Take a brief moment to look back at The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, specifically the two minute thunder battle between the stone mountain giants. Did you enjoy that scene? Now how would you like a whole movie made out of something like that?
Pacific Rim is seemingly a box office experiment by fellow geeky wunderkind, monster-fetishist, and rising film god Guillermo del Toro. Its very existence in modern cinema tells us something about where American media culture has gone over the last several years. The film geek takeover of Hollywood that started with Sam Raimi being chosen to direct Spider-Man and Peter Jackson being chosen to direct The Lord of the Rings left an indelible mark on the past decade, culminating in sprawling landmark franchise achievements like Harry Potter and Marvel’s Avengers. And it shows no signs of stopping.
Strangely enough however, amid the transition of blockbuster cinema to mass consumption of media that was previously consigned to an isolated and marginalized community and class of people, the Kaiju (monster) genre is nowhere to be seen, the last major concerted effort at such being Roland Emmerich’s epic failure that was the 1998 remake the genre’s most iconic film – Godzilla. Not only has the genre been relegated to the past, its absence in modern cinema hardly seems to be missed by mine and the younger generation who were seldom given a chance to grow up watching those kinds of movies.
With Pacific Rim, del Toro has resurrected the genre in what will hopefully be a smash hit for kids. I say hopefully only because the marketing of the film hasn’t been quite as up to par as I would have hoped.
The plot is about as uncomplicated as you’d expect from a film like this. When an interdimensional rift opens up in the Pacific Rim (the divide between two tectonic plates in the middle of the Pacific Ocean), giant monsters emerge and start attacking human civilization. To fight it, mankind created the Jaeger Project – a joint development of titanic mechs operated by two pilots whose minds are meld together in order to fight as one. The war has waged on for years and humanity is losing because the Kaijus (yes, the film bluntly calls the monsters that) just keep coming.
And that’s pretty much it: Giant monsters versus giant mechs. This movie is exactly what the trailers made it out to be. del Toro knows what you’re there for and he’s more than happy to provide it. The intellectual fervor of a plot such as that is for you to decide, but the cast is game for it. The film doesn’t bother delving into petty explanations of every detail about how Jaegers work or blabber on with excessive expositional dialogue about how the whole thing fits together in a scientifically sound way. It just shows.
A point in Pacific Rim’s favor (that we theoretically should be taking for granted) is that the plot is completely straightforward. One of the more troublesome trends in modern blockbuster cinema is the needless overcomplicating and convoluting of a film’s narrative in order to impress audiences and convince us that there is a hidden depth beneath it all, a ploy that often undercuts the meaning and function of a would-be cool story in favor of superficial form. At some point, check out Film Crit HULK’s in depth take on it. This film avoids that problem. The prologue summates the conflict and introduces the main protagonist. Act One introduces the other three main characters, shows us the Jaegers, outlines the basic plan, and overlays how the neural bridge works. Act Two shows us more of the Kaijus, raises the stakes, and kicks the action several notches up.
It was a brilliant move on the part of del Toro to actually make the film as much about the Kaijus as it is about humanity’s fight against them. It would have been easy to take them for granted as the big grotesque baddies, but as it turns out, these monsters are actually the most interesting things in the movie and Pacific Rim doesn’t pussyfoot around their existence. The cinematography has them up close and personal and the 3D brings them even closer, sometimes with the camera running the length of their entire bodies, giving us a feel for how gargantuan they really are. Boy are they big…Shadow of the Colossus big! And the monsters are varied enough so that they are memorable in their own ways.
