Normally I’d wait until an off-topic Thursday to do this, but I’ve decided to do this while the film is still fresh in my memory.
So, let’s cut to the chase: as an example of “film as art”, Pacific Rim may not be a great movie. It might not even be a good one. It doesn’t have much of a driving moral lesson or deep characters, nor does it provoke thoughts about what it means to be human. You can see 90% of the twists coming and you can spot references or scenes that are much like those in other films. No major new ground is broken.
However, as far as “film as entertainment”, Pacific Rim is a great movie, a eat-your-popcorn-and-enjoy-the-show experience that is also something that is an increasingly rare thing in modern movies: something new and original, and not a sequel, prequel, remake, adaptation or based on a true story.
That isn’t to say that Pacific Rim is something completely new. No, far from it. This is a film that follows in the footsteps of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars, paying tribute to previous traditions while putting a new spin on them. In the case of Pacific Rim, director Guillermo del Toro is paying tribute to Japanese Science Fiction in general and the kaiju (giant monsters- Godzilla, Mothra, etc.) and mecha (giant robots) genres in particular.
Now, with that introduction of my most basic thoughts and a quick primer on the film out of the way, go below the jump to see what I liked and what I didn’t about Pacific Rim.
Stuff I liked in Pacific Rim:
The World that del Toro builds: The basic plot of Pacific Rim is pretty simple- one day giant monsters (Kaiju) began to emerge from a interdimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean and started laying waste to coastal cities. Humanity put aside it’s differences and built giant robots, called Jaegers, to fight them. The Jaegers require two pilots working in tandem and with melded minds to operate, since controlling the giant body is too much for one human brain to process. For a few years, the Jaegers did their job, but over time the Kaiju got bigger and more numerous, so after years of attrition humanity is in it’s final days, having all-but-abandoned the Jaeger program and instead focusing resources on a defensive wall in coastal regions (spoiler alert: the wall doesn’t work well). Against this backdrop, a disgraced former pilot (Raleigh, played by Charlie Hunnam) is pulled from retirement to aid in one final plan to try and end the threat.
Simple enough. As I said earlier, you probably will be able to guess 90% of the plot twists. However, the detail that Guillermo del Toro puts into this world makes it come alive despite the cliched plot. You see, the world of Pacific Rim is clearly “lived in”, it is not simply a Planet Earth that happens to have Godzilla-sized monsters. No, del Toro and his team clearly took some time to really consider things. For example, Hannibal Chau (played by Ron Perlman, hilariously eating scenery) is a sleazy character who is trying to make his fortune by trying to sell dead kaiju parts as forms of snake-oil medicines, which totally seems like something that would really happen. That is a big thing. But there are also little things: religious cults that worship the kaiju as god’s punishment, rationing because the Pacific Ocean is now too dangerous for cargo ships to travel, public shelters to hide in during attacks, etc. Things like this make Pacific Rim a smarter film than it’s by-the-numbers story would suggest.
Awesome fight scenes: The biggest reasons (pun intended) to go to Pacific Rim are the action sequences between the Kaiju and Jaegers. There are three or so major sequences (and a few smaller ones), and each gives the audience something different while still being a ton of fun. And, more importantly, these battles have a good pace and choreography- they aren’t too long and aren’t too short, and, unlike Transformers, you usually have a good idea of what is going on and which “team” is which.
The Designs of the Jaegers and Kaiju: The designs of the Jaegers and Kaiju in Pacific Rim helps make those fight scenes possible- these are not just nondescript things, each of them has a personality and uniqueness about them. Each of the Jaegers, for example, is designed in such a way to tell you what you need to know about it: the main Jaeger (Gipsy Danger) looks like a knight in shining armor, the slow-but-powerful Russian Jaeger looks like a tank crossed with a diving suit, etc. The same goes for the kaiju, who range from relatively small crab-thingies to one creature near the end of the film who looks like a hammerhead shark had a baby with the Kraken. All are distinct, and none of them are straight-up retreads of pre-existing characters (for example, there is no Kaiju that is Godzilla in everything but name).
Perlman and Elba: There are two actors who standout in this film. The first, as I mentioned earlier, is Ron Perlman, the Hellboy star who plays Hannibal Chau, the con artist/businessman who sells leftover Kaiju parts. He nails the role of a slimy trickster, somebody who would take on a new name just so that they could part fools from their money.
The other is Idris Elba, who plays the awesomely-named Stacker Pentecost, the leader of the remaining Jaeger forces. He’s tough, he is no-nonsense, and he has enough charisma to make you understand how he could tell people to get into giant robots and go off to near-certain death. One of the highlights of the film is his speech before the final battle. If you’ve seen the trailers, you know what speech I’m talking about. Rest assured: it is just as awesome in the film itself.
It gets the basic subconscious appeal of these movies: Back in College, I once did an assignment for an English class in which I looked at why monster movies and similar genres (such as alien invasion movies) continue to be popular. The basic conclusion I reached was that they are essentially wish-fulfillment fantasies, with the monster standing in for whatever is scaring the audience, whether it be atomic bombs, crime, terrorism or a hurricane. In essence, seeing the heroes defeat the monster is like finally seeing a hurricane get stopped in it’s tracks. Well, guess what? Not only does Pacific Rim fulfill that promise, but it explicitly mentions it. Early on, Raleigh says (I’m paraphrasing here) that being in a Jaeger is like suddenly getting the ability to stop a hurricane. In other words, basically what I said in my essay. Meaning that, in essence, I had the same idea as Oscar-nominated Writer-Director Guillermo del Toro. If only I could find that essay…
Some other things I liked: The music, the little nods to the movies it is paying tribute to, the funny scene during the credits, and the expert use of a cargo ship as a baseball bat.
Stuff I didn’t like in Pacific Rim:
Nothing-Special Characters: Beyond Perlman’s Chau and Elba’s Stacker, the rest of the characters are kind of… nondescript, more like caricatures than characters, and even for those two characters they are served more by good acting performances than anything. For many of them, there are basically just one or two characteristics that more-or-less are all we know about them. For example, basically all we ever learn about Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) is that she is a Jaeger engineer and had a traumatic experience during her childhood in Tokyo. This doesn’t mean they are bad, really, merely not as well developed as they could be.
Underused Jaegers: There are four Jaegers operational during the film, but really only two of them are all that important to the plot. In addition, we only get the briefest of glimpses of some of those that had already been put out of commission. A disappointment.
By-the-Book Story: As I said earlier, if you want to see something with twists and turns that leave you shocked, this isn’t the movie for you. At all.
I didn’t buy enough popcorn: I got a small for free. I should have gotten a medium or a large.
Overall 0-10 scale for Pacific Rim: 7 as a movie, 9.5 as a fun time.