Even if it is merely ‘Transformers versus Godzilla’, here’s why ”Pacific Rim” matters.
Like many of us, Guillermo Del Toro watched TV and movies, played with toys, read comics and drew cool characters in school books inspired by Gamera, Voltron and Neon Genesis: Evangelion (or whatever genre or movement gave rise to it).
He crawled around on his bedroom floor making monsters and robots fight, staged alien invasions, toppled buildings and had heroes save the day. The big sell of ”Pacific Rim” is that while we all did it, we imagined how cool it would be to see it much more realistically than our toys showed it. Unlike the rest of us, Del Toro got his childhood wish, and Pacific Rim is that wish realised. Everything else (including the plot and characters) is just window dressing.
It’s the near future and a rift has opened on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, spewing out giant beasts called kaijus that attack cities and kill millions. Before the title even appears on the screen to a fanfare of deep horns, the voiceover by Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) explains that the human race responded with the Jaeger program, 25-storey articulated fighting robots driven by two pilots whose minds are connected. The Jaegers are driven simply by the thoughts of the pilots, the gigantic machines responding mechanically as the human operators enact punches, grabs and the employment of an array of weapons.
With Jaeger pilots the new breed of military hero, humanity is containing the kaiju menace. But when hotshot Raleigh and his co-pilot brother meet the newest threat off the coast of Alaska, the monster is smarter and faster than any other humanity has seen. After losing his brother, Raleigh drives the machine away, defeated.
He’s still in Alaska five years later, working in construction. Around him the world is slowly falling to the newer, meaner kaijus. The failing Jaegers have retreated to a single base in Hong Kong, and the military higher ups tell program commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) they’re shutting him down, concentrating instead on giant walls that have already proven ineffective.
Pentecost comes to Alaska to find Raleigh, one of few Jaeger pilots left alive, and ask him back. The former hero joins the last few hotshot teams and the shy Japanese tech Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) who’s helping Pentecost prep the final Jaeger assault.
The stage is set for some smackdowns that give new meaning to the word ‘epic’, and like no other movie so far in 2013, the place to see Pacific Rim is on the biggest screen with the most ear-shattering sound system you can find. It’s the kind of film the movies were invented for.
Every time you don’t think Del Toro can possibly get any bigger, he goes there and past it. It says something about the size and scope when a robot swinging a derelict container ship at a giant lizard is the midpoint of your movie…
One of the most eagerly awaited aspects by film fans was always going to be just how much of the 48-year-old directors’ unique personality gets through the studio committee wringer. Where films like ”Cronos”, ”Devil’s Backbone” and ”Pan’s Labyrinth” were all Del Toro, his sensibility has a harder time emerging the more money they give him.
His stamp is visible in several aspects – not just the visuals of giant robots, alien monsters and their entrails (he’s always had a penchant for the slightly gross, and it’s merely the latest Guillermo Del Toro movie with an autopsy scene) but the very premise.
But when it comes to the structure, the story beats and the characters ”Pacific Rim” follows the studio action adventure fare playbook pretty closely. Cliched character tropes abound, many of which will have you rolling your eyes and asking yourself how many hundreds of times you’ve seen them before – from the rebellious flyboy with a dark past who likes to make up his own rules to the goofy, stuffy eggheads trying to understand what the military just want to blow away.
There’s even the same rousing pre-battle speech (‘Today we are cancelling the apocalypse!’) a la ”Braveheart”, ”Lord of the Rings”, ”Independence Day”, etc, etc. It also feel a little lazy that ”Pacific Rim” shares the exact same basic plot as one of the biggest sci-fi movies of the modern era.
Maybe the pat characterisations wouldn’t be so disappointing if better actors managed to lift them off the page. Hunnam is dreadfully bland as hero Raleigh, hot-swappable for a million other pretty boy, rough-and-tumble hero types. Rinko Kikuchi emotes only by pointing her eyes up and down and Idris Elba is all shouty militaristic poise. The backstories the film gives them all are ripped straight from Corny Characters 101 and with so many globally-known Australian actors in this day and age, do we honestly have to put up with Brits and Americans doing dodgy, Steve Irwin-inspired accents?
The problems are disappointing because they’re from Del Toro, which is an oblique compliment because he’s usually so good with story as well as visuals. It looks like a Guillermo Del Toro movie, it just doesn’t feel like one.
But it does feel like the biggest movie you’ve seen all year. The sense of scope is audacious, and there’s a level of technical expertise in making the 3D work that you won’t even think about because they’ve got it looking so good.
Take away the sizzle of giant robots fighting giant monsters and it’s a hundred other forgettable war movies. But as we crawled around on our bedroom floors having Shogun Warriors shoot at Mr Potato Head, ”Pacific Rim” is what we wanted to see.