I’m not writing this piece as a straight review of Pacific Rim. Instead I am honestly interested in hearing from other people who have seen the movie. I want to know if they took the same intent away from the film that I did, or if I am reading too much into the motivations of a filmmaker I greatly admire? If you have seen the film and want to discuss it, please read on. If you have not seen the film and plan to, stop reading now because SPOILERS will be littered throughout this piece.
I think Guillermo del Toro is possibly the very best studio director working today. Of course, I use the term “studio director” loosely. The best films (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth) of del Toro’s career have been produced independently in Mexico and Spain. But as a studio director, he has delivered offbeat, personal films in Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army that challenge mainstream conventions and never let the audience get comfortable. The guarantee of a happy ending when del Toro is at the helm is never assumed. Even in the compromised studio edit of Mimic and the paycheck-cashing Blade II, there’s a melancholy feel to the action and carnage that, coupled with a dark sense of humor, signals them as the product of a singular vision and not a studio committee imposing changes designed to appeal to the largest possible audience.
Critics and film geeks have championed del Toro’s films but he has never had a true blockbuster hit. While the Hellboy films have a limited built-in audience, they have done respectably at the box office. Blade II is the biggest hit in the franchise, but it was hardly what anyone would consider a breakthrough film. Oddly enough, Pan’s Labyrinth—possibly his most challenging film—is also his most profitable. A Spanish-language historical-fantasy featuring (SPOILER!) the violent death of its child protagonist becoming an international hit that scored multiple Oscar nominations is surprising enough. That del Toro returned to the studio system for the idiosyncratic, borderline-lunacy of Hellboy II is shocking. I suppose in the mind of studio executives, del Toro became that rarest of filmmakers: a director who could deliver solidly profitable movies while courting awards season voters.
But the honeymoon was short-lived. After several attempts to adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness fell through, the years had passed by and the impressive one-two punch of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II were suddenly in the rearview mirror. Perhaps this is why Pacific Rim seemed to come out of nowhere.
The first I heard about the film was last year, when it was already filming. At first, the promise of del Toro directing a giant monster (or kaiju, if you’re a purist) movie on a mega budget seemed too good to be true. The initial casting announcements (badass Idris Elba as the leader of the human resistance, oddball comedic character actor Charlie Day as an obsessed scientist, Oscar-nominee Rinko Kikuchi as a revenge-seeking jaeger pilot) backed up the idea that this would be far from the traditional studio summer blockbuster. Then the marketing started.
While the trailers and other ads for the film inspired massive amounts of buzz on the Internet among sci-fi and horror film nerds (a term I obviously use as a measure of respect and affection), to general audiences, the film was made to look like a knock-off of the Transformers series. Not having grown up on kaiju or giant robot films, I found myself being turned off by what the studio was trying to sell.
Even with what I considered sub-par marketing, I was able to get excited about the film because of del Toro’s involvement and the eclectic cast. Ignoring the polite, but less-than-enthusiastic reviews, I took the plunge into Pacific Rim and came out very confused.
My confusion has nothing to do with the film’s plot or any other kind of muddled storyline. Frankly, considering the massive amount of backstory and technology that has to be fed to the audience, the film is a miracle of efficient storytelling—even at 130 minutes. Where I get confused is with the tone and what del Toro was going for.
I feel that there are two possibilities at play in Pacific Rim. The first is that the film is intended to be a straight summer blockbuster played for the utmost sincerity. If this was del Toro’s intention, I find the film to be an overall disappointment despite some daring and morbidly funny sequences. The second possibility I see is that del Toro is playing the proceedings with tongue firmly in-cheek. I want to believe this to be the case simply because of the respect I have for the man as a filmmaker.
When I say “tongue-in-cheek,” I’m not trying to imply that the film was intended as a vicious sci-fi satire in the vein of Starship Troopers. My belief is that del Toro was trying to give the studio what it wanted in a traditional blockbuster, including the conventions that normally make me cringe. But at the same time, winking at those conventions by heightening them just enough to make them border on parody. I’m referring to things like (SERIOUSLY, SPOILERS AHEAD) the excessively wooden lead performance by Charlie Hunnam, the occasionally groan-worthy dialogue sprinkled through with bad one-liners, chaotic action sequences where it’s hard to tell what’s happening, the forced possible romance between two characters with no chemistry, the grandiose rally speech delivered with a little too much relish by Elba, and the compromised ending where the heroes save the day yet manage to miraculously avoid certain death because the audience doesn’t want to leave the theater on a bummer.
I want to believe that a filmmaker of del Toro’s ability recognizes these clichéd elements and is having fun with them. Where my argument for this being the case breaks down is in the film’s moments of heartfelt sincerity not touched by irony (Mako’s flashback to her childhood), scenes of outlandish weirdness and horror (the kaiju birth followed immediately by its strangulation death), and the comic-relief sequences featuring Day, Burn Gorman as another unhinged scientist, and Ron Perlman as a blowhard black market dealer in kaiju body parts. All of these sequences bear the traditional del Toro touch of horror, surrealism, and dark comedy that veers into heartlessness. Oddly, despite how good these scenes are and how much they stick out in my mind, they feel out of place in the film. Why is this?
The answer may be that I’m wrong about del Toro playing the blockbuster elements with a wink. Maybe this is his attempt to “play ball’ with the studios? If so, the results are tonally muddled and make for the least satisfying del Toro film since the theatrical cut of Mimic. If this is the case, the film’s disappointing domestic box office numbers are made even sadder because there’s nothing worse than seeing a talented filmmaker fail financially when “selling out.”
I don’t mean to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy the film. I actually had a lot of fun with it. But at this point, del Toro’s name as a writer/director heightens my expectations beyond simple summer blockbuster fare. Is it unfair to hold him to a higher standard and criticize him for things I would ignore from a lesser director? I suppose it is. Maybe this is why I’m clinging to the idea that he tried to have it both ways with Pacific Rim, playing it for both sincerity and irony. That shows me ambition beyond just another action-adventure flick and lets me enjoy the film that much more.
I’m serious about wanting to hear from others who have seen the film. Let me know what you believe del Toro’s intentions were by leaving a comment below, tweeting (God, I hate that term) me here, or e-mailing me at email@example.com.
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