When the Japanese monster and mecha subgenres are brought together on the big screen with all the money that Hollywood can throw at them, what, you might wonder, could possibly go wrong? The answer can be found in Roland Emmerich's Godzilla (1998) and Michael Bay's Transformers franchise: stories whose mega-scale special effects overshadow the sort of character-based drama that grounds a film in relatable experience. This is why, for all Man of Steel's careful investment in the growth of its protagonist as a person, the instant the film showed Superman and Zod battling epically over (and through) Metropolis, it stopped engaging.
Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, the Hellboy films) has past form in monster management, and there's a perfectly judged moment in the middle of Pacific Rim when he gets everything just right. As the sky-scraping android 'Jaeger' (rather shockingly named Gipsy Danger) slugs it out with a vast alien 'Kaiju' above the streets of Hong Kong, its gigantic metal fist shears right through a building, destroying everything in its path before it comes to rest in front of an office cubicle, triggering the pendulous movements of a desktop Newton's cradle. Here the titanically huge comes into collision with the mundanely miniature, scaling all the monstrous mayhem down to a human level.
It is an effect for which the director is constantly reaching. The metal-on-flesh set-pieces are undoubtedly spectacular – and beautifully realised – but they're also rather alienating, and quickly become repetitive despite an impressive variety of creature designs and fighting techniques. We may be informed that the latest Kaiju to emerge from the seas are the "biggest we've ever seen both in size and weight" – but we also need to be told this, because the shades of difference between humongous, colossal and gargantuan seem entirely academic. Del Toro tries to humanise all this by focusing on the backstories of each Jaeger pilot and by forging complex emotional links between men, machines and even monsters – but he is hampered by a somewhat hokey script which he penned with Clash of the Titans' screenwriter Travis Beacham.
Sure, there are some funny lines, as well as a welcome cameo from del Toro regular Ron Perlman as a roguish blackmarketeer, a peculiar set of recurrent motifs (nosebleeds and missing shoes), and lots of big toys on display for the boys – but there's also much irritant air-pumping triumphalism, while the romance between leads Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi (as Jaeger co-pilots) never quite rings true. Pacific Rim steals a trick from Starship Troopers (1997) by having Charlie Day and Burn Gorman's odd-couple eggheads plug themselves into the aliens' hive mind – but it omits altogether that film's sly satire. What remains is a wholesome tale of courage, sacrifice and heart that feels as old-fashioned, well-worn and outmoded as the Gipsy Danger itself. The 3D, post-converted initially against del Toro's will, never feels necessary – but the same is probably true overall of a Hollywood-machined product which feels like del Toro at his most inessential.
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