Pacific Rim (2013)
Out in theaters now is Guillermo Del Toro’s love letter to the monster movie, Pacific Rim. Taking inspiration from classic Japanese monster films (known as Kaiju in general and DaiKaiju for the larger Godzilla-esque versions) as well as from numerous other sources such as Graphic Novels, Manga, and the films of Harryhausen (Clash of the Titans, the Sinbad series), Del Toro manages to create a movie that simultaneously feels like an homage, and yet is something new and fresh. As with Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim is decisively a genre piece, obeying the rules that go along with working in that tradition, but rarely feels constrained by those conventions. In fact, what makes it to the big screen is a consummation of those strictures, showing off the wide-eyed and riotous enjoyment of playing make believe, and actually believing it.
In Pacific Rim, humanity is facing annihilation at the hands of monstrous Kaiju which spawn from a dimensional rift in, you guessed it, the Pacific Rim. Pushed to the brink, mankind create gigantic mechanized fighting armor called Jaegers, colossi so difficult to pilot that two human minds must merge, or “drift”, in order to operate them successfully. The conflict is shown through the eyes of Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) who suffers a terrible defeat at the height of the conflict and washes out of the pilot program, suffering from mental trauma. Years pass and the conflict grinds to a halt, with humanity opting to wall itself away from the Pacific Ocean and live meager existences as refugees, mothballing the Jaeger program. Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) suspects that Kaiju hostility is just the tip of the spear for a larger invasion, and recruits as many living Jaeger pilots, including Becket, as he can for a mission to destroy the rift in the ocean floor. Becket, aided by a strong but untested co-pilot (Rinko Kikuchi) becomes the lynchpin of the plan to save Earth. Will his trauma, or building-sized monsters, get the best of him? Find out in theaters!
Pacific Rim features gorgeous visuals, that only occasionally suffer from the dark, water logged setting of oceanic battlefields. The Jaeger designs are interesting, though sometimes unsubtle in their symbolism, but the real joy for monster movie fans is the diverse, fun look of the Kaiju. These monsters look and move great, have a real personality incorporated into their body design, and rarely have any CGI hiccups. Often, digital creatures look plastic or made up of needless shiny parts in order to facilitate manipulation (looking at you, Transformers), but these creations are pulled off without a hitch, and the fight scenes are tense and riveting. Del Toro avoids unnecessary blood shed, even clearing the streets of his cities in order to allow the boys to play, yet there is a feel of dread and mortality in each conflict, such as I never felt during any of the genocidal fight scenes in Man of Steel (seriously, the body count of Superman “saving” the city must have been worse than a typhoid outbreak.) When a Jaeger’s helmet is torn off, revealing the pilots, it gave me more chills than any amount of reckless slaughter in other big action movies. And despite some light-hardheartedness that permeates the film (successfully provided by veteran Ron Perlman, less successfully by two bumbling scientists, and aided even by the Jaegers themselves, as monsters are sometimes hilariously body-slammed Godzilla style) there is a hanging dread that accompanies each Kaiju appearance, as the ranks of pilots dwindles with each costly battle. I’ve rarely experienced this emotion outside of some of the best Mecha manga/anime from Japan, and those series have hours of episodes to paint a bleak picture of humanity on its way out.
Musically, Rim fires on most cylinders. I noticed people around me perking up in their seats whenever the Jaeger battle music began playing, a compliment to composer Ramin Djawadi. The dark tones of the Kaijus theme is appropriate, but less memorable. Explosions and the rumble of giant footsteps are used to good effect, and surprisingly don’t rise to the level of disaster-porn like many blockbusters this summer.
At the end of the day, I have to enthusiastically recommend this film to fans of the giant monster genre is particular, and to a general audience as well. The story is well paced and shot, the characters are mostly likable, with a few missed opportunities coming from a desire to see more back-story of characters, not less, and the movie really captures a unique note of exhilaration amidst desperation. Del Toro took a long shot by working in a genre that has been marred by poor efforts in the U.S. (1998’s Godzilla, 2005’s King Kong) and superficial fluff (Transformers, Mega Shark and his ilk.) Del Toro succeeds because he loves his premise, and his monsters, without apology or brooding sentiment. This is childhood distilled, and Pacific Rim wants you to come out and play.