Saturday, July 13, 2013

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

The following is a history of things to come.  August 11th, 2013, will come to be known as “K-Day.”  Giant monsters called Kaiju will emerge from the depths of the ocean and lay waste to human civilization.  In reaction to this crisis, the Jeager program was developed.  Jeagers are giant anthropomorphic vehicles that have been properly weaponized to fight the Kaiju.  Each one is manned by a pair of human pilots who share the “neural” load via mindmelding.  The Jeager pilots fight valiantly and turn the tide.  However, each new wave of Kaiju proves more fearsome and destructive than the last.  Eventually, the Jeager program’s effectiveness came into doubt.  However, Jeager Force Commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) presses on, as defeat is not an option.

Pacific Rim is Guillermo Del Toro’s loving tribute to japanese Kaiju films and mecha anime.  It comes two years after the Michael Bay’s third Transformers film.  Unlike that mega successful franchise, Pacific Rim isn’t an adaptation of any kind.  It wasn’t preceded by nearly a quarter century’s worth of prerelease marketing via toys, cartoons, and comics.  It’s an original creation (relatively speaking).  It performs its duties earnestly, providing casual viewers and outsiders alike with an accurate example of that which it pays homage to.

Guillermo Del Toro is perhaps the most underappreciated visual stylist working today.  His cinematic visions are simultaneously enticing and repulsive.  Pacific Rim is yet another triumph in that regard.  It gradually transitions from dystopic, war-torn wastelands to gaudy sci-fi noir cityscapes.  It also ventures into the gooey carcasses of slain beasts, and onto the cadaver tables of over eager scientists.  Watching the film is like touring overactive imagination.  Viewers will be awed and disgusted in about equal measure.  Most likely, they will be thankful for it.

Chief among the many complaints lodged against Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy (Soon to be a quadrilogy) is his clumsy and notion of spectacle.  ILM’s brilliant FX work was often obscured by horrible filmmaking.  The overly busy character designs only added to the visual confusion.  The Jeagers are also concealed for much of Pacific Rim’s running time, but in a more skillful way.  Most of their outings take place under overcast skies, or the cover of night.  One even takes place in the depths of the ocean.  This is undoubtedly meant to aid in the suspension of disbelief. 

Thankfully, viewers aren’t kept completely in the dark.  The Jeagers are still glimpsed in all of their towering glory.  There’s a sense of both scale and mass.  They lumber convincingly from one end of the screen to the next.  The weather conditions and environmental conditions add mood and presence to each confrontation.  The action scenes could have been rendered more clearly, but sequential progression is maintained nonetheless. 
The story, such as it is, adheres to the tenants of modern day “alien invasion” films.  Enthusiasts will notice some very obvious similarities to both Independence Day.  All of the expected tropes are in place, from the hive-minded antagonists to the concluding suicide mission.  It is here where Del Toro’s true intentions become clear.  He isn’t interested in reinventing the wheel, nor is he engaging in an act of transcendence or deconstruction.  He understands exactly what this film should be, and proceeds accordingly.  That lack of pretense is the film’s saving grace.  Fans of “hard” sci-fi are indulged, but only to a degree.  The film could have benefited from a more concise screenplay, as the second act lags just a bit.   

Being that Pacific Rim is completely derived from kaiju films and mecha anime, it makes constant references to well-known properties from both genres.  The way that Jeager pilots interface with their assigned vehicles recalls that of Neon Genesis Evangelion.  They also sport appropriately colorful haircuts and codenames.  The Jeagers have an arsenal of weapons that will be readily familiar to anyone who has ever watched an episode of Voltron.  There are also visual references to the tentacle porn variety of anime. 

The acting and characterizations are well-suited to the material, which is something of a mixed blessing.  Del Toro follows the standard operating procedure of war films to the letter, specifically the sci-fi variant.  Both the hotshot pilot and the experienced yet reluctant hero are present.  As commander Pentecost, Idris Elba is much more of a concerned dad than a stereotypical “Angry Black Boss.”  Charlie Hunnam is solid as shell-shocked jeager pilot Reliegh Becket.  However, he’s never allowed to be much more than an archetype.  Rinko Kikuchi strikes a good balance between sex appeal and vulnerable femininity.  She does so while remaining as formidable a warrior as the story requires.   In truly just world, she would be the film’s lone protagonist.  Ron Perlman’s glorified cameo is as refreshing as ice-cold Kool-Aid on a hot summer’s day. 

Pacific Rim is exactly what its advertising materials promise.  In a world where summer Blockbusters have become clumsy, lumbering behemoths, it strides gracefully.  It’s not a perfect creation, but a wholly satisfying one.  It seeks to preserve the relics of childhood rather than retooling them for an increasingly cynical populace.  If only Michael Bay could develop as light a touch.


  1. After that snore-fest known as Lone Ranger, I'm just glad to get a movie that's fun and knows what it is. For better or worse. Good review Scott.

  2. "Most likely, they (the viewers) will be thankful for it". Simple but so true. That's exactly how I feel, delighted and thankful for the surprising experience I haven't expected to have, for the emotional touch and the "nice to meet a blockbuster that's more than just a bunch of special effects" impression.


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