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(2013) (Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba) (PG-13)

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Sci-Fi/Action: Desperate to ward off a monster invasion, humans operate gigantic robots to battle the invaders.
It's the year 2020 and Earthlings have been waging a seven-year war against the Kaiju, gargantuan monsters that have traveled to Earth via a dimensional space portal deep beneath the sea. To best battle the invaders, the humans have created equally enormous and weaponized robots known as Jaegers that are operated from the inside by two human pilots.

With their memories and consciousness melded together by onboard hardware, the pilots are able to control the massive robots, and two of the best pilots are brothers Yancy (DIEGO KLATTENHOFF) and Raleigh Becket (CHARLIE HUNNAM). But the Kaiju are adapting to their tactics as well as evolving, and a battle between the Beckets and one of the beasts ends tragically.

Five years later, the Jaeger program -- run by former pilot Stacker Pentecost (IDRIS ELBA) -- is being shut down. With the entire fleet of Jaegers moved to Hong Kong, and most of the pilots now dead, Stacker reaches out to Raleigh who's now a welder in Alaska working on a massive wall designed to keep the Kaiju at bay. Due to his past loss, Raleigh is reluctant to rejoin the program but eventually does so and is reunited with fight ops controller Tendo Choi (CLIFTON COLLINS, JR.) as well as pilot coordinator Mako Mori (RINKO KIKUCHI).

He also meets what's left of Stacker's research crew, namely Dr. Newton Geiszler (CHARLIE DAY) who believes doing a mind meld with the brain of a Kaiju might lead to clues necessary to defeat them, while Herman Gottlieb (BURN GORMAN) is more concerned with the increasing likelihood that more than one Kaiju at a time might pass through the inter-dimensional portal very soon.

As Newtown is sent off to meet Kaiju black marketeer Hannibal Chau (RON PERLMAN), Stacker focuses on Herman's theory and thus plans on sending father-son pilots Herc Hansen (MAX MARTINI) and Chuck Hansen (ROB KAZINSKY) to destroy the portal. But he needs other pilots to provide defense, with Raleigh wanting Mako to join him as his co-pilot. With time running out and increasingly larger Kaiju coming through the portal, the humans do what they can to battle the invaders and shut off their access to Earth.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Upon first setting sight on the movie trailer for "Pacific Rim" several months ago, all I could think was why they didn't just call it "Transformers vs. Godzilla." After all, it featured reptilian behemoths coming from beneath the sea to lay waste to coastal cities, as well as building-sized robots fighting them, all resulting in rock 'em, sock 'em action and scads of resultant property damage.

The answer, of course, is that while Godzilla is well-known as something of a cultural icon, he's never been a big box office draw (although the big guy is getting rebooted despite the "middling" box office returns of the 1998 version). Certainly not as huge as the films featuring shape shifting bots that director Michael Bay has steered into an incredibly lucrative franchise (more than $2.6 billion worldwide), with installment number four scheduled for release next year.

Having just seen this film, a slightly more accurate description would be "20 Million Miles to Earth" (the 1950s Ray Harryhausen monster from Venus flick) meets "Real Steel" (the Hugh Jackman boxing robots movie) by way of most any Japanese monster movie ("Godzilla," "Mothra," etc.) from decades ago. What makes it more interesting than its description but also somewhat disappointing in retrospect is that it's helmed by Guillermo del Toro.

While the average moviegoer won't recognize the name, he helmed the two "Hellboy" pics as well as "Blade 2," but also the creepy "The Devil's Backbone" and his masterpiece, 2006's "Pan's Labyrinth." Thusly, upon taking my seat at our press screening, I wondered what sort of hypnotic storytelling elements from those two superb films he might bring to his latest work.

Alas, and aside from a particularly effective flashback memory sequence, it's not much. Working from a script he co-penned with scribe Travis Beacham, the filmmaker has delivered exactly what the trailers promised months ago -- robots battling monsters on an epic scale. If that's your cup of cinematic tea and you enjoy witnessing several hundred foot tall opponents beating the stuffing out of each other while also making insurance agents' sweating from all the damaged buildings and cars, you might just enjoy what's served up here.

To be completely transparent, the film should have worked better for me. After all, the very first movie I begged to see was "Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster" (when I was 7-years-old) and I couldn't get enough of that and all of the other campy monster movies that Toho pumped out back in my formative years. And like those flicks, this extraterrestrial invasion story has its beasts actually emerging from the sea, Godzilla style, via an undersea portal that connects our world with that of the attackers.

But all we really end up getting is one brutal fight after another, following the trend of comic book adaptations featuring one pummeling after another. A little of that actually goes fairly far. Yet, del Toro and his special effects crew keep piling on the battle sequences to the point that not only do they become repetitive, but they also lose their mindless popcorn entertainment effectiveness.

Thus, what could have been a building anticipation toward a climactic battle becomes a ho-hum, been there, seen that experience. And to make matters worse, all of the money that went into the large-scale special effects is often squandered by dimly lit locales and quick editing that often render the action partially muddled.

It doesn't help that we know next to nothing about the protagonist (Charlie Hunnam) beyond the fact that he lost his brother and co-pilot during the first battle sequence. You see, two people are required to operate the robots from inside them, a somewhat unbelievable requirement considering the rest of the involved technology and future time setting of the story. And don't get me started on why the affected countries didn't simply move their populations away from the coastline and thus out of immediate danger.

Far more interesting is a character (played by Rinko Kikuchi) who shows up well into the story as a pilot coordinator who wants to become a full-fledged robot operator. While that part of the character isn't anything novel or particularly interesting, the aforementioned flashback sequence -- that features her as a child, alone in a decimated city and terrorized by one of the monstrous monsters -- is the highlight of the film. It also reminds us of what del Toro is capable of doing when the special effects, while still present, take a backseat to memorable storytelling. Unfortunately, that scene only plays out for a few moments, although it provides some context for her character and the commanding officer played by Idris Elba.

The flashback occurs as Raleigh and Mako do a mind-meld of shared memories and consciousness, an interesting (if seemingly unnecessary) tactic required to run the robots. It certainly teases all sorts of compelling mental twists and turns that unfortunately never develop, because, after all, the filmmakers need to get busy setting up yet further rounds of bashing and smashing.

If only del Toro had gone more the "Devil's Backbone" or especially "Pan's Labyrinth" route, this might have been something truly special, a big budget monster flick that worked best in its smaller scale moments. But the powers that be (and presumably the filmmaker himself) apparently wanted to see giant robots battling giant monsters, and thus that's what we get, in spades. "Pacific Rim" isn't awful, it's just another example of squandered opportunity. It rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 8, 2013 / Posted July 12, 2013

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