Film Review – Pacific Rim
Monster movies have long been a staple of the industry. Dating back to projects such as the enormously successful King Kong (1933), they are a cathartic way of working through our fears and nightmares in a safe environment. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that the longest-running film franchise has been Godzilla, with 28 films to date produced by Toho Studios (and we’re not including the American reboot). Almost five years since the last project he released as a director, one of the modern kings of the monsters, Guillermo del Toro, returns with his latest entry into the genre, Pacific Rim.
Set in current times, action begins when a portal opens up at the bottom of the ocean and giant monsters known as kaijus begin to come out at a slow pace. In hopes of stopping them, humanity joins together to form the “Jäeger” program, creating giant mechanical robots to combat the monsters, controlled by pilots who merge minds with each other through a connection known as “the drift.” Led by Charlie Hunnam and Idris Elba, this program marks humanity’s last hope for survival as the pace and intensity of the kaiju attacks increase.
There might not be a better director to tackle a project like this than Guillermo del Toro. His career has been marked by fantastical stories and vibrant imagery. Monsters have played a key role in his movies (both creatures and those of the human variety). His willingness to embrace sci-fi/fantasy is in stark contrast to most of what comes out of Hollywood that is not from someone named Peter Jackson and based on material from J. R. R. Tolkien. Pacific Rim is a nostalgic trip to childhood with all the latest and greatest technology of today. It plays to the desires of your 12-year-old self, and fits very well with the past projects del Toro has made. It feels like he makes movies he wants to see, and that earnest quality has gained him legions of fans. This film has the playfulness of something like Snakes on a Plane without being a self-referential parody; del Toro takes his movies seriously, and audiences are willing to follow him on the journey, ignoring how outlandish it might be.
The scale of Pacific Rim is massive; even in comparison to films such as Man of Steel and Iron Man 3, it feels huge. This is the kind of film where you can feel how it cost $150 million to make; it truly embraces the idea of cinematic magic. Both the CGI and live-action work signal that a lot of money was spent on set design and costumes, creating what really feels like a world in itself. The CGI is impressive, albeit at times overwhelming. The action sequences between the kaijus and the Jäegers begin to feel like watching a very high-end video game. The 3D is nicely done, more subtle than in-your-face, never really drifting into the gimmicky range. And thankfully, a lot of the footage used in the trailers was taken from the beginning of the film, so the best action is not spoiled.
The key to this movie is whether or not the viewer is okay with the simplicity of the story. There are some fascinating concepts underlying the plot elements, like neural bridges and inter-dimensional portals, but at its core, this film is about monsters vs. giant robots. A lot of time is spent within the battles, and, not surprisingly, these are periods where plot development is light. The film boils down to a big action adventure with a bit of comedy sprinkled in. The “science” is messy; some intriguing ideas are thrown about, but it probably would’ve worked better with a “less is more” approach. The tone is caught somewhere between exploring the ideas and giving the viewer filler explanation. Enough information is given for this movie science to make some sense, but not enough to cover up all gaps in logic. Like a sort of Pandora’s box, it is enticing to open, but as the ideas come out, they are less and less formulated. More likely than not, the people going to see this movie won’t care about these details anyway, so it just ends up muddying things.
There are in essence two films occurring within Pacific Rim, not unlike del Toro’s previous work on films like Hellboy. He definitely likes to weave between genres. Here, there is the action thriller that is about the build-up to the fight sequences, and then there is a subplot featuring Charlie Day (basically playing a scientist version of his character from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) that is essentially comic relief with a little bit of plot development added. The mixture of these two elements isn’t particularly seamless, but it is functional. The film probably would’ve worked better without the comedy, but it does do a good job of reminding the viewer that this is meant to be fun, not some heavy meditation on the future of humanity.
One glaring area where the film comes up short is diversity. Sure, Rinko Kikuchi‘s character does have a solid backstory, and she kicks some ass as one of the Jäeger drivers, but the film definitely fails the Bechdel test…apparently women have mostly been wiped out during the kaiju attacks. Beyond that, besides Idris Elba, it is a very white cast of characters (mostly British)—though, for whatever reason, del Toro decided to have Hunnam speak with an American accent. I guess we have to be involved in the monster killing for our audiences to care about the movie.
I’m a sucker for monster movies, in particular giant monster movies, so as long as the film delivered on some massive battle sequences, I was going to like it. Thankfully it did, though I still would’ve liked more. Pacific Rim certainly won’t be the most thoughtful movie to come out this year, and probably not even this summer. But it embraces the fun side of film. And there will always be a place for that.
Final Grade: B+