Like many children of the ’90s, I grew up as a Power Rangers kid. I don’t know much about Godzilla or Ultraman, but I do have fond memories of watching giant robots fighting giant monsters in one epically campy deathmatch after another. Though I eventually grew out of that particular interest, my teenage years were heavily invested in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Escaflowne, and whatever Gundam series aired on Toonami.
So when word came of a multimillion-dollar CGI action spectacular that pitted giant robots versus giant monsters, my ticket was immediately sold. When I heard that Guillermo del Toro would be the director bringing the monsters to life, I bought the 3D IMAX upgrade and two more for a couple of friends.
That is not an experience I’d recommend for the faint of heart. Or for anyone without earplugs.
The premise begins in the modern day, when an interdimensional rift opens up between tectonic plates at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The opening of this rift — dubbed “The Breach” — heralds the arrival of gigantic monsters called Kaiju. Not even a minute into this picture and we’re treated to an epic (albeit brief) action sequence of the USAF versus a giant monster, with the Golden Gate Bridge getting caught and destroyed in between.
Several days and hundreds of casualties later, the Kaiju is killed. And then another comes. The Kaiju just keep coming through the Breach, one right after another. With the goal of finding a more effective and permanent solution, the nations of the world settle their differences to unite against this common threat. Together, they develop a fleet of giant robots called Jaegers, every one built for combat and armed with all the latest and greatest weaponry that taxpayer dollars can buy.
Now we get to the film’s central gimmick: The Drift. See, it quickly became obvious during R&D that driving a humanoid skyscraper is too much of a mental load for one person to take. To solve this problem, the folks at DARPA engineered a kind of neural bridge between two or more pilots. This “Drift Space” allows for multiple sets of mental hardware to work perfectly in sync, thus dividing the mental workload. The drawback, of course, is that this process requires two people to share their innermost memories, fears, and secrets with each other.
Because the Drifting process is so extremely intimate and volatile, Jaeger piloting teams usually consist of immediate family members. One such example is Raleigh Becket (the hero, played by Charlie Hunnam), and his big brother, Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff). They’re the pilots of an American Jaeger, dubbed Gipsy Danger (no, that’s not a typo on my part). Unfortunately, we don’t see them as Jaeger pilots for very long. During the prologue, Gipsy Danger quite literally gets torn limb from limb. It’s completely destroyed by a Kaiju, and Yancy is killed in the melee.
Cut to five years later. The Kaiju are growing much stronger, and the attacks are coming more frequently. The Jaegers are being torn down faster than they can be rebuilt, and the once-proud fleet has been reduced to four units. As such, the higher-ups are looking to cancel the Jaeger program and come up with something new: A giant anti-Kaiju wall that surrounds the entire Pacific Rim. This plan turns out to be every bit as stupid as it sounds, and we see as much for ourselves very quickly, but that wall is coming up. Why the governments of the world still insist on this awful idea, we never find out.
Anyway, the Jaeger program and its stalwart leader (Marshal Stacker Pentecost, played by Idris Elba) are given just enough funding for one final desperate effort. With the last of his resources, Pentecost is fervently salvaging everything he can. Naturally, this means bringing the Gipsy Danger and its last surviving pilot back into action.
Now that we’ve dispensed with the premise, I’ll tell you right up front: This is not a movie that allows you to stop and check your cell phone. This is not a movie that allows you to have a hushed conversation with the person sitting next to you. This is not a movie that allows you to get up and go to the bathroom. This is a movie that demands your full and undivided attention. This is a movie that physically grabs you by the neck and spends two solid hours flooding your thoughts and senses, leaving no room in your head for anything else.
Everything about this movie is huge. The scale is huge. The stakes are huge. The sounds are huge. The sets are huge. The action sequences… sweet merciful fuck. You know those action scenes in which the characters grab whatever’s in the immediate area and use that as a weapon? Imagine that with two giant monstrosities fighting in the middle of a city. These guys are swinging around battleships like it ain’t no thang.
