Blu-ray Review: Pacific Rim

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Arguably no film polarized audiences during the summer of 2013 like Pacific Rim. While it raked in hundreds of millions overseas, U.S. audiences received it lukewarmly (it barely limped past the $100 million mark). For a film that reportedly cost close to $200 million to produce, it significantly underperformed. Despite that, a very vocal minority emerged to proclaim it a misunderstood masterpiece. How much of that was because it was directed by cult favorite Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy)? Everything.

Pacific Rim, while admittedly wonderfully designed, is too simple to be misunderstood by anyone. Take Starship Troopers, now there’s a misunderstood sci-fi/action masterpiece if I ever saw one. Rim is nearly entirely lacking in sophistication or inspiration. The screenplay (by Travis Beacham and del Toro) borrows relentlessly from seemingly every major film of the genre. The dialogue is stilted and so is the acting (not without exception, more on that later).

During its notably lengthy pre-credits sequence (17 minutes before the title pops up!), we’re told that the alien invasion didn’t strike Earth from outer space. As we saw in War of the Worlds, the aliens of Rim, called Kaiju, have been buried deep below the ocean’s surface for millions of years. These colossal, Godzilla-like lizard creations have emerged to wreak havoc on the world. Humankind’s only (im)plausible solution was to build gigantic, Transformer-looking robots called Jaegers (German for “hunters”), each piloted by a pair of humans. The Jaeger pilots mind-meld (wonder where Beacham came up with that term) and act as one (this is known as “The Drift”) while controlling these mega-robots.

Pacific Rim Rinko (380x253).jpgAll the expected stock characters are present and accounted for. Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) is the disgraced, washed-out Jaeger pilot who gets pulled back into the fold after the government stops funding the program. Stacker (Idris Elba) is the hard-ass commanding officer with a serious health problem that he hides from his charges. Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) is sexy warrior gal whose childhood experiences during a Kaiju attack have left her Jaeger-piloting abilities severely compromised. Together they must find a way to infiltrate the Kaiju base and “kill ‘em all” (as someone once said in a superficially similar, yet far superior, film).

The saving graces of Pacific Rim are Burn Gorman and Charlie Day as a pair of scientists studying Kaiju. These guys cut through the somber pomposity of Rim to inject some desperately needed humor. Newton (Day) is dead set on “drifting” with a partial Kaiju brain he keeps alive in a tank, even though it might fry his brain. Hermann (Gorman) is Newton’s numbers-obsessed partner. These guys are the only primary cast members whose performances rise above mediocrity. Ron Perlman cameos as a black market Kaiju organ dealer (watch several minutes into the end credits for a funny postscript to his character).

Pacific Rim 3 (380x214).jpgAny misgivings I may have about the film itself are nearly made up for by what is one of the most visually and sonically thrilling Blu-ray experiences I’ve had. It’s easy to get really blasé about high definition these days; everything looks and sounds great. But Pacific Rim really does offer a treat in those departments. The ample visual imagination invested in the Jaegers and Kaiju is done full justice by a magnificent 1080p transfer.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 lossless mix is every bit as good. You don’t need digital effects to create beautiful visuals. Some of the best movies to look at were shot under far less extravagant circumstances. But to really take advantage of a home theater surround system, I do think you need a movie with the intricate sound design of Pacific Rim. Somehow, even with oodles of noises bursting from each channel, the mix never feels exceedingly bombastic. There’s a lot to look at and listen to throughout Pacific Rim, which provides a nice distraction from the film’s narrative shortcomings.

There’s a plethora of supplemental features contained here, so many they made it a two-disc Blu-ray set (the third disc is a standard DVD). Guillermo del Toro offers up one of his patented insightful commentary tracks. While watching Rim, I wondered whether it was some sort of cynical joke (albeit a very expensive one); an intentionally bird-brained blockbuster. But the commentary serves as proof that del Toro approached the film as seriously as anything he’s done. Thirteen short featurettes, each focusing on a specific element, total just over one hour. There’s a handy “play all” option.

Pacific Rim 1 (380x214).jpgThe second disc offers and interactive “Director’s Notebook” which contains a fair amount of very detailed information in a bulky format. I would’ve preferred a more straightforward way to access the various featurettes, still photos, and text. There’s also even more featurettes, including 17 minutes dedicated to the visual effects and an short examination of the “Drift” scenes. A handful of deleted scenes and a gag reel round out an impressive package.

Had Pacific Rim been the exact same film, only directed by Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, or Renny Harlin, I doubt it would have as many vociferous defenders. And I do believe the end result here is generic enough to have been directed by any of those less-revered directors (or even a no-name director-for-hire). Technically impressive in every way, del Toro’s blockbuster is an empty-headed misstep.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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