I was taking a wait-and-see attitude on this one, but after it flopped ($40M when a movie costs $300M to make and market is a flop), I became interested in seeing it. And surprise--I could barely find an evening showing just over a week after its release. Sure is a cutthroat world out there.
We open with a butt-ton of exposition explaining the situation. Some cross-dimensional portal opened in the depths of the ocean, as they are wont to do, and Godzilla-like monsters started coming through and destroying cities and such. So the humans created Jaegers, which are monster-sized robots, to battle them. This requires the pilots of said robots to mind-meld with the machines, because advanced Wii-like controllers are out of the question for some reason. But it fried the minds of one pilot, so they had to use two, who mind-meld during the experience. They also have to be IN the machine, or there would be no sense of danger. Anyway, it all worked for a while, but then the monsters started getting bigger and stronger, and for some reason the robots are being decommissioned, although what humanity plans to do now is not discussed.
By the end of this sequence we know that this movie has a strong, artful visual sense that is making the most of the 3D (criticism that the 3D is useless in this film is way off base), builds excitement based on the massive scale of these things, and has a good sense of iconic imagery, best seen when we see the robots become patriotic heroes, and have a shot of one triumphantly being paraded down a street. Now we meet Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket, and you're like "Oh right, there have to be humans in here, although I only came to see monster-vs-robot fights." Then we launch into a second expository sequence, which is maybe one too many up front, about how Becket was perfectly in sync with his brother as a co-pilot, but his brother got killed. The movie does a decent job of showing the danger the pilots face inside the machines, and makes inroads toward us seeing the huge machines as people. Becket then goes to work construction in Alaska (shown in lovely complex 3D shots atop a giant iron framework), adding evidence to the dictum that if you experience a tragic event, you have little recourse but to vanish into some working-class manual labor job at a remote location.
BUT! Charlie is recruited back by Idris "Sex" Elba as Stacker Pentecost, leader of the robot program, who provides the additional appeal of seeing a giant handsome man loom before you in IMAX 3D. They need to find just the right companion for Becket, but for some reason, Pentecost's assistant, Mako Mori, is not suitable--even though she's obviously the best candidate! After some bullshit, she is finally allowed to join Becket. But she freaks the first time in, and we see that she has a bad memory of her family being killed, and she might just go out for revenge! There are also two nerds, both completely charming, wacky movie hipster/nerd characters, making me wonder what would happen if we ever had an actual, less fashionable, socially-awkward NERD in a movie just once. There are even more side characters and inter-pilot conflict.
Now, I was impressed, for a while, that the script is not bad, and it finds a way to differentiate all of the characters and provide them each with a little emotional hook into their personality. Thing is, after a while, it just got to be too much and toward the second half of the movie, I realized that I didn't care and it was all just going on too long. And really, just because a script puts a slight spin on cliches, the wider framework is still a cliche. There is also a surprising amount of content about the psychological nuances of having a mind-meld, which kind of is interesting, but maybe let's just have a little less of almost everything having to do with the humans. Actually during this, I was imagining a parody meta-movie in which the characters openly discuss how they're just the filler between fights.
Since so many movies this summer have tied their spectacles to buildings collapsing and cities being reduced to ruins, sometimes with millions of innocent bystanders implicitly killed, I was curious to see how this film would handle that aspect. It got an A+ from me in that regard as we see bystanders near the action but not in danger, and have an explicit notification that cities are evacuated prior to monster battle action. Most of the battles in the film take place outside of cities, anyway. The film also includes one major sequence in which a character experiences an up-close monster attack and is terrified, which reduces the "awesomeness" we're supposed to feel upon seeing mass destruction and casts it as something genuinely traumatic. So overall I felt that this movie went out of its way to show that it cares about the puny humans (like you, in the audience) and was very responsible in its handling of the issue. This, in turn, makes the film much more enjoyable--it IS fun to see things get smashed when you know that no person is being harmed--which makes a contrast from the queasy difficulty getting into the "awesomeness" of Man of Steel when you know that millions are being killed in each special effect.
And the battles? Well, a bit ho-hum, I'm afraid. I rarely complain that I can't figure out what is going on in action scenes, but in these battles, not only could I not figure out who was where hitting what, there were times I literally wasn't sure how many combatants there were. In one fight in Tokyo harbor, I'm sitting there like "Okay, now there are two monsters. Oh no, I guess there was only one. Oh no, wait, there WAS two." This is not to mention that we never get a really good look at the monsters, almost all the battles are filled with giant plumes of water (did you want to see giant plumes of water? Just asking), and the camera rarely gets back far enough from the characters to really tell what is happening. There is one battle that takes place in a city, and that was good, but the majority happen at sea or undersea. It also doesn't help that each monster is different, so we never get to sense their abilities and vulnerabilities, and they have no personality to speak of. We also get no sense of what they want or what their plan is, except in spoken exposition.
The climax of the film becomes abstract in a way I haven't seen since Ang Lee's Hulk, in which the hero and villain both turned into clouds that had a fight, and I honestly could not tell who had to do what and where and who's fighting whom and what the last-minute complications were. They're supposed to light off a nuclear explosion, but then there's another huge explosion, oh, but that wasn't the nuclear one and I guess we're still waiting for that? Things like that, and they all take you out of the movie and drain away interest. I was interested to learn that inflatable devices DO float upward through alternate dimensions, and that you can rocket from the sea floor to the surface with no trace of the bends.
At the beginning I was like "This is fantastic! It's fun and has a great visual sense, using its special effects to show us really spectacular images! Everyone should see this!" But then it just simply went on too long, and by the end I didn't really care and certainly won't be telling anyone to run out and catch it. It has a lot going for it--chief among them that it's not stupid--but it just packs in too much, overestimates the amount we need to engage with the secondary and tertiary characters, and ends by simply being boring. At 90 minutes, we might have had a winner.
If you have a desire and nothing else to do.