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‘Pacific Rim’ Review

Pacific Rim Review
Warner Bros.

As basically a three-word genre mash-up — monsters vs. robots — the announcement that Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures were making ‘Pacific Rim‘ didn’t really need to offer much more than just that siren-song simple idea. But it did, promising a big canvas for a big talent, the director Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro isn’t a household name — unless you live in Austin — but he’s the outsized outsider genius behind movies like ‘Hellboy’ and ‘Blade 2′ as well as films like ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ and ‘The Devil’s Backbone.’ And while counting down to ‘Pacific Rim,’ I had the feeling that while it was nice to have someone spending $200 million to make what my inner 12-year-old would no doubt consider the perfect summer movie, my adult self couldn’t help but be suspicious of anyone who’d spend that much money on a pre-teen’s idea of the perfect summer movie.

Starting in a remarkably near future sometime in the next week or so, a multi-dimensional rift opens up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, with giant monsters tumbling out of it and then destroying cities in widescreen orgies of destruction. Instead of just hosing a few dozen high-explosive drones or Tomahawk nuclear missiles up the noses of these beasts, though, it seems that humanity’s smartest defense plan is building large, human-shaped robots to battle and mix it up with these invading creatures.

Inspired by the strain of Japanese monster movies where guys in foam reptile suits or cardboard-and-tin robot outfits would grapple over a tiny cardboard cityscape, ‘Pacific Rim’ replaces the guys in suits with millions of dollars of computer effects. While the end result looks much better, I’m sorry to report it’s just as silly; worse, Del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham seem dead set on not giving us even the smallest fingerhold for our suspension of disbelief.

The heroics of the film involve a lot of Screenwriting 101 clunkers — Charlie Hunnam used to be a robot pilot but his brother died; Rinko Kikuchi wants to be a robot pilot to avenge her family; Idris Elba leads the anti-monster robot program, with his most substantive qualification apparently being that with his baritone he can make even this script sound good. ‘Pacific Rim’ isn’t a story that has cool ideas and visions in it; it’s cool ideas and visions, with a story reverse-engineered from that.

The cinematography, effects and design work are all superlative, and Del Toro’s eye for the bizarre still makes it through the film’s monsters and designs. In a phrase you could apply to almost every blockbuster this year, ‘Pacific Rim’ is technically accomplished; the better question is what, exactly, it’s trying to accomplish in the first place. ‘Pacific Rim’ is goofy and unique and brash, but I can see it enduring as a cautionary tale about blockbuster spending far more easily than I can see it enduring as a classic piece of entertainment.

The fights between the robots and the monsters are eventually indistinguishable, and the physics and physicality of these colossal combatants looks bad on dry land and worse in the water. The gaps in scale and strangeness between the human characters and the robotic and monstrous combatants are almost insurmountable; there’s no connection between the human characters and the action when giant robots put chokeholds on morbidly obese city-devouring nightmares. It’s been dismissively said that some modern action films are like watching a videogame. ‘Pacific Rim,’ with its techno-fetishism for robotics, is even worse than that; as Hunnam and Kikuchi fiercely stab at the controls of their ‘Plasma Gun,’ it’s like watching someone else play a videogame, and not even a very fun one.

Like ‘The 5th Element,’ ‘Pacific Rim’ is exuberant, excessive, repressive … and clearly pitched at (and possibly created by) 12-year-old boys. Like ‘Avatar,’ it pushes the envelope in terms of technique, but also like ‘Avatar’ the envelope itself is completely empty. Like ‘The Matrix,’ it shamelessly borrows from the pop canon to make a symphony of clichés and signifiers, but unlike ‘The Matrix,’ ‘Pacific Rim’ is bloodless, sexless and not even remotely interested in human life in the modern age. (There’s a quick joke about a useless anti-monster wall — Monster Border Security is going to be a big growth field in the future, apparently — but if it’s an immigration-policy gag, who can say?)

‘Pacific Rim’ is half robot, in that it has a shiny high-tech sheen and a million moving parts; it’s also part monster, with bulk and bombast and roaring destruction. And that leaves no room for people or characters or anything other than the next fight, at night, in the rain. ‘Pacific Rim’ opens in theaters on July 12.

James Rocchi is a columnist for MSN Movies and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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