Pacific Rim is the cinema equivalent of two action figures being bashed together in mock combat, the kid at play here being director Guillermo Del Toro. There’s very little nuance or subtext, just simply the boy-ish craving to see big things hit each other in glorious modern day CGI. And in that respect the movie delivers, with an attention to detail and well planned framing and scenery that is a feast for the senses. It’s a love letter to entire genres of animation and film that have been cultural watermarks for Asian countries but which never saw as much love from their American counter-parts. However, like a prism focusing colors into a single stream of light, Pacific Rim ends up white-washing everything in service of the spectacle, making it fall short in other facets.
One of the best things that Pacific Rim gets right is it’s international scope. The mecha and kaiju genres go way back to the early 50s with series like Tetsujin 28-go and the ever-popular Godzilla, and really exploded in the 60s and 70s with series like Mazinger Z, Gundam, and Gamera. Entire generations of North American children from the 90s on grew up on shows like the Power Rangers, which has its roots in the 80s kaiju battling series of Karmen Ride Super-1 and Ultraman. From this Del Toro smartly recognized going the route of the American remake wasn’t going to cut it, and instead made his threat a global one, even bringing the Aussies in on the mecha/kaiju fun. Not only is this a slam dunk pitch to producers who are increasingly looking east, but it also gives the film a fresh appearance in a time when the backdrops under threat tend to blend together. The destruction of American cities set up story but then are never really mentioned again, with much of the film focused on Alaska, Hong Kong, and Sydney for a scene or two. Even more interesting is the complete lack of anything Japanese; the main love interest hails from there, and there’s one flashback scene set in Tokyo, but besides that they don’t even get their own jaeger like the Chinese do (even if the Chinese are in and out of the picture faster than take-out). Which is a shame really, because a Japanese jaeger would have been something to behold.
As a movie about robots fighting monsters, it also gets the robots fighting monsters part right. In fact, the scenes in which the robots fight the monsters are really the best scenes, and not just in terms of action and visuals, but also in emotion and How Much You Care factor. Each fight scene really puts a strain on the jaegers, and there are many times you may find yourself wondering how they could possibly win when taking such heavy damage. There’s something to be said in how well Del Toro sets up the threat of the kaijus and it really delivers in these scenes. I was smiling, rooting, and nail-biting more during certain robot punches or robot moves than in any exposition or character interaction scene, which is where the film falls flat. When it comes to everything around the robots fighting monsters, this is entirely a movie by the numbers. Everything moves at an avalanche’s pace towards more kaiju and more fighting, until the point where even when the final battle was over you’re left with a sort of resigned, “that’s it?”.
Del Toro sets up a richly detailed world that you can really understand and which obviously had a lot of thought put into it, probably by a bunch of nerds sitting around a bar after a few drinks. When kaijus fall, they leave a lot of leftovers, and the movie explores how society reuses those materials and how illicit markets spring up around them. The scenes of Newman searching through the Blade Runner-esque ghettos of Hong Kong, built around the rib cages of a fallen kaiju, were among the most entertaining non-robot fighting scenes simply because they were outside the confines of the metal and tubes the movie encases itself in. The exploration of black markets, kaiju architecture, and even small things like “kaiju groupies” helps flesh out the landscape in a sort of down-to-earth Batman Begins kind of way, separating it from the mecha/kaiju films of the past and making it feel like this is a world that really has been impacted by attacks from massive beasts.
Don’t expect President Whitmore levels of inspiration from the Cancelling the Apocalypse speech. If you’ve watched a trailer, you’ve just about heard it all.
However, it’s unfortunate that Del Toro couldn’t translate this sort of detail over to his characters. All the players in this drama are a sort of checklist or mad-libs version of human beings with usually only one major attribute to define them; Raleigh runs from his former life because of his dead brother, Mako seeks revenge for her parents, Stacker knows only how to lead, Newton is the straight scientist and Hermann is the goofy one, and the Australian dudes, while playing out a neat father-son relationship you don’t commonly see in big action movies, still fill the role of bro-dude jerk rival and somber old veteran (I had to look up everyone’s names, they were that unmemorable). Even the connections between the characters are shallow and strenuous. Raleigh falls in love with Mako because she’s the first female he sees (She’s actually one of only two actual female characters in the film, the only one if you nix out Russian gal). Stacker has this apparent lifelong vow to protect Mako even though she was just a random kid he picked out of the debris. And besides the father-son relationship mentioned, the best of the lot, that’s about it. At one point Stacker is making a hard-ass speech to Raleigh about the importance of central leadership and says something along the lines of, “I am a focus, a fixed point everyone looks to.” which is really what you can say about every character. They are fixed points for you to latch onto and understand, without much movement or complexity therein. Certainly fine for a movie trying its best to be about robots fighting monsters, but as the sort of Hollywood canonization of the mecha/kaiju genres in the hands of Del Toro, I was hoping for a bit more outside of the cockpits. As an aside, to Del Toro’s credit, a friend pointed out how even though there’s a lack of female characters in the movie, Mako is never really sexualized in the way a leading love interest is. There’s little to no intimacy, not even a pre-credits mack sesh. Maybe more telling of the world’s pseudo-fascist society, but it was refreshing to have such a character stand on her own two feet, distinct from the main character yet compatible.
Like the characters, another big sign of missed potential comes with the so-thin-it’s-see-through scientist sideplot. We learn Newman can mind-meld with a piece of the kaiju brain, and from this he learns details of the kaiju’s world. We learn that kaijus actually have two brains, a strangely similar situation to the jaeger’s two person mind-meld control. He sets out to find a bigger brain to mesh with, all of this screen time adding up to a conclusion that is simply used to complicate the final battle, a momentary wrench in their plans, but one that is pretty easily overcome. It’s hinted that after mind-melding the kaiju are searching for Newman, but that’s picked up and dropped before you can question it, primarily used for a scene of tension cheese-grated by bits of comedy in a crowded bomb shelter. It would have been more neat if we could have actually gone inside the mind of a kaiju, hear it speak maybe, or when Newman and Hermann both mind-meld near the end, have them jump into the minds of two of the final three kaiju they fight, just something other than *imparts plot knowledge* with a twisty 2001 voyage through space visual. It’s the kind of that thing that could have been cooler, could have played more of a part in the story and stood on its own, but either for time reasons or simply wanting more robot fighting monster time, was left to wayside.
In the sense that any summer blockbuster is the cinema equivalent of playtime, Pacific Rim is a lot of fun and worth the ticket admission. They gave an excited, gleeful child the director’s chair and the result is what you would expect, a few action figures smashed together, the pretense for said smashing there, but flimsy.