of what a badass he is that people in the audience were laughing. The guy is just a star. He would shine in anything.

There is of course a girl played by Rinko Kikuchi. She is both very beautiful and that helps in a movie with a lot of men, robots and monsters. Fortunately she also does a good job of being more than just the pretty girl who can fight well. She's also traumatized and angry. She's respectful of authority even as she wants what she wants. Her part is more believable and interesting than some of the other secondary roles as you'll see below.

Silly: Okay, so giant monsters are coming through the ocean floor and we have to stop them with giant robots. Wow, that seemed far more believable when I was five. Now I confess it seems a little thin. Again, is it any more thin than the Avengers? Not really. You either go with it or you don't and I had a hard time deciding.

The overall plot here--save the world from monsters--is simple enough and works if you can accept the premise. But some of the characters who populate this world and how they interact seem a bit predictable and not in a good way. A lot of emotional energy is expended in a subplot involving the hero and another pilot who thinks he is not up to the task. It's Maverick vs. Iceman all over again. We've seen it and it's entirely predictable and not very interesting.

Can I just suggest that guys who make it to the top of any ultra-competitive field can remain competitive without screaming at each other like junior-high bullies. I'm sure Michael Jordan wanted to beat Larry Bird every chance he got. But he didn't do that by calling him a loser in front of a room full of his peers. It's lazy writing. Guillermo Del Toro should just ask himself: Has Joss Whedon ever taken a poke at you because you're a rival? No? Then tone it down a bit.

I'm diverting from the review here but, in general, I have the sense that a lot of macho squabbling in action movies is written by guys who have never been macho or hyper competitive. You know what would have been more realistic and more entertaining? Have the other pilot challenge the guy to some contest of skill totally unrelated to giant robots, maybe ping pong or darts. Why? Because he's ultra competitive. And you know what else would be good? Have him win and thereby prove the hero is unprepared or undisciplined or whatever. Create some tension about his ability to win the big battle. But no, we just get the usual fist fight which the hero wins. Too bad. These characters could have been better, funnier and more interesting all at the same time.

Lastly, there are two minor characters in this film who play scientists. I'm pretty sure I've seen both of them before and thought they were okay actors. In this film they are both really over the top. Think of Brent Spiner from Independence Day but louder and more hyper. It sort of works in context but it often seems to be straddling that line between having fun with the premise and being just plain ridiculous.

Bottom line: This is a big, loud popcorn film with no illusions. It's far better than a big, loud turkey like Armageddon and it's not nearly as confused as, say, Star Wars Episode 1. On the other hand, it's not as smart or self-aware as The Avengers or as funny and involving as Iron Man. I enjoyed it mostly and will see it again at some point but I also think lots of people will find it about as realistic as Sharknado.


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