Pacific Rim (2013) / Action-Sci Fi
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence, and brief language
Running time: 132 min.
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Robert Kazinski, Max Martini, Burn Gorman, Ron Perlman, Clifton Collins Jr., Diego Klattenhoff
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Travis Beacham, Guillermo del Toro
Pacific Rim is Guillermo del Toro's (Hellboy 2, Pan's Labyrinth) homage to the old Japanese films featuring Kaiju (literal translation: "strange beast", or the Americanized, "giant monster"), which were sci-fi flicks about grotesque, building-sized creatures who would come from the depths of the sea or from outer space and destroy a large city while battling armies, if they didn't just fight another Kaiju. Being that most of these came out in the 1950s and 1960s, the effects were on the low-tech side, though the destruction displayed loomed large, as men in foam or rubber suits traversed through small-scale models of cities and casually knocked down some buildings, intercut with reaction shots of humans running from the disaster on the ground and the military shooting whatever weapons they have on disposal into the air.
Del Toro doesn't stop there, as he also merges the Kaiju homage with that of Mecha, another style of sci-fi film made popular by the Japanese in a similar era. To combat the ever-increasing Kaiju horde, humanity has taken to the creation of "Jaegers" (German for "hunter"), which are massively giant, Kaiju-sized robots controlled by a pair of humans (in a process dubbed "Drifting") built for the sole purpose of taking on the mega-monsters in battle. Flash forward about 50 years from the old Japanese flicks, and major advancements in the realm of special effects have brought the destruction of major cities, not only to the forefront, but they have become a staple of summer blockbuster cinema of the 2010s. But to call Del Toro's homage just a Kaiju or mecha to engage in wanton destruction would be shortchanging this wild, wacky, and wonderfully effective film by a large margin.
The Kaiju are coming from what appears to be a portal which has opened up in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean due to seismic activity. One of the best Jaeger-controlling duos are Raleigh (Hunnam, Children of Men) and his brother Yancy (Klattenhoff, After Earth), though they no longer share mind and body (piloting the robot successfully requires two people) when a mishap takes Yancy out of commission, something Raleigh is so traumatized by that he gives up thinking he can get 'back in the saddle' for battle again, though the Kaiju keep on coming, and with increasing frequency.
With the fate of the Earth fast approaching the tipping point where humans will likely lose out to the Kaiju horde forever, Jaeger master commander Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Elba, Prometheus) decides to pull Raleigh out of retirement and back into action, reluctantly also agreeing to his partnering up with his surrogate daughter (of sorts), Mako Mori (Kikuchi, The Brothers Bloom), despite both of them having trouble focusing due to their deep-seated trauma losing loved ones to the uncaring Kaiju. The scientists think they may have discovered a way to stop the Kaiju from continuing to invade and destroy, but with numbers multiplying, and the amount of Jaegers dwindling, it's going to take some ingenuity to stem the tide.
Pacific Rim is a consummate special effects movie, but a rare good one, mostly because Del Toro knows that just throwing lots of very impressive CGI at the screen can often lead to a completely empty-headed and empty-hearted experience. Instead, Del Toro, who worked on the script with Clash of the Titans screenwriter Travis Beacham, digs back into the hows and whys of just what makes the old Japanese monsters and robots movies cool and compelling to millions of viewers over the years, and gives us oodles of that. If you just want to see massive structures get destroyed and blow up well, there's plenty of that. If you also want to see mega-robots fight mano-a-mano with otherworldly beasts hell-bent on wanton destruction, there's a lot of that too. But Del Toro adds so much more on top of these things that Pacific Rim becomes its own beast altogether; while most of the components come from many styles of movies over the last 60 years, and many of the elements are reminiscent to the blockbusters of today (Transformers comes to mind), there's also not quite another film quite like this one. It makes the old feel like something new.
If one were to read social commentary into the mix, Pacific Rim could be seen as a movie based on our fear of extinction at the hands of Mother Nature, especially with all of the climate change gloom and doom that hangs heavily over us with each passing year, with incidents increasing exponentially over time just as they do in this film. Interestingly, just as with other natural disasters, the Kaiju are attributed "categories" to determine how large and ferocious they are in their ability to wreak havoc. Giant sea walls are erected in order to try to stem the tide, and yet nature blows through them like the levees in New Orleans. In the Drifting and in other larger scale arenas, humanity has to come together, to be of like mind, in order to solve these problems that might lead to our extinction, even though our fears may cause us to stagnate. Alas, as the hurricanes and other disasters continue to threaten destruction of our civilization, we aren't of "one mind" on what to do, and our path to destruction continues to become more imminent.
If there's a downside, it's the same feeling you get when watching Del Toro's Hellboy movies, which are creature-features of sorts on a smaller scale; the screen is often too busy and dialogue scenes too noisy to allow enough breathing room to provide adequate contrast to the action sequences. Del Toro, while a magnificent presenter of crazy-cool melees, hasn't quite captured how to build up the requisite suspense and intrigue to these battles that might kick up the adrenaline from just dumb fun to an all-out, fever-pitch rollercoaster ride. He's just a little too eager to cram in as much as he can; he almost seems to be chomping at the bit to get to the next scene before he finishes the one showing. It's still fun, and often funny, but in the end, we're watching lots of pyrotechnics during scenes when we should be gasping for air at all of the oohs and aahs of seeing god-like creatures battle on the urban landscapes. For example, there is a scene where one of the Jaegers beats a Kaiju using a cargo ship as if it were a large club, and while it's an undeniably clever and cool tidbit from Del Toro, it still falls short of capturing the awe-inspiring gravity and magnitude of such a majestic event.
As a mega-budgeted throwback to relatively forgotten B-movies of yesteryear, Pacific Rim is still quite a bit better than it probably has any right to be, given that it is, at its core, just a silly summer popcorn movie featuring hammy, second-tier actors, sketchy characterizations, comic book-worthy dialogue, campy plot developments, nutty comic relief side characters that exist only in dumb blockbusters, repetitive battles featuring close-up grappling with nearly indistinguishable monsters (one of the characters discovers that they are clones of one another) that look like they're more meant to be in a video game than a motion picture, and an emphasis on special effects that is nearly suffocating to the potential of a great story emerging. And yet, despite it all, it works, thanks to Del Toro's nimble ability to keep the storyline from sagging, while also rarely overplaying his hand.
It's a bit astonishing that the film was green-lit, much less given upwards of $200 million for a property that isn't part of an existing franchise and has no real star power, and yet it ends up being the one summer blockbuster thus far in 2013 that truly gets it right. If you even have an inkling of love for the old giant monster movies of film days of the past, Pacific Rim will likely tickle the nostalgia bone in you, perhaps leaving the theater feeling like a kid again, albeit a little punchy from the sensory overload. It's 'senseless fun', made especially for those who enjoy when those two words go together.
©2013 Vince Leo