Unfortunately (and I’m almost ashamed to say this) the film’s sheer size is its greatest weakness as well as its greatest strength. Maybe it was just the IMAX sound system, but there were so many times when I simply couldn’t process everything that was going on. I couldn’t hear anything, process anything, or even see anything through the massive curtain of noise that surrounded me. That certainly wasn’t a dealbreaker for me (I’m in a marching drumline, my hearing was given up for lost a long time ago), but I can understand how it might be for some poor devils.
Even worse, the attitude of “bigger is better” infected the cast as well. There are far too many times when the actors go way too over the top, pushing their expressions and volumes way higher than necessary (Idris Elba is a particularly sad and prominent case in point). Again, however, that may simply have been due to the IMAX presentation. Maybe the actors might have adjusted their performances accordingly if they knew their faces would be projected onto a 70-foot screen and their voices played on a booming surround sound.
Then again, it’s not like the actors were necessarily bad. I had never heard of Charlie Hunnam before this, but the guy’s got plenty of stage presence and action chops. He’s more than capable as the film’s lead. Opposite him is Rinko Kinkuchi, who was perfectly cast as Raleigh’s new co-pilot. In the role of Mako Mori, Kinkuchi shows a startling ability to transition from vulnerable to badass at the drop of a hat. This is best exemplified in her fight scene with Raleigh, which was exquisitely choreographed and used to show the actors’ sizzling chemistry. These two characters work beautifully off each other, which was of course vital for the movie as a whole and also for the premise.
Even so, there’s no getting around the fact that Raleigh is still a loose cannon with tortured past and a chip on his shoulder. The guy is very much a “Maverick”-style hero, so of course we need an “Iceman”-style rival for him. Enter Chuck Hansen, junior pilot of Australia’s top-of-the-line Striker Eureka, played by Robert Kazinsky. I get what the filmmakers were going for with the character, trying to depict a guy who was born and raised to be a Jaeger pilot, afraid to be in the care of a washed-up has-been like Raleigh. Unfortunately, a lot of that subtext is lost in execution, drowned out by Kazinsky’s performance and the character’s ham-fisted writing. Then again, it does help that the character has skills to back up his talk, and there’s a very satisfying moment when Raleigh and Chuck go ahead and beat the crap out of each other. Plus, there’s Chuck’s co-pilot/father (Herc Hansen, played by Max Martini), who provides a cool demeanor to balance out his hot-headed progeny.
(Side note: As to where Chuck’s mother is, your guess is good as mine. There’s that bulldog who shares every scene with the two Hansens, maybe the dog is the mother. Chuck could actually be a son of a bitch!)
Then we have Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, respectively playing the Drs. Geiszler and Gottlieb. The former is your standard geek who had the good fortune of living in a time when it’s cool and acceptable to be a geek. The latter is a parody of a collegiate intellectual type. One of them thinks that the Kaiju can be defeated through studying their biology, while the other is lobbying for an approach based on physics and mathematics. Alas, the both of them are egotistical pricks who can’t stand egotism in others. As such, they absolutely hate each other. Even so, that works to the film’s advantage, as their conflict brings some welcome energy and comedy to scenes that would otherwise be massive exposition dumps.
Moreover, the two doctors work together wonderfully as they divide the burden of conveying huge amounts of technobabble and exposition. It works as a callback to the motif of Drifting, which shows up in other ways as well. For example, we eventually learn that the Kaiju are so massive that they need two separate brains to work in sync just so they can move. Dinosaurs were the same way, apparently. Going a little bit deeper, the very concept of Drifting is a brilliantly subtle way to express the theme of overcoming obstacles through teamwork and courage, which are certainly among the movie’s most central themes. Come to think of it, those two themes were also prominent staples of the Japanese entertainment I watched while growing up. That can’t be a coincidence, I’m sure.
Getting back to the characters, Hannibal Chau deserves particular mention. The guy seems terribly weak on paper, since his existence and his actions were apparently determined solely by the needs of the plot. He looks and acts more like connective tissue than a character in his own right. That said, there are two reasons why the character works. First, Del Toro had clearly written the role for his buddy Ron Perlman. Hannibal is played with the absolute perfect mix of humor and intimidation that only Perlman could have provided.
