Some kids like to play with their monster and robot toys in the bathtub. Guillermo del Toro uses a nearly $200 million budget, loads of CGI, a beefcake cast and just about every other blockbuster movie convention to play with his.
His film, "Pacific Rim," is visually stunning – almost overwhelmingly so. Young and young-at-heart will equally gawk at Del Toro's toys, while he makes full use of 3-D capabilities (a rarity) with rain soaked battles and industrial wreckage immersing the audience.
But for all its visual appeal, "Pacific Rim" is thematically shallow. About a wave of gigantic reptilian creatures called "kaiju" that emerge from the sea to wreak death and destruction, and the colossal robots, called "jaegers," built to defeat them, del Toro uses a lackluster plot to deliver his bigger-than-life execution, when it should be the other way around. As enormous and indestructible as del Toro's toys may be, "Pacific Rim" feels a little flimsy.
With its initial setup, "Pacific Rim" hints at what could be an interesting exploration: the blasé nature by which humans treat their biggest threat. "We mourned our dead, memorialized the attack and moved on," we are told of early kaiju assaults, until the international community comes together to build the jaegers, which is German for "hunters," that can defeat the monster. Not surprisingly, they get cocky in the process.
But the monsters – categorized like hurricanes – begin to evolve, growing larger and more destructive, resisting the human defenses and attacking at an alarmingly exponential rate. This all suggests some parallels to global warming; and there are a few throwaway lines hinting that humans are partially to blame for the kaijus' rise. However, "Pacific Rim" never really feels like a parable of human recklessness. Rather, its apocalypse is halted by the simple, familiar blend of bravery and brazenness.
The film gets some emotional resonance from the familial relationships that frame the plot, as the jaegers are operated internally by two deeply bonded pilots who must literally meld minds to control the machines. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), our hero, starts "Pacific Rim" piloting jaegers with his brother (Diego Klattenhoff) only to lose him in a battle with a kaiju. The film continues in this vein with a troubled father-son Jaeger team (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky), as well as the relationship between the program leader, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and his adopted daughter, an eager, green jaeger operator named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who also vaguely serves as Becket's love interest.
But for the most part, the characters are a little flat. Beckman is a disposable hero. He lacks the charisma of Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man, the intrigue of Christian Bale's Batman or the vulnerability of Henry Cavill's Superman. Mako is almost as dull, her character's most memorable moment is not performed by Kikuchi, but rather her child stand-in (Mana Ashida), in a memory from Mako's youth.
The performances of the two patriarchs – Stacker and Herc Hansen (Max Martini), the father in the father-son jaeger team – overshadow the film's leads. As does the film's colorful, if not clichéd, side characters: Dr. Newton Geiszler and Gottlieb (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), the ying and yang of a mad scientist duo, and the wily, kaiju blackmarket kingpin (Ron Perlman) who helps the researchers understand the monsters.
The world ravaged by sea monsters del Toro creates is fascinating. Black market scum scavenge dead kaiju corpses, picking them down to their lice in order to traffic their body parts. The monsters inspire a fetishism among their human prey, with kids playing with their action figures, nerds who get them tattooed to their arms and worshippers who treat them like gods. And there are the geopolitical tensions when the humans' defenses to the kaiju falter. "We aren't the army, we're the resistance," Stacker tells Raleigh, who he brings aboard to launch one final assault.
Del Toro borrows from a variety of sources: Japanese Kaiju films like "Godzilla" (where del Toro gets the name for his monsters); video game simulations (the pilots might as well be operating one, giant real-life dual player video game); and even Michael Bay's "Transformers" film, which lend the jaegers their form. And he treats both his monsters and his robots with a childlike wonder.
"Pacific Rim" is the type of film that will entertain you while you're watching it, but won't have you thinking much about it after. You can give a boy – or in this case, a director – some big, shiny toys to play with. Just don't expect him to leave an impression.