Anyone old enough to remember the popular 1960s Japanese TV series in which Ultraman towers over cityscapes waging battles with gigantic monsters? This latest blockbuster from Mexican writer-director Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth and the two Hellboy movies) is a sure way to make adults regress instantaneously to their long-lost childhoods.
Of course, the visual effects in Pacific Rim (PG13, 131 minutes) have improved by leaps and bounds, when compared to what was on display in those primeval days. Gone are the fake-looking spray-painted monster costumes of the past. Enter awe-inspiring giant robots and equally imposing monsters of different shapes and levels of size and strength, brought to life through CGI wizardry. To sum up what this film is all about, you only need to think: Transformers meet Godzilla.
Okay, the giant robots here don’t really “transform” from vehicles, but they do impress with high-tech weaponry and countless moving parts. Del Toro obviously draws inspiration from Japanese monster flicks, since he uses Kaiju (a Japanese word that literally means “strange creature”) to refer to alien monsters invading Earth after emerging from their unknown universe via a portal under the Pacific Ocean. Coastal cities around the Pacific Rim – like Sydney, San Francisco, Hong Kong and Tokyo – are under threat in this near-future, but fortunately different nations have pulled their weight together to establish a fleet of robots called Jaegers to combat the monsters.
Del Toro and his co-screenwriter Travis Beacham (Clash of the Titans) have tried to inject further complexity into the equation by dictating that the robots have to be controlled by two human pilots whose minds are connected via a neural link. So we see Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) and onscreen love interest, Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), tapping into each other’s memories, as they jointly pilot their robot to fend off monster attacks. The psychological effects of such a union could have been exploited further, but aren’t.
And then, in a more preposterous turn, scientists-cum-comic-relief, played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, get to fuse their brains with the significantly larger one of a Kaiju so as to unlock the mystery of what these aliens want and why they have decided to visit Earth in the first place. This is an all-too-convenient way to resolve the story, by giving the humans an upper hand.
If you haven’t sense the line of criticism coming, what I’m trying to say is that the action and visual effects are great. But the script, in terms of story development and characterisation, is sorely lacking. One would have expected more from Del Toro, but while this blockbuster is loud and dazzling to behold in 3-D, the racket doesn’t mask the fact that it’s simply rehashing elements of past films – from Independence Day (watch Idris Elba, in his role as the Jaegers’ commanding officer, deliver a rousing speech!) to Real Steel – without really mustering anything truly innovative.
One noteworthy feature here is that there are no marquee stars to headline this sci-fi action-adventure. And while Kikuchi does her best in her limited role and Ron Perlman enjoys a show-stealing supporting role, Hunnam – as buffed as he is in terms of physique – unfortunately doesn’t leave much of an impression. Still, if it’s mindless robots-versus-monsters action you crave, watching parts of Hong Kong get reduced to sites of mass destruction could well numb you enough to forgive the flaws.
Text by: Dexter Yong
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