To make effective monsters, you need someone who knows monsters. Guillermo del Toro, best known as the director of the Hellboy movies, and Pan’s Labyrinth, is a man well versed in genre flicks and the many pitfalls one tends to run into there. So it is by this knowledge, and not a little fan appreciation for those genres, that his latest film, Pacific Rim, is pulled off with nary a hitch. This giant robot-and-monsters clash of titans is much more than the sum of its mechanical parts, offering up a feast of worldbuilding details alongside a thrilling piece of action-adventure storytelling. More than that, Pacific Rim knows what kind of film it is, and sticks to tone with a consistency that could teach the lumbering beasts around it a thing or two.
Mild spoilers abound, none kaiju-sized.
Pacific Rim is, in actuality, a potent mixture of two sub-genres; the giant monster film, and the giant robot of a type most commonly seen in anime. That the movie is ostensibly a live-action anime, complete with only-in-the-movies character names, a couple character archetypes, and some visual familiarity is all to the good. It could turn off some critics and viewers, but none should feel shut out from the straightforward, compelling story.
Our tale begins in the not-too-distant future, where a dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean has unleashed skyscraper-sized monsters – referred to as kaiju – on the surrounding coastal cities. As the voice-over provided by Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) explains, the Jaeger program, which employs the use of giant, robotic soldiers piloted by teams to combat the destructive monsters, was born. The Jaegers use a neural jack-in to connect pilots to machine, a burden that must be shared by two people (or more), to prevent sensory overload. This mind-meld is accomplished through the Drift, a link that allows pilots to share memories and sensations, so that they can keep in sync with each other. Drift compatibility, at least at the outset, seems to work best on those with a shared past; siblings, a father and son, and other family members seem like strong bets for most of the pairings.
But with the kaiju emerging bigger and badder, the Jaeger program is losing traction, and funding, from the world council. On the verge of having their plug pulled, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (played with stoic restraint by Idris Elba) gathers the remaining machines, and any pilots still left alive, to plan a last, desperate attempt to save humanity.
Though the initial Jaeger teams hail from different countries, mixed pairs step in out of need over the course of the film. There’s no room for nationalism in del Toro’s harsh future. With the world on the brink of annihilation, everyone is on the same page of banding together to fight a greater evil than each other. Moreso even than del Toro’s other works, this is a film as much about a group as it is about any individuals. Raleigh, set out as the protagonist at film’s start, is a likeable but bland presence who slowly fades into the background. He’s a catalyst, not the sole hero, and is grouped in with other, more interesting figures like Stacker and Raleigh’s eventual co-pilot, the tiny, tough Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Mako is an interesting puzzle of a character; polite, quiet, and respectful, but fierce as a fighter. She is a type, inoffensively, but a type more typical of anime than of any live action recently put on the big screen. Del Toro is careful to make sure her capabilities, and weaknesses, do not stem from her gender, but from her inexperience as a pilot. She’s shown as smart and determined, with no excessive femininity or girlish features. In fact, the only time her gender is ever an issue is in the one scene that makes little sense, where Raleigh, riled up by a jerk Australian pilot, basically fights for Mako’s honor. We’ve just been shown that Mako is his equal in hand-to-hand combat, so the scene is not only nonsensical, but wholly unnecessary.
What is most impressive about Pacific Rim is the sustained sense of peril and tension del Toro manages. Where it would have been easy to let up and have the Jaegers feel impenetrable as tanks, the kaiju are so fearsome, and the fighting conditions so unknown, that you feel what the pilots are going into truly is a frightening, dangerous situation. The result is a remarkable sense of uncertainty about each battle, maintaining the film’s dark, even manner. Aiding in this is the inventive creature design of the kaiju, a sort of mixture of dinosaur and deep-sea mutant, each slightly varied. The production design team seems to have taken a cue from Attack the Block, giving the giants phosphorescent mouths that make them both alien in appearance and easy to follow during combat sequences. The kaiju are menacing and unpredictable, heightening the sensational fights that span whole swaths of ocean and entire sections of cities.
Del Toro is a meticulous world-builder, and Pacific Rim is packed with amusing, and finely crafted, details. Sci-fi is best when fleshed out a touch to include the world around the action, and the inclusion of kaiju imagery in the world’s pop culture is but one of many clever points of extrapolation. There’s also cities built around the skeletons of defeated kaiju, as well as a black-market trade in their organs and parts that provides meat for the movie’s subplot, featuring punky scientist Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day). Del Toro also explores the larger world around the aftermath of the kaiju attacks, including a bleak scene at a construction site where dangerous work positions are traded for food rations.
The world is rich, to be sure, but certain areas remain unexplored. Most importantly, the pilot’s Drift system, and the darker implications that it holds if one pilot is injured or killed while connected, are not fleshed out to full dramatic potential. Pacific Rim is a packed movie, with no time to stall for moments of indecision. Yet, a little more depth to the drama, especially with such interesting material to fuel it, would have been appreciated. There’s a great sense of expediency to the action of Pacific Rim, but pauses along the way could have slowed the rushed feeling of the ending, among other things.
Pacific Rim is not perfect. It has its moments of cheese, its moments of awkwardness. But if it is one thing, it is respectful to the genre/s it represents, and does them great justice. Perhaps I’m willing to be more generous with a movie that actually lived up to so many of its large-scale promises of sensation and adventure, in a summer season severely lacking in fun. Del Toro has ideas about what kind of film he’s made, and it pays off. Pacific Rim, by focusing on people, not just giant machines, allows the audience to connect to the wonders he’s orchestrated. It’s a refreshing, and exciting, change of pace emerging from what could have been its own city-spanning disaster.
Reviewer’s note: This isn’t a Marvel movie, but viewers should stay after the main block of the credit’s sequence, or they’ll miss a fun little extra scene.
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