All of this is what makes for some of the most grandiose and visually sensational action you’ll ever see in a film. Remember Michael Bay’s abysmal Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen when Devastator arrives, shows off its goods, digs a giant hole in the ground, knocks over a pyramid, and then gets hit by a missile & dies? Remember in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End when Calypso gets massive, summons a maelstrom and then just leaves? How cheap was that? It just goes to show how much better and more ambitious Guillermo del Toro is as a filmmaker that he’s willing to actually go big or go home for a film like this. The mano-a-mano brawls between the Jaegers and the Kaijus are all kinds of preposterously awesome. The Jaegers look really great and are actually fun to watch. It strikes a classical balance of composition, not letting the camera get in the way of the two focal points doing all the work, but choreographing the moves and punches in ways that raise tensions and enthrall the audience. Too many action films overdo the handheld close-up with a greater emphasis on faking the audio so as to make every punch and kick sound like a gunshot so to convince us that it’s an intense fight. del Toro keeps his eye on the bigger picture and best of all, makes sure that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously.
That right there is also what brings the film to its biggest problem, which is that some of the dialogue is a little too corny for its own good. Oh the kids will love it, but there are a few offbeat lines here and there and some moments in the character interplay that are a little too quaint and anomalous for their own good. While the film is far more quixotically geeky and confidently presented with jocular fun than it is languishing or acrimonious, there’s a clear effort by del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham (whom I suspect is a rookie screenwriter) to create real characters that you in the audience actually care about. I’d call it a partial success. The main characters have enough lines and individual moments to be remembered as more than just plot devices, so it works about as much as a movie like this needs to, but every now and then it does feel like the film is overreaching on that regard. Pacific Rim’s arc is preordained by its own premise, and so it was never going to be the overly dramatized story of a person’s struggles to get what he wants in a cruel world. And that ought to be appreciated as something that really sets this film apart from Bay’s Transformers trilogy which was more about a high school kid trying to lay it on the curvaceous girl and shamelessly (and inappropriately) saluting the U.S. military over and over again than it was about alien robots.
Speaking of characters, it seems clear that del Toro and company have very specifically chosen their names (as well as the names of the Jaegers & Kaijus) to market as toys and action figures for the kids. The main character’s name is Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his copilot is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). The two scientists are Drs. Newton Geizler (Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman). Ron Pearlman’s character is Hannibal Chau (seriously), and Idris Elba plays the head of the Jaeger project and leader of the resistance – Marshall Stacker Pentecost. They’ve all got their own personality quirks but the film is less about them individually and more about their camaraderie as the leads in humanity’s resistance.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Idris Elba owns this movie, stealing every scene he’s in, and giving a commanding performance just shy of the one Bill Pullman gave in Independence Day and Gerard Butler gave in 300. As an actor, Elba has always been great, making The Wire’s drug lord Stringer Bell a beautiful human being and being far in away the best thing in Luther, and it’s a thrill to finally see him take on a role like that in a big budget summer blockbuster like this.
If there’s one other criticism I have for Pacific Rim, it would be that there were two Jaeger teams whose fights were just a little too short. Since humanity has been losing this war, the U.N. has lost faith in the Jaeger project as a means to effectively combat the Kaijus. And there are now only four Jaegers left. So it would have been nice to see more of the Jaegers that were operated by the Chinese and Russian pilots. Then again, I’m a greedy action hound that can never be sated and the film is comfortable with its two hour and ten minute runtime.
On that note, be sure to stay through the credits.
I loved this movie. Pacific Rim is a triumph – a great Kaiju/mecha action film and the best blockbuster of summer 2013. The problems it has are magnificently minor given what the film does right and when you consider just how it all could have gone horribly wrong. If you’re as hungry for this kind of spectacular nonsense as I am, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for. And don’t skimp with this movie either; see it in 3D on the biggest screen you can.
The Good: The main characters, the acting performances of Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, and Rinko Kikuchi, the visual effects, the cinematography, the Kaijus, the Jaegers, the good bits of clever humor, the lack of convolution, most of the character interplay, the score by Ramin Djawadi (Zimmer would have been too heavy for this kind of thing) and best of all, the action.
The Bad: Some off base cheesy dialogue here and there and it would have been nice to see a little more from the two supporting class Jaegers.
The Ugly: Nothing! Not even the Kaijus…well okay they’re ugly, but they’re the cool kind of ugly, not the SMH kind.