DIRECTED BY: Guillermo Del Toro
WRITTEN BY: Travis Beacham, Guilermo Del Toro
STARRING: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini, Ron Perlman
Pacific Rim is awesome! I don’t mean the usual meaning of the word awesome, like “this is a really good movie”…which it is, but that’s not the point. What I mean is that this movie is awesome in the sense that my jaw hit the floor when giant mech suplexes a 2500 ton giant monster into the ground with a floor shaking thud. It’s awesome in the sense that a giant Russian mech with a cooling tower for a head just used its tesla coil fists to punch a giant monster in the face. It’s awesome in the sense that a nuclear weapon explodes and literally pushes the water back a half mile so it can rush in again in spectacular fashion. I could fill this whole page with just the awesome moments from this movie, but you’ve really got to see them for yourselves just to see how incredibly awesome it all is. As you’ve probably guess, I really liked this movie. I’ve also been hyping it up for quite some time. A high concept robot versus monsters movie by one of my favorite living directors? Sign me up!
Pacific Rim’s story, though layered in loads of jargon and characters, is at its heart a pretty simple one. In the near future, a dimensional rift opens in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, unleashing a horde of titanic beasts known as “kaiju” on the world (the word kaiju being taken from the name of the giant monsters from Japanese films like Godzilla). As tanks and jets seem to only aggravate the problem, the world’s scientists decide to team up to come up with an alternative. The solution: build giant mech warriors to fight these creatures hand to hand. Because the load on the brain to control one is too much for one person, each jaeger (as these metal monsters are called) has to be controlled by two people sharing a neural link called “the drift”. At first, it seems to be working, the monsters are being kept at bay and the jaeger pilots, now the saviors of humanity, become something akin to rock stars in the public eye. After a few decades, though, the program is in dire straits as more and more jaegers fall to the ever increasing flood of bigger and badder kaiju coming up out of the rift. It’s up to a rag tag team of jaeger pilots and scientists to fend off the apocalypse in one last ditch effort before the jaeger program is shut down, and maybe, just maybe, cancel the apocalypse for good.
This movie follows in the tradition of the Wachowski’s Speed Racer movie in that it is, by and large, an anime brought reverently to big budget life. What I mean by that is that it’s not a movie that tries to adapt a property or franchise to fit within a mold of modern sensibilities, nor does it try to change anything for the sake of some vague idea of “realism”. It takes every cliché, every ounce of un-cynical joy and boyish exuberance of punching monsters in the face inherent in the genre and wraps it in a compact two hour package so we can relive that sense of childish fun once again. And when I say un-cynical, I mean that this is a movie without a bone of irony in its body. It fully embraces its black and white story and cardboard cutout characters with a relish and gusto not seen in many modern blockbusters anymore. It’s part of a growing movement of films that seem to be rejecting the notion of superficial darkness and cynicism prevalent in a lot of movies in favor of unapologetic joy and waxing childhood nostalgia.
One of the major things that sets this movie apart from its competitors is its focus on teamwork and internationalism over an “America saves the world again” type story. Apparently this was a conscious decision on the part of Del Toro, who felt New York has been attacked by aliens just once too often. Even though it does have a “main hero guy” who happens to be American, he is only one player in an ensemble of international characters (with occasionally terrible accents) who have just as much a part to play in this story as he does. In fact you could say that one of the movies core themes is one of teamwork through adversity and working together to accomplish somehting. Even the jaegers are entirely dependent on two people working together, and it was only through the cooperation of the different governments and their pooling of resources that allowed humanity to have a chance at surviving. It was also refreshing to have the male and female leads NOT be romantically involved with each other despite the movie itself even hinting at it once or twice.
On a technical level, this movie excels in its use of vibrant colors and “used-future” production design to vividly illustrate its rough-and-tumble near-future setting. Hong Kong especially looks fantastic with its neon lit streets setting the stage of one of the movies most elaborate set pieces. I loved how there was a whole town that was built around the skeletal remains of a kaiju. It lends an already exotic location with an even greater sense of exoticism. The cinematography by Guillermo Navarro is outstanding, injecting a sense of movement and energy into the action scenes with minimal use of shaky cam (and only when it makes sense to do so like, say, an earth shattering punch to the face). The kaiju battles, which often happen in the rain or in bodies of water, could have easily just been an opaque mess of blurry monster-esque features tumbling about on the screen for ten minutes. Instead, the camerawork and lighting highlights the weight and impact of every movement these creatures have, along with their monstrous size and scale. This is large scale action as it should be shot. The score and sound design are incredible as well. When I saw this again in IMAX, you could literally feel every single impact vibrating through my legs and up my body. I’ve been a fan of composer Ramin Djawadi’s work on Game of Thrones, and here his penchant for emotionally powerful and catchy melodies makes this movie a treat for the ears as well as the eyes.
Where the movie begins to stumble in its stride, though, is its frequent, stubborn reliance on cliché and stereotype in its story, writing, and characters. There’s the geeky scientists, the world weary veteran, the tough military leader, the jerk who inexplicably has some beef with the protagonist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure those clichés were used entirely on purpose on Del Toro and Beacham’s part, but it seems to me that the movie tries to straddle the line between going totally over the top with them and playing everything perfectly straight a little too closely. The characters I enjoyed more tended to be the ones that took the somewhat over-the-top approach. I feel like maybe some stuff might have been cut for the sake of pacing and time and that may be why the tone of this film kind of feels a bit inconsistent. It’s a movie that’s almost entirely surface level, with many character relationships being sidelined or aborted without any real cathartic resolution. It’s frustrating when you see some of these characters start to grow and then have their arcs either forgotten about or rushed into an unsatisfying conclusion for the sake of running time. I may just be bitter because some of the most awesome side characters in this movie get offed in a rather anticlimactic way halfway through, but I think this problem runs a bit deeper than just them.
With that said, though, Pacific Rim really does embody what I look for in a summer blockbuster. It isn’t philosophical or brooding, it’s a fun adventure romp of an incredibly high caliber, and more than once made me want to jump out of my seat and cheer. That isn’t to say that it’s a “dumb” movie, far from it. It never talks down to the audience; it never operates under the pretense that it needs to wink and nudge about how silly it is to appeal to a broader audience. What’s more, this is the first time I properly had fun at the movies in a very long time. I saw this movie with a friend of mine and he was practically bouncing out of his seat every five minutes out of sheer giddiness. In what has largely been a lackluster summer movie season, this film stands to remind me just how much I’ve been missing.
RATING: * * * ½ (out of four)
P.S. As for the 3D, I’d say don’t bother. However much the IMAX enhances the experience, the movie wasn’t shot for 3D, so oftentimes my brain would shut off at the glut of visual information 3D demands the eyes to take in (forcing me to focus more on the films incredibly corny dialogue). It wasn’t as offensively painful as some other 3D conversions (and I hear del Toro took his time with the conversion), but it didn’t enhance the experience enough to warrant compromising the films visual cohesion in favor of a bigger screen, louder sound, and comfier chairs.