REVIEW: 'Pacific Rim'
There’s a phenomenon that movies like Pacific Rim always have to overcome: I call it the “stupid factor”. At some point, both the filmmakers and the audience have to confront the fact that a story about 250-foot robots fighting giant Godzilla-size monsters is absolutely ridiculous. Some movies totally fail, usually by taking a serious tone with a silly concept. But the stupid factor can be overidden, as long as the film can win over audiences with its scripting, characters or visuals - in short, if it doesn't leave viewers saying, "This is stupid".
Happily, Pacific Rim sends the stupid factor flying - not with a giant robotic punch, but using director Guillermo del Toro’s trademarks: a wicked sense of humour and a boundless imagination. This film is both a visual feast and a carefree popcorn blockbuster, and more importantly, it knows it. In turn, the self-aware construction of the film is a breath of fresh air in an otherwise over-serious and cynically designed summer movie season. If you can push past the initial silliness of the premise, Pacific Rim is a surprisingly rewarding experience.
We begin with a bit of world-building: Welcome to the near future, when an inter-dimensional portal opens at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Aliens at the other end start sending through skyscraper-size monsters (called Kaiju) to level our cities and generally terrify everyone with their phosphorescent hides and giant protrusions. The Earthlings band together to create “monsters of our own”: giant battle machines called Jaegers, which bristle with weapons and are piloted by two humans connected by a neural link.
The Jaegers turn out to be pretty good at killing the beasts, and soon the two-pilot teams become global heroes. But the frequency of the Kaiju attacks increases, and the world powers start to lose confidence in the Jaeger program. The last handful of pilots decide to mount a final stand off the coast of Hong Kong to try and close the “Breach” at the bottom of the ocean and, in the words of Idris Elba’s character Marshal Pentecost, “cancel the apocalypse”.
Heavy stuff. But this is where Del Toro’s hand becomes apparent behind the scenes. Many directors would infuse the proceedings with an unnecessarily solemn script, or try to stuff in a romantic subplot. Instead, Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham just give us what we want to see. There’s lots of scenes with giant robots fighting giant monsters, and just enough material with the human characters to make us actually care when a robot loses an arm, or gets jumped by an acid-spitting dragon thing.
After all, Del Toro has a surprising range as a filmmaker. He can veer towards all-out comedy and comic-book action with Hellboy, and then turn around and make a dark (but surprisingly tender) fairy tale like Pan’s Labyrinth.
Pacific Rim, by comparison, borrows from both sides. The director balances titanic robot vs. monster fights with small-scale visual jokes, and gives us a handful of excellent comic relief characters (played by repeat collaborator Ron Perlman and a pair of actors who channel R2-D2 and C-3PO). But Del Toro doesn’t downplay the human emotion, either – we’re always aware of the larger struggle for survival, due largely to Idris Elba’s sobering speeches as the leader of the Jaeger program.
There are times when the mess of ripping metal and glowing Kaiju blood gets overwhelming. More than once, I was wishing for more wide shots of the action sequences, just to orient myself and understand which opponents were injured or destroyed. Editing quibbles aside, there’s nothing quite like a massive Jaeger dragging an oil tanker into a fight to use as a club to get your blood pumping, especially when it’s accompanied by the triumphant Pacific Rim theme.
And while I gravitated towards the supporting characters played by Elba, Perlman or the scruffy Charlie Day, the two leads played by Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi were a bit of a blank slate by comparison. Both actors get a chance to carry some scenes, but their characters are not nearly as memorable as other heroes from Del Toro’s work.
It’s hard to predict which viewers will be turned away by the “stupid factor” in Pacific Rim, but I stand by the argument that the film will surprise even the most skeptical members of the audience. It’s a summer film that may not make many demands of the viewer, but it certainly isn’t brainless. At its heart, Pacific Rim is a tribute to the monster genre, a category that too often falls into the B-movie vortex of Syfy releases like Sharknado.
Del Toro’s film is proof that works of pure imagination can still rule the screens, and for that Pacific Rim gets three and a half stars out of four.
What did you think of Pacific Rim? Was Del Toro’s flight of fancy a triumph of execution over premise? Or was the whole experience too much for you? Join the conversation in the comments section, and if you liked this review, share it with your friends and followers! You can also browse through my other recent reviews here:
Or if the classics are more your style, check out the archive of reviews on the oldies!