Creature Discomfort: Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) – cinema review
Robots vs monsters: what’s not to love? Well, when a talented director ends up crushed under the melee, perhaps it’s not such a good thing.
(Guillermo Del Toro, 2013)
Before Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro was shaping up to be the last of the great visionaries – a throwback to the days when the likes of Terry Gilliam or Jean-Pierre Jeunet allowed boundless visual imagination to be shaped by playfulness and personality. A regular career happily eluded Del Toro: he’d been burnt by Hollywood early on, with Mimic, and so beat his own path, putting his stamp on unlikely franchises (Blade 2, the Hellboy duo) and alternating with personal statements in his native language that married art-house heft to deeply-drawn genre flourishes – Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and, most famously, Pan’s Labyrinth.
And then he nearly directed The Hobbit but didn’t, while his dream project, an adaptation of Lovecraft’s At The Mountains Of Madness, fell through. Was Del Toro too weird for mainstream success? Pacific Rim is an answer of sorts, because Del Toro has responded by making a big tentpole blockbuster, as if to prove he could make a Hollywood-style picture on his terms. Pacific Rim is certainly big – nay huge, an epic canvas on which to place his perennial concerns: weird creatures, human/tech interfaces, serio-comic Hawksian groups of underdog fighters.
So why doesn’t it really feel like a Del Toro movie? For the most part, Pacific Rim is content to be the film its high-concept hints it will be – giant robots fight giant monsters – without the leavening graces of wit or subversion that made the Hellboy films so refreshing amidst the po-faced A-list superheroes. The film isn’t entirely serious, and Del Toro’s unabashed enthusiasm for his genre shines through, but the result feels as if he’s muted his instincts. Note that a director hitherto known for siding with the freaks is surprisingly happy to let the marauding attackers be a gestalt ‘other’; for once, he’s made a film about humans, and it isn’t an easy fit.
The film is odd right from the start, fast-forwarding through a convoluted backstory to reach the true beginning of hero Raleigh’s narrative. This is misconceived storytelling and sloppy world-building from the guy who drew us into Hellboy’s weirdness and Pan’s Labyrinth’s mythos. For some reason, the basic premise – monsters rise from the ocean depths; mankind builds exo-suits to fight them – isn’t deemed strong enough for a new movie. Instead, Pacific Rim is set several years later, at the point where humanity thinks we’ve defeated the creatures only to discover they have rallied and adapted and taking the fight up a notch.
It’s as if Del Toro has pre-empted the box office pundits who say that an original, stand-alone movie on this scale won’t sell. The opening act feels like an attempt to trick us into thinking we’re watching a pre-existing property (which is frankly unnecessary, given that the whole thing is a high-tech update of Godzilla and old Ray Harryhausen creature features). The trouble is, the story has to jump through hoops to justify being Act 2 in the humans vs Kaijus war, with characters waiting 20-odd years to come up with strategies to defeat the monsters that ought really to have been attempted from the start. The upshot? It feels like Del Toro is making the bad sequel to a great original that we’ve never seen.
The bigger problem, though, is of tone and texture. Del Toro’s classics had the tactile quality that came from organic prosthetics and costumes; here, by necessity, the big clashes are all-CGI affairs, as near to Transformers as makes no odds. Yes, the design of the creatures is pure Del Toro, and the film doesn’t stint on awe (a robotbut digitally rendered their distinctiveness gets lost. Del Toro isn’t a digital filmmaker by instinct, and when the plot actively makes a virtue of one of the exo-suits being an analogue model surviving in a digital world, you suspect Del Toro would agree with that wistful assessement. Trouble is, there’s not enough analogue to do the surviving.
That leaves everything resting on the tone, yet Del Toro seems reluctant to follow through on his temperament to make a film that needs to be jubilant and swashbuckling. He makes one great decision, to turn the resistance into a genuinely international group that avoids any trace of Michael Bay militarism… and yet the training sequences are marred by sub-Top Gun rivalry between Raleigh and a bolshy Aussie. Against that, there are the terrible, slapstick performances from Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as ‘comic sidekick’ scientists easily as teeth-grinding as the worst excesses of the Transformers films. In Hellboy, Del Toro’s fondness for overplaying worked because the entire film was in an anarchic register, but here there is only a staccato back-and-forth between the actors because no two are on the same page: Idris Elba growls and glowers as if he’s Henry V at Agincourt, leaving Rinko Kikuchi’s nimble underplaying alone to nail the live-action manga this might have been.