Michael Bay, take note. This is how you make a movie about giant fighting robots. From the gloriously fertile mind of director Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim is a breath of fresh air in a summer full of depressing films. One of the trends that I have noticed in the recent slate of Summer blockbusters has been the tendency of filmmakers making their films dark and gritty, to the point where it feels out of place. This is probably due to the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, all of which benefited from a darker tone. But when filmmakers try to work any kind of intellectual property through that same mold, the results come out awkward and un-inspiring. Movies like The Amazing Spiderman, Green Lantern, Man of Steel, and The Lone Ranger would have benefited from having a less confused tone and more of an idea of what kind of movie they wanted to be. Pacific Rim manages to avoid that trap effectively and becomes a film with an actual identity.
