"I would rather have one Chewbacca than an entire clone army."
That's how director Angela Robinson reacted when suits at Disney suggested that her film "Herbie: Fully Loaded" feature a computer-generated VW Beetle in the title role rather than a nuts-and-bolts car.
Would that Guillermo del Toro had had the same attitude regarding 'Pacific Rim," his new big-budget take on giant robots (here known as "jaegers," German for "hunters") versus giant monsters (which, as any Comic-Con all-access pass-holder can tell you, are known in Japanese as "kaiju").
One guy in one rubber Godzilla suit stepping on a balsa-wood scale model of Tokyo provides lots more thrills than del Toro's Monster Armies of the Night.
Part of the film's problem is the whole "of the Night" thing: whenever the jaegers and the kaiju throw down in "Pacific Rim," it's at night in the pouring rain — unless they're both at the bottom of the ocean. What's the point, exactly, of cutting-edge CG monsters filmed in a way where we can barely see them? Would "Jurassic Park" have worked if our glimpses of the dinosaurs had been fleeting at best?
These on-screen battles provide a few jolts — one of the film's strong points is that it isn't shot and edited in Michael Bay Confuse-o-Vision — but it's a jigsaw of random pieces. We get a robo-fist here and a monster face there, but none of the satisfying head-to-toe action of, say, Rodan or Mothra going toe-to-toe with another zipper-backed beast.
This isn't merely an issue of nostalgia for old-school monster movies; the 1990s saw a Japanese reboot of the "Gamera" series that married the venerable flying, fire-breathing turtle with contemporary sensibilities and visual-effects technologies. If a similar updating was del Toro's objective, he takes a decent stab at it with "Pacific Rim," but ultimately falls short.
If you thought the characterizations and dialogue here would be any richer than the ones in "Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster" or the old "Ultraman" series, get ready for disappointment. "Pacific Rim" posits a world in which kaiju come to Earth from an alternate dimension, and humanity's response is to construct robots so huge and elaborate that they require two operators, sharing a mental connection known as "the drift."
The jaeger program is discontinued after Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) loses his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) in combat, leading politicians to shift resources to constructing giant walls around coastal cities to keep the monsters out. (With Mexican filmmaker del Toro at the helm, any resemblance between this bone-headed move and real-life U.S. border issues is no doubt intentional.)
When the walls fail, Raleigh returns to service under his old commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) — not making up these names, people — and despite Pentecost's resistance, it's clear that the pilot best suited to be Raleigh's new partner is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who as a child witnessed the slaughter of her parents at the hands of the kaiju.
No one has ever watched monster movies for the performances, but some very talented people are doing some of their worst work here. Hunnam has been a charismatic TV presence, from the original "Queer as Folk" to "Undeclared" to his current gig on "Sons of Anarchy," but he's an utterly bland leading man here. Elba works in two modes — muttering and SIGNIFICANT SHOUTING — while Kikuchi, so dryly funny in "The Brothers Bloom," makes for the weeping-est and mewling-est action heroine ever.
No wonder, then, that the movie is stolen by the comedy relief — Charlie Day ("It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia") and Burn Gorman ("Torchwood") as a frick-and-frack pair of kaiju experts and del Toro regular and Hunnam's "Sons of Anarchy" co-star Ron Perlman as a trafficker in monster parts. Perlman's presence reminds us of how much Hellboy you get to see in del Toro's "Hellboy," while the other-worldly creatures here are consigned to the shadows.
"Pacific Rim" offers a few laughs and a few thrills, but it feels like a very large platter serving a disappointingly meager meal. Unlike its scaly cinematic ancestors, it never feels like the kind of movie that's going to inspire a seven-year-old to roar and knock over the Lego city he built for just that purpose.