Oh Michael Bay, what have you done? Your Transformers movies, atrocious though they are, have earned billions at the box office, and as a result, major studios are now under the impression that the only way to attract audiences and turn a profit is to make movies that do little more than rape the senses. They’ve had another unfortunate side effect; certain filmmakers have come to believe that they shouldn’t require themselves to strive for something better. Your corrupting influence has now extended to Guillermo del Toro, whose latest effort, Pacific Rim, involves giant robots and equally giant monsters getting into cataclysmic fistfights. How disheartening that a director with such a fertile imagination, as evidenced by the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth, convinced himself that he had to sterilize his vision for a soulless packaged product.
Pacific Rim comes about as close as it can get to torture without involving the rack or electrodes. As a cross between a Japanese monster movie and a particularly action-packed video game, it’s ear-splitting, eye-gouging, and head-pounding – a film so visually and aurally aggressive that it’s more of an endurance test than a genuine cinematic experience. Its assault on our sight isn’t at all helped by the process of 3D, the film, like so many others before it, having been converted during postproduction. The ultimate irony is that, because the screening I attended was presented in IMAX, the picture was clear, the colors were bright, and the 3D was noticeably immersive. When I think of the fact that I got a good 3D viewing out of a movie this excruciatingly bad, it makes me want to curl into the fetal position and cry bitter tears of despair.
The entire plot is basically summed up during the opening scenes, at which point the main character, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), provides us with expository voiceover narrations. In the not-too-distant future, an interdimensional rift opens deep in the Pacific Ocean, allowing gigantic monsters to pass into our world and wreak all kinds of havoc for our natural resources. They’re called Kaiju, which is not only the Japanese word for “monster” or “beast” but is also a genre for films such as Godzilla and Mothra; this movie might have qualified had it even attempted to be entertaining. To fight back against the Kaiju, major military factions designed and built a fleet of titanic robots dubbed Jaegers. They’re controlled from within by two pilots, one for the left side and one for the right. Each pilot has to connect not only to the machine but also to each other on a neurological level, which doesn’t make much sense when you first see it and only makes less sense the more you think about it.
Once all this is established, the film is essentially a series of effects-laden fight sequences between monsters and robots. A select few are reserved for cities like Sydney and Hong Kong, both of which get decimated into piles of glass, steel, and concrete. Most, however, take place at night, in the middle of the ocean, and while it’s raining, so anything we think we’re seeing is concealed in deep shadows. Making matters even worse is the fact that most of the fighting is shot in extreme close-ups; when combined with the 3D, you get nothing but frenetic blurs of large-scale motion invading your field of vision. Every fight scene is augmented with Ramin Djawadi’s rock-heavy score, which isn’t played so much as blasted at us. It’s almost as if the filmmakers want everyone in the multiplex to hear it, not just the people that actually pay to see it.
When the film does pause to take a breath, the story and characters are developed on the most overused clichés. Becket, for example, is a hardened Jaeger pilot who harbors emotional scars over the death of his brother, the unfortunate victim of a Kaiju attack. His newest sidekick is a young Japanese woman named Mako (Rinko Kikuchu), who harbors emotional scars of her own; the Kaiju destroyed her family, and she’s now driven by revenge. Revenge, and respect for the man that saved her life when she was a girl, a commanding officer named Pentecost (Idris Elba), a cold and distant father figure who also has history with Becket. And then there’s the comedy relief, which comes in the form of two resident Kaiju scientists. One is played by Charlie Day as a fanboy trapped in an intellectual’s body; he’s obsessed with Kaiju brains and believes that, by linking with one, he can discover the Kaiju master plan. The other is played by Burn Gorman as an eccentric professorial stereotype, walking with a cane and speaking with a stuffy British accent. Someone needed to tell them that providing nonsensical last-minute explanations as if hopped up on caffeine is distracting and unpleasant.
A minor role is reserved for del Toro veteran Ron Perlman, whose character steals Kaiju body parts and sells them on the black market. Apart from an almost exact reenactment of the nose-cutting scene from Chinatown, he contributes virtually nothing of value to Pacific Rim. The same can be said of every actor, who weren’t cast to play roles but merely to be videogame typecasts. Is this what the summer blockbuster has come to? Are we really at a point where engaging characters and interesting premises are sacrificed just so that audiences can gawk at millions of dollars worth of computer generated images? I strongly suspect we wouldn’t be were it not for that damnedable Transformers saga, which has not only deadened the imaginations of moviegoers but has also turned respectable filmmakers into drones. I’ll never forgive you for this, Mr. Bay.