Watching “Pacific Rim”
The other night I watched the 1989 movie “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” and was extremely entertained.
The 17th film in the Godzilla series, “Godzilla vs. Biollante” has its share of cheesy B-movie moments, and the plot sometimes lapses into complete incoherence, but overall it’s a fun, thought-provoking ride, with spectacular fight scenes between Godzilla and Biollante, a killer plant created by combining the DNA from Godzilla with the DNA from roses. This is the sort of go-for-broke lunacy that I find irresistible.
I was hoping for a similar level of go-for-broke lunacy from the new Guillermo del Toro film “Pacific Rim,” a science-fiction spectacle that pays tribute to classic Japanese giant monsters, known as kaiju, such as Gamera, Mothra and, of course, Godzilla. And at first I thought the film would live up to my expectations. It opens with breathless scenes showing Earth besieged by an alien threat from beneath the sea, and countries joining forces to battle the creatures that emerge from the oceans using Jaegers — transformer-like machines controlled by two pilots whose minds fuse together in battle, allowing them to share memories and thoughts. I loved this prologue, with its combination of battle imagery, sensationalistic news reports and human drama. But then the rest of the film gets under way, and it can’t quite match the dizzy joy of the first 10 or 15 minutes.
Part of the problem is that “Pacific Rim” is a long film — more than two hours — and becomes bogged down by plot threads and characters I never really cared much about, such as the eccentric scientist played by Charlie Day. It doesn’t zip along the way really good monster movies do, and it’s undermined by a really weak script — every other line sounds like it’s been lifted from another film. Take the inspirational speech given by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who commands the Jaeger forces: “Today, at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we have chosen not only to believe in ourselves, but in each other.” I don’t go to action movies for great dialogue, but come on! By the end of the film, I was rolling my eyes every time someone opened their mouth.
The other big problem is the characters, who are pretty uninteresting overall. Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket, the gifted Jaeger pilot who quits after his brother is killed but returns five years later at Pentecost’s request, while the other pilots are a pretty bland collection of nondescript dudes filling stock parts. The big exception is Rinko Kikuchi, playing Mako Mori, the young Japanese woman with a mysterious past who is also a gifted fighter and the perfect partner for Raleigh. She’s really interesting, and her flashback, which nearly derails her career as a Jaeger, is one of “Pacific Rim’s” most memorable moments — a heartfelt examination of childhood grief and trauma. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the film lacks the depth contained in this scene. Hunnam is perfectly adequate, but his tortured backstory fails to generate the same level of interest and intensity.
“Pacific Rim’s” special effects and battle scenes are pretty impressive, but I found them fairly exhausting after a while, and overly video game-y. In fact, I found myself pining away for “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” with its rougher-hewn yet strangely beautiful special images. “Pacific Rim” is epic in scale, but could have benefited from more intimacy and quirkiness; ironically, intimacy and quirkiness are among del Toro’s strengths, and part of what make the more distinguished films in his ouevre, such as “Cronos” and “Pan’s Labyrinth,” so memorable. When Ron Perelman shows up, as black market dealer in monster body parts, we get a glimpse of what “Pacific Rim” might have been like if del Toro had indulged his quirky sensibility a bit more.
In the end, what struck me about “Pacific Rim” is how little seemed to be at stake. “Gojira,” the original Godzilla movie, is a grim and haunting parable about the horrors of atomic warfare, while “Godzilla vs. Biollante,” hamfisted as it sometimes is, has interesting things to say about genetic engineering and scientists playing God. “Pacific Rim” is simply a cool spectacle. And it isn’t even that cool.
In any case, I recommend hunting down the “Godzilla vs. Biollante” DVD. It’s a lot of fun, and won’t leave you with the same feeling of disappointment and unfulfilled expectations as “Pacific Rim.”
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