Pacific Rim: 2,500 Tons of Fun

I firmly believe there is a switch in a good 50% of all childrens’ brains that is activated easily by the presence of giant robots and giant monsters. Speaking from my own experience, the childhood transition away from model dinosaurs in my peer group led almost immediately to the wonders of Power Rangers, Gundam, and of course, Godzilla. So when I saw the trailer for Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s loving tribute to Japan’s Tokusatsu films, I knew missing out on it was not an option.

Pacific Rim combines the plot tropes of your summer action blockbuster with those of the Daikaiju genre; in this case, a dimensional rift in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean appears in late 2013, allowing a monstrous sea creature to emerge and wreak havoc as conventional weaponry barely manages to halt its rampage. The rift remains open, and more monsters, nicknamed Kaiju, begin to break through into our world; in desperation, the world governments collaborate to create the “Jaegers”, titanic robots commanded by two neurally linked pilots, to fight the Kaiju on their own terms. The film follows the washed-up ex-pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), retired five years after his brother and co-pilot Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) was killed in his last Kaiju fight. With the Kaiju increasing in size and strength, and appearing more frequently, the Jaeger program has lost the capacity to contain the threat any longer; in the twilight months of the program, Raleigh is contacted by his old commanding officer Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) to join the few remaining Jaeger pilots in a last-ditch effort to seal the rift once and for all before the Kaiju overwhelm them, with the help of his new partner, the rookie pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).

Pacific Rim is a summer action flick paying tribute to the spectacle-heavy Tokusatsu films that inspired it, and as such I was not expecting Shakespearian writing. I was not disappointed in this department; Pacific Rim can be fairly predictable and the story is not really aiming to break any new ground, but you also get the sense that unlike some other summer action films, it is aware of this and comfortable with its simplicity. Despite its lack of depth, the story focuses on the intensity of a world besieged by an unending stream of giant monsters and the dynamics of the small force coming together to try and save the world from an enemy increasingly beyond their abilities to fight, and I feel this is where its attention belongs. In some ways, Pacific Rim is an inversion of Cloverfield‘s take on the Daikaiju genre in that it takes the attention away from the helpless victims running away with no idea what’s going on when the giant monster attacks and puts it back on the monsters themselves, and humanity fighting back. There are some plot holes, such as the governments’ obviously moronic decision to cease backing the Jaeger program in favor of large coastal walls that barely slow the creatures down, and the general failure to explain how the technology that makes Jaegers possible works, but on the whole Pacific Rim’s writing plays it fairly safe and it serves as a decent framing device for the spectacle that is the movie’s primary selling point.

Character performances is probably the place Pacific Rim falls down the most; Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi do their best, but the performances aren’t that memorable, and while Idris Elba is clearly putting in the effort, his lines are sometimes very difficult to understand and his accent sounds inconsistent, hurting his performance. I would actually say that the character who probably shines the most isn’t any of the main characters, or Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as a pair of scientists who provide most of the comic relief, but Max Martini as the Australian pilot Herc Hansen, who sadly didn’t get as much action as I felt his acting deserved. While Tokusatsu and summer action films are rarely known for their character acting, Pacific Rim does little to distinguish itself here.

These features are, however, mostly window dressing to the visual experience of watching Pacific Rim, and whatever criticisms one might have against merely OK story and characters are forgotten in the face of the spectacular special effects and action it provides. Guillermo del Toro’s striking creature designs get to really shine in this movie with its armada of kaiju; each and every one seen on screen looks fantastic, evoking both a very deliberate alien appearance while still maintaining a primordial feel to create the impression of something ancient and tremendously powerful awakening to sweep humanity away. The Jaegers created to fight them are equally impressive, each being gifted with very cool, easily distinguishable designs. Both the monsters and the robots move with a gravity that communicates their size, weight, and power wonderfully, but also bring a surprising level of agility to their actions. Even just seeing the titans emerging from the sea or slowly closing in on one another is a treat to watch. I could easily watch Pacific Rim again for the special effects and design alone.

The film clearly knows its well-designed monsters and robots throwing down is what the audience is there for, and Pacific Rim delivers in spades in the violence department. Each battle is big, fast-paced, and often viscerally brutal on both sides; more than one combatant in the film’s run is bisected or torn open, monster and robot alike. The shooting of the fights is extremely well-done, keeping attention on the action and allowing us to clearly follow all the combatants and feel each impact; after seeing how many action scenes get messed up by poor camera work, the absence of shaky-cam or confusing shots is both noticeable and strongly appreciated. Of note also is the use of the fight scenes to show the mental arms race developing in the Jaeger/Kaiju fights; despite being enormous and wholly bestial monstrosities, the Kaiju display a sinister level of intelligence as they begin to adapt to the Jaegers and go for their weak points. Little exposition is needed to show the audience that the Jaeger pilots, humanity’s only line of defense, are fighting an increasingly uphill battle even without considering their lack of support, but their triumphs against the rapidly mounting odds add a counterpoint of hope to the dread the Kaiju evoke.

In the end, if you are looking for a plot-heavy, character-driven narrative, Pacific Rim is unlikely to satisfy your need. However, if you’re in search of a high-spectacle action film with great effects and fighting, or just seeing a sincere and heartfelt tribute to the Tokusatsu film, Pacific Rim is an absolute blast to watch all the way through. As a wise man probably once said, sometimes a giant metal fist connecting with a monster’s face at high velocity is art all by itself.

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