PACIFIC RIM is a film that would have melted my brain at 10, but doesn’t quite meet my expectations at 26.

We can either sit here and do nothing or grab those flare guns and do something really stupid.

–Herc Hansen

When it was announced, prevailing wisdom was that there was no way this wasn’t going to be awesome. Director Guillermo del Toro, the visionary responsible for Pan’s Labyrinth, the underrated Hellboy films, and other assorted weirdness, wanted to tap into our childhood fantasies and give us something on a truly massive scale, beyond anything we could even dream up. GIANT ROBOTS. Fighting GIANT ALIENS. Paying homage to the classic Japanese monster flicks of the past, with a bit of Transformers thrown in. If it came out in the ’80s or ’90s, the action figures would be flying off the shelves.

And as far as sheer visual spectacle goes, it lives up to the hype and then some. The battles are impressive, the creature design is incredibly inventive, and there’s just so much creativity thrown up on the screen — seriously, being in del Toro’s brain must be something like being a Time Lord — that you can’t help but applaud the effort. And yet…if you’re looking for something with three-dimensional characters and story that engages beyond “save the world,” this isn’t it.

Not that he doesn’t put effort into that, too. The mythology is clever: a portal to another dimension, “the Breach,” has opened at the bottom of the ocean, and Kaiju — great beasts — are coming through to wreak massive destruction. After the first few attacks, the world pools its resources and builds Jaegers, robot suits the size of skyscrapers, to be controlled by a pair of operators from the inside. There’s a lot of plausible pseudo-science at work: the two Jaeger pilots neurally plug into “the Drift,” which allows them to tap into each others brains (and memories) to each control one hemisphere of the suit in perfect synchronicity.

This works for a while, but eventually theĀ kaiju get bigger and start showing up more and more frequently. The Jaegers begin to lose, and the program is about to be shuttered while humanity instead throws its money at a coastal wall that will almost certainly not be good enough. The ridiculously-named commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) has a plan to end it once and for all, but first must gather all the remaining Jaegers and pilots, of which there are only a handful. One pilot, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), lost his brother during an attack and isn’t eager to share that memory or go through it again — but if they’re all going to die, he’d “rather die in a Jaeger,” so things get set in motion for a final showdown of sorts.

The three leads — Elba, Hunnam, and Rinko Kikuchi as the brilliant but shell-shocked co-pilot Mako, out for revenge — are solid if fairly by-the-numbers. However, the supporting cast pushes the typical del Toro quirk almost to the breaking point. There’s a hotheaded Australian pilot that doesn’t evolve past that single adjective, and a pair of scientists (Charlie Day & Burn Gorman) who are so manic and unpleasant to each other they’re just not nearly as funny or likable as they think they are. Day’s character in particular makes so many bad decisions, and behaves so unrealistically in the face of peril, that it almost seems like del Toro originally planned to make him a villain and changed his mind in the final draft. (Rumors are that should the film get a sequel — possible only because of its foreign box office numbers — he could in fact be the villain, so there’s that.)

All of that pales to the incredible WTF-ness of del Toro’s lucky charm, Ron Perlman — as black market kingpin “Hannibal Chau” — who has such bizarre mannerisms and line readings, you don’t realize on first viewing that his character turns out to have almost no bearing on the plot whatsoever. Day’s scientist gets what he needs without Chau’s help, so there’s essentially no reason for the guy to exist except to simply delay the plot, or because del Toro just wanted to give Perlman something to do. The attempts at humor are unfortunately awkward, and tap the brakes on the narrative when it should be speeding up.

Another minor disappointment is Ramin Djawadi’s thoroughly unmemorable score. He’s done fantastic work with HBO’s Game of Thrones, but the themes are uninspired in both melody and instrumentation, and feel like an imitation of Hans Zimmer’s worst impulses. A great soundtrack would have helped fill in where the script and performances were lacking, but it’s clear that most of del Toro’s attention was on the robots and monsters, not the human elements.

Thankfully, the final half-hour is worth the ticket. The climactic battles are spectacular, with a series of character payoffs that approximates something like real emotion (though the “we are cancelling the apocalypse” tagline smacks of a screenwriter throwing darts at a wall). It’s satisfying both on a visual and narrative level, and surprisingly ends in a way to leave you wanting more, even after 131 minutes. The film as a whole, as mentioned already, is technically brilliant — the CGI is incredibly detailed, and the kaiju just look awesome — and the fights are “shot” with clear geography and movement, so it’s a much better viewing experience than whatever Michael Bay does (I call it “rocks in a tumble dryer for 2 1/2 hours.”)

Pacific Rim is certainly the work of an auteur, as del Toro gives us exactly the film he wanted to make — and for 75% of its run time, that’s more than good enough. It’s that remaining 25% that shows his limitations as a storyteller, which is unfortunate because when it comes to creature design, art direction, and the technical categories, he’s at the top of the class (alongside Alfonso Cuaron, James Cameron, and Peter Jackson). It’s a thoroughly entertaining film, but I didn’t want it to be this mindless.

Grade: B

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