Comedies with chimps. Age-switching. Movies named after popular songs. Any script featuring more than three writers.
There are a number of historically accurate tells when it comes to bad movies, and one of them is the extended prologue: the theory goes that any story which requires that much setup is by definition unwieldy. There are of course exceptions when your source material is already well established (Fellowship of the Ring) or when you’re creating your own fake metamythology (the retroactively titled A New Hope). By and large, however, it means you’re taking on too much.
Pacific Rim is by no means a bad film; in fact, it’s fitfully entertaining. Director Guillermo del Toro knows all about mythology, which may be why he opened this failed blockbuster with 10 minutes of needless exposition. Really, he could have just titled it Voltron vs. Gaos, because this original franchise — that’s right, Hollywood still makes those — is just an attempt to combine and simultaneously update the Japanese kaiju and mecha genres, blowing them up to Michael Bay size. But del Toro specifically wanted to sell kids, who presumably haven’t seen examples of either, on the mythology. Which is also why the prologue is followed by one badass action sequence. The title card takes 20 minutes to show up.
In a world where blockbusters routinely stomp all over other forms of cinematic achievement, it’s a relief to know that someone can do Michael Bay better than Michael Bay can. But the disappointing box office for this movie echoes audiences’ desire to have someone replace him, not emulate him. We wanted the visionary director of more recent triumphs like Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboys, not the workmanlike del Toro of Mimic and Blade II. Pacific Rim isn’t cheesy like Transformers or the legendarily silly Godzilla reboot, but it somehow manages to ring just as hollow.
As you no doubt know already from the monster-size hype, this crossbreeding revolves around skyscraper-size robot warriors populated by two hotshot pilots, each controlling one side of the humanoid’s computer brain and working in unison. These bots seek out the giant array of enormous mutated sea creatures wriggling out from beneath Earth’s ocean floor. Mayhem ensues. But the humans are flawed: our two heroes are crippled by their past, one traumatized by the loss of a former partner and one by her childhood experience being hunted down by the damn things. The latter is one of the best things in Rim, a wonderful flashback that can’t help but evoke memories of the similar little-girl distress in Pan’s Labyrinth.
This time around, however, the celebrated director/novelist isn’t bringing his own mythology to life, nor is he working with the outsize personality of a Ron Perlman (when he does show up in a bit part later on, he threatens to take the whole movie with him). The only real personality that gets a lot of screen time is the terminally underutilized Charlie Day as a combination scientist/fanboy who literally wants to get inside the mind of the enemy. When he does, he sets up a clever third-act twist, but by then the overlong emotional setups — about an hour between action scenes — have terminally crippled the pace; even a truly amazing stratospheric showdown can’t save it.
Del Toro gets major points for not talking down to its audience the way most sci-fi blockbusters do, but his reliance on the most hoary of tentpole tropes — the tortured Top Gun meets Starship Troopers military drama, the nerd scientists as comedy relief, the requisite Independence Day last-best-hope-for-humanity speech — is still blandly familiar. Pacific Rim’s emotions, noble as they may be, are rarely in touch with its technology. Ironically, the two sides of its brain also have trouble working together.