Who would win in a fight between a shark and a tiger? How about Mike Tyson and a monkey armed with a switchblade? The Queen and the surviving members of Queen? A giant robot and a giant monster?
Perplexing conundrums one and all, that have been fascinating philosophers for centuries. And now, as luck would have it, fanboy deity Guillermo del Toro has attempted to answer the fourth of those posited posers via Pacific Rim, his first directorial outing for five years.
But is this tale of squabbling robo-pilots staging a last stand against an army of Godzilla-type beasties every bit as colossal as its cast of mecha and mondo creatures would lead us to believe? Or is it merely titanic – oversized, lumbering, and destined for a watery grave?
Well, the action certainly gets off to a cracking start, with a pre-title opening which crams a couple of decades’ history and a sensational offshore scrap into just a few minutes.
First we see the emergence of the creatures, the Kaiju (a name deliberately selected in reference to the Japanese monster movie genre of which Toho’s Big G is the most famous example), when they rise from the sea to wreak havoc.
Then we witness humanity’s response to this immense menace: the creation of the Jaegers, skyscraper-sized robots controlled by pairs of pilots who link consciousness with one another in order to control their craft, a process that necessitates them dressing up like a cross between Star Trek: The Next Generation baddies the Borg and ‘90s Euro fetish-clubbers off for a lively evening at Le Butt Plug.
With the rules of the game laid out so succinctly, it’s fight-time, as Gipsy Danger, the Jaeger controlled by bros Raleigh and Yancy Becket (Charlie Hunnam and Diego Klattenhoff respectively), is dispatched to tackle the latest Kaiju to surface.
This time out, however, things are different, as this Kaiju proves itself deadlier than any to have gone before it. The Jaeger is holed, Yancy becomes the monster equivalent of a barroom snack, and all the sureties of Raleigh’s world come crashing down around him.
From there, the story spins on five years, taking a decided downturn in excitement and audience involvement as it does so.
With the Jaeger programme mothballed, its gruff yet fair boss, Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, playing the Tom Skerritt role from Top Gun), rallies the remaining troops in the face of an imminent and apparently unstoppable final Kaiju onslaught. That means bringing Raleigh back into the fold, and finding a new partner for him; the smart, troubled Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) emerging as the unlikely leading candidate.
Cue an overlong dose of lunk-headed soap opera which suffers from the same wafer-thin characterisation that made del Toro’s vampire novel The Strain such a clichéd bore. The director’s choice of leading man doesn’t help, with Hunnam identifying himself as maybe the blandest blockbuster beefcake of recent vintage (see also Garrett Hedlund in Tron: Legacy, Chris Hemsworth in Thor and Josh Duhamel in Transformers).
For her part, Kikuchi, who was so impressive in Babel and Norwegian Wood, is left marooned by the mostly vapid dialogue, resulting in the young Japanese actress being forced to make stereotypical exclamations of “Ah!” in lieu of del Toro and his co-writer, Travis Beacham, thinking of anything better for her to say or do.
And while the collective brooding is alleviated by the ‘comedy’ double-act of the two Kaiju experts, Rob Schneider-alike Newton (Charlie Day) and uptight Englishman Herman (Burn Gorman, looking like Lee Evans going to a fancy dress party as Gavin from Gavin & Stacey), the less said about them and their as-laugh-a-minute-as-leprosy shtick, the better.
But if del Toro shows zero interest in furnishing his human characters with anything beyond motivations that tick all the boxes in a screenwriting manual checklist without ever being in any way, y’know, interesting, then the raft of potentially fascinating ideas floating round the story-verse fashioned by him and Beacham are also, to a one, left frustratingly unexplored.
To wit, the fact the Kaiju are making their incursions via a cross-dimensional rift located on the seabed is barely delved into until the closing stages. Neither are the rich narrative possibilities spawned by ‘the Drift’, the neural linking of the Jaeger pilots (aside from some fleshing out of Mako’s background), nor how the wider world reacts to and copes with the Kaiju threat.
What Pacific Rim serves up instead is yet more hackneyed dramatics – from Raleigh’s Maverick-Iceman rivalry with Sean Slater from Eastenders (playing an Aussie with a deep affection for his bulldog. That’s right, bulldog), to Elba’s Marshall giving a rousing speech in which he tells his soldiers that today they celebrate their Indepedence Day… er, sorry, no, that today they are cancelling the apocalypse. Not enough interest apparently. But refunds are available.
The action, when it does arrive, is fantastically bombastic. Like another Warner Bros./Legendary Pictures production, Man of Steel, this is a sci-fi action movie with its own, very impressive aesthetic, and major credit is due to del Toro’s regular cameraman, Guillermo Navarro, and those visual effects boffins at ILM.
However, if Pacific Rim’s revitalisation of the city-stomping tropes of the old Toho classics is pretty breathtaking, then the story and characters are every bit as cardboard as the metropolises that Godzilla, Ghidorah and the rest used to crush under their big rubbery feet.
Pacific Rim is released in the UK on 12 July