Expectations should always be fairly matched up with what has been delivered or what is conceivably deliverable. If you order the ham sandwich and are expecting the taste of steak, that is your fault, not the fault of the ham sandwich which could be thoroughly satisfying on its own terms. Regardless of high budgets, which are frankly long past obscene now, if you are expecting high art from pop art, or vice versa, that is not the fault of the product but the demands you have yourself put upon it.
And so is the case of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a new stab at the big, marauding monster genre except this time with a bit of a twist. Battling the “kaiju” (literally Japanese for “monster”) are another staple of Japanese pop culture, the giant robot. Think Robotech, Shogun Warriors, or Voltron against Godzilla and Rodan and you’re on the right track. From this vantage point you should not be expecting major concepts and big ideas disguised as super-sized rock-em-sock-em, because that’s what you don’t end up with.
You do end up with a lot of the pro forma plot points — the pilot of the giant mecha (known here as “Jaegers”) who has something to prove and a vengeance trip to boot; the new recruit who needs to prove worth before the hardened but desperate veterans — none of which is altogether new. But again, you’re looking for steak when this is clearly a ham sandwich. That insistence stems largely from Del Toro’s involvement. He is much like Peter Jackson in that he comes from a highly populist style of filmmaking but has managed to integrate an artfulness into horror/fantasy cadences. It is kind of funny to consider that Del Toro possibly bolted out of The Hobbit to make Pacific Rim, and was that a good decision for either production’s sake?
But in the mindset of big robots vs. big monsters the question persists: does it fulfill its purpose? I suppose it does. You get wrapped up in the movie when it is on and, true to Del Toro’s own explanation of the film, it is like wrestling or lucha libre. You’re watching two bigger than life creatures go head-to-head, with cities, oceans, and the skies as the squared circle that they throw down inside of. Individual character motivations, while nice to have if just to have something to hang two hours upon, don’t get you to why you’re here. On that count, Pacific Rim succeeds. It is super-saturated colors and hyperkinetic action and mindless destruction, all candy-coated for easy consumption.
If you stare at it too long, however, you start to feel differently about it. Everything moves a little too fast. You never get that moment where you can just stare at the world sprawled out before you and drink it up. Things are too busy being crushed and crumbled for viewers to learn to care about it. Other movies with deep colors and wild effects, like Tron or Blade Runner for examples, gave you a little time to absorb all of it and then move on to whatever combat must follow. Pacific Rim seems too preoccupied with throwing it at the camera than putting you in the scene.
And don’t think for a minute that I’m speaking of these from the perspective of an outsider. As a kid, I was totally wrapped up in the ethos of the big monster flicks which played each afternoon on the local TV station. I watched Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidora, the Gargantuas…I knew intellectually that these were men in suits and I accepted that easily. Del Toro’s beasts are clearly not that, but the cities are not lovingly hand-made miniatures. The ocean isn’t a massive wave pool built on the back lot. It’s all spat out from a computer, and even though what is purged is pretty cool in the moment, it is more video-game cut scene than a movie. It can be easily appreciated as such, but it is difficult to compare the movie-movie with the CG-movie. They are two different entertainments.
The original Godzilla had the benefit of actually being about something, and about the manifestation of the then nuclear threat made real in a humanoid form. It is far deeper than any of the sequels and spinoffs Toho Studios would later release, but all of them had a warmth to them that Pacific Rim lacks. The film is great to show off your big TV and your hi-def streaming get up or Blu-ray device. It’s a total boys-with-toys kind of geek fest, and as far as that goes, you’ll have a good time, but if you expect the steak you’re only kidding yourself.