We enter the multiplex auditorium and immediately feel the crunch of popcorn under foot — a heap of the stuff, spilled on the carpet. “My God, a child has exploded,” says the guy behind us.
As a pedant, the bit of Guillermo Del Toro’s PACIFIC RIM which I did not enjoy, was hearing Idris Elba say that he would die if he “stepped foot” inside one of those giant walk-robots again. This particular language-mangling is one which seems to have gained ground since I first heard it in a hair product ad ten years or so ago (how does one “step foot”? Did Johnny Eck “step hand”? I think the phrase for which Del Toro and his drift partner / co-writer Travis Beacham are grasping is “set foot,” a phrase which has the advantage that, when you think about it, it actually makes sense) and I’m not sure how it can be exterminated. Perhaps the linguistic equivalent of a plasmacaster could do it. Or an Idris Elba elbow rocket.
If the film’s grammar is faulty, its look is very nice indeed, with a lot of intense coloured light, neon etc, filtered and softened through water haze — a bit like wearing the old anaglyph 3D red-blue glasses to go swimming (what? I’m the only one to have done this?). Despite having written about giant monster movies quite a bit, I’ve never been entirely convinced that there was a way to make a really good one, the first KING KONG still being, in my opinion, the only conspicuous triumph in eighty years of kaiju kinema. PACIFIC RIM’s main achievement is to suggest that such a film, further down the line, might be possible. I don;t think this is it, but it comes closer than the likes of Michael Bay could ever dream.
Del Toro is striving to be mainstream here, which is a potentially depressing thing to see any filmmaker do, especially one who shouldn’t need to struggle to be immensely popular. I’m convinced that his HOBBIT or his AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS would have been more interesting and probably more box office than this. As it is, his disinterest in his leading character (who has no grotesque quirks or illnesses and isn’t a child) is palpable, with Charlie Hunnam fairing worse than similar Brit-with-a-US-accent Rupert Evans in HELLBOY (a character brutally excised from the sequel with a dismissive two-line dialogue exchange). Rinko Kikuchi (memorable as Bang Bang in THE BROTHERS BLOOM) is rather delightful as his opposite number, but her child version in flashback, tiny Mana Ashida, creates the film’s only real emotion.
Ron Perlman and Charlie Day are fun. Burn Gorman, who gets a lot of work by looking like a Skull Island rat monkey, or like Lee Evans with third-degree burns, overacts rather badly. The human dimension is very cartoony, and while I don’t necessarily say that characters with names like Stacker Pentecost and Hercules Hansen are foredoomed to be one-dimensional comic strip figures (I picture a one-dimensional comic-strip figure as resembling a single dot from a Roy Lichtenstein blow-up), the figures declaiming lines like “The apocalypse is cancelled!” do not consistently transcend the emotional sophistication of the Mattel toy.
BUT — I don’t think any of that would necessarily spoil the pleasure of anybody who already thinks that giant robots fighting giant lizards is a good idea for a movie. I do think it was a mistake to set the final battle underwater, thus losing the sense of scale of the earlier urban punch-up, which is more spectacular, more inventive, and not hampered by the drag effect of water. Underwater battles are ALWAYS dullsville, surely? Remember THUNDERBALL? It took a lot of effort to make something that dull. Del Toro’s deep-sea donnybrook is more exciting than that, but it’s weaker than what has gone before.
I remember learning, to my surprise, from a female anime fan in Leytonstone, that female anime fans really like big robot stories — the idea of piloting a big robot appeals to some untapped female primal urge — and I worry that by making his robots team-driven, the most interesting idea at play in PACIFIC RIM, Del Toro and Beacham may have negated the wish-fulfillment fantasy of having a giant steel carapace.
Maybe it’s time I watched PATLABOR again.
A shame the movie doesn’t use the term “waldos” — Robert Heinlein invented the term in a science fiction story and it became an accepted name for “remote manipulators” (machines which mimic the movement of a real human limb at a distance) when they were eventually invented. But the film does use the expression “Double Event,” borrowed from Jack the Ripper studies — Del Toro is a keen Ripperologist and no doubt liked the strange, mythic import of the words.