Secondly, Hannibal allows us to get a better glimpse at how the world has changed because of the Kaiju invasions. We see how the Kaiju corpses are dismantled and sold for parts on the black market. We see whole buildings and villages built on the foundation of Kaiju skeletons. We learn that cults and religions have sprung up around the Kaiju. The filmmakers have built a massive world for this story to take place in, and Hannibal is great because he allows us to see just how massive it is.
As for miscellaneous nitpicks, there’s one character who claims that he “doesn’t bring anything to a Drift.” No explanation is made as to how that works or how it reconciles with anything we know about Drift Space. The pacing is such that a whole hour passes between Kaiju showdowns, but that hour is packed with so much action and so many other things happening that it works out okay. The happy ending is something of a deus ex machina, but I can’t hold it against the movie too badly because of course it had to have a happy ending. On a similar note, a lot of the characters suffer for being too rote. The characterizations are all cliched to some degree, and their development arcs could be traced with a ruler.
Basically, what it comes down to is this: Roughly three minutes into this movie, we watch as Raleigh and his brother suit up inside Gipsy Danger’s head. The head is then mechanically lowered at least 200 feet and attached to the robot’s body through a very elaborate series of mechanisms. There are two types of people in this world: One of them will say how utterly impractical and pointless it is, asking why a Jaeger’s head would possibly need to be separated from its body. It was very nice of the filmmakers to provide this scene up front, so that anyone who takes issue with the scene will still be able to leave the theater and ask for their money back.
The second type, by the way, will be the ones who go “Because it’s fucking awesome, that’s why!” That’s the type of person this movie was made for.
By the way, while we’re watching the Becket Brothers get ready for combat, this is what’s playing. Do you hear that? Do you know what that is? That’s the music you want to hear when you’re suiting up for something. It’s the music you want to hear when you’re getting pumped up and ready to kick some ass. It was crafted by Ramin Djawadi, a terribly underrated composer who did a similarly awe-inspiring job for Iron Man. Djawadi is the unsung hero of the movie. You know Idris Elba’s line about cancelling the apocalypse? The one line that was repeated ad nauseam in every single goddamned trailer and commercial for this movie? That line never worked for me until I heard Djawadi’s score for it. Then, all of a sudden, it just clicked.
Before wrapping up, the question must be asked: Why does Pacific Rim work when compared with other, inferior CGI spectaculars? Why should anyone see this when they could be watching, say, Avatar or any of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies? After thinking a great deal on the matter, I’ve concluded that Avatar is an inferior movie because it was stupid enough to take itself seriously. James Cameron clearly thought that he was making some grand dramatic allegory about environmentalism when he was only doing a half-assed job of rehashing so many story points we had already seen before. Pacific Rim, by comparison, has absolutely no pretension. It’s not trying to be a drama, an allegory, or much of anything aside from being a cinematic thrill ride. However, it doesn’t go as far as Michael Bay did with the Transformers movies, all of which were laid low by an aggressively juvenile sense of humor that’s mercifully absent here.
For better or worse, Pacific Rim is a movie that’s pretty much completely void of subtlety. Some themes of cooperation are implicitly explored in clever ways, and there are some neat hints of a greater universe being developed, but that’s it. Everything else in this movie is big and loud, but gloriously so. This is a film that delivers all the epic mayhem of Man of Steel, but without all the grittiness and bad camerawork that (according to some, anyway) weighed the film down. This movie offers a rare combination of bold creativity, awe-inspiring action, epic universe-building, and reverence (but not plagiarism) of what’s come before. I’d dare say that the movie could potentially be this generation’s Star Wars, and that’s not a comparison I make lightly.
Anyone in the mood for a light-hearted adventure with epic and spectacular action should seek this film out immediately. Those who can’t handle loud noises and simplistic plots shouldn’t even be within shouting distance of any place where this movie is screening.