Movie: Pacific Rim; Director: Guillermo del Toro; Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures; Rating: PG-13; My finding: 2 1/2 out of five stars.
When the writing turned purple in the creature-feature "Pacific Rim," I couldn't help but laugh out loudly in the dark theater. The film's rapid-fire explosions and metal-on-alien-monster fighting stopped assaulting my eardrums and my rods and cones just long enough for particularly memorable lines like "tonight, we stop the apocalypse," or great, Socratic-method barbs like asking whether the main character wants to die building a wall in Alaska or fighting to save the planet.
But dialogue like this is not only expected in movies like this one, it's wholly appreciated.
There is no influence greater for schlocky popcorn entertainment than the archives of passion in international pop-culture: B-movies. From Godzilla to Power Rangers to Transformers, nothing of substance is expected, and laughs are expected when they're intended - and when they're not. I love B-movies unabashedly and remember long Sunday evenings with my mom and sister watching endless parades of low-budget, predictable movies. We would laugh and make long, sarcastic commentary, and we couldn't have imagined more enjoyable evenings.
"Pacific Rim" has all the make-up of a great bad movie, one well worth the $13 ticket price for a 3D presentation, and yet it fails by not actually being a B-movie, boasting a reported budget of $180 to $190 million and an undisputed master of special-effects filmmaking in Guillermo del Toro.
Del Toro wastes no time in providing the necessary background to understand this new world ravaged by fear of the "Kaiju," alien monsters hell bent on ridding the Earth of humans, the dominant species, in the year 2020. You may consider this a reboot of Godzilla, really, because he's inarguably the best-known Kaiju of all time. Except, unlike in Godzilla lore, the Kaiju do not fight each other for domination, but work together.
They emerge from a portal deep within the Pacific Ocean, thus the name of the film, and destroy all coastal cities they can reach.
Only one thing can fight a monster, humans think, and that is our own form of monster.
Cue humanity's monster: the Jaegers, each looking like variations on Optimus Prime of the Autobots, minus transforming abilities.
The star Russian Jaeger is my favorite because del Toro did well by his source material and audience expectations by maintaining Soviet-era utilitarian styling. Clunky, matte, hard, ugly and completely non-ergonomic materials will always rule my personal vision of the future over lights, brushed steel and high-gloss. Unfortunately the stereotypical Russians are not the star pilots.
Instead, we get wholesome-looking American Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, known as Jax in TV's "Sons of Anarchy," and also the only reason one woman who works in our office said she wants to see the movie), who, at the very beginning of the movie, shows the audience his humanitarian leanings, his will to fight, and an immediate tragic backstory.
That's it. Del Toro is now king of what I'll dub insta-character development. And he has to, because to pilot a Jaeger, two pilots are needed to mind-weld with each other and the machine in what can only be described as a DMT-overdose.
It doesn't make much sense that the characters are to pair with massive machines that have obviously breezed past this current era of digital simplicity back into the gorgeous, perfect world of mechanics. The pilots strap into free-floating controls with their feet strapped into gigantic stilts that, deep down in the clockwork of a towering Jaeger, will control the legs, and their arms are strapped into a Bowflex-like pulley system to control the arms.
And yet that mind-weld is what makes this movie work.
We've got the B-movie scientists: one mad and obsessive, the other a massive dork who can't understand basic human interaction.
We've got the back-alley hustler, arms-dealer and, now, sanctioned supplier of black-market Kaiju body parts: Ron Perlman, a del Toro regular who starred in the title role of "Hellboy" and its sequel, and his Hong Kong cronies.
And, of course, we have the hugely disciplined leader of the Jaeger army, Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, a British soaps actor who is largely reprising and expanding his role as the stern military commander in "28 Weeks Later"), whose no-nonsense reasoning often looks just to the end, never mind the means.
So, why does it fail?
Because when you're done laughing at and having an uproarious time with the B-level plotting, dialogue and cliched characters, you're presented with perfectly-made, stylish, beautiful action sequences that clash too much with the rest of the tone of the movie.
Tonal inconsistency seems to be the norm in films these days, but it shouldn't be. We shouldn't have to make do with a buffet table of offerings hoping we'll like this part here, even if we don't like this part there. Going from silly to serious and back again over a 10-minute period makes the audience all-too aware that this is just an entertainment, and a half-baked one at that.
And that's sad, because, if most analysts are to be trusted and if the obvious trends continue, if big-budgeted original entertainment keeps losing at the box-office as "Pacific Rim" has so far with reported earnings of less than $40 million, then we're going to just be stuck with more tired prequels and sequels forever.
Very few original entertainments make it through the blockbuster summers these most recent years. Audience members continue to flock to the rehashed and the lazy features because they would rather have a bland, safe bet of expectation than taking any chance at something new. It doesn't have to be this way.
Say no to the next superhero movie. Say no to the next "Grown Ups." Say no to the next of whatever last year's flavor was. This is your life and, unless you're Shirley MacLaine, you have but one life to live.
Despite tonal problems, which are probably there in hopes of capturing those who already have expectations they want met, it's always a much better night out when you've got something new by which to mark the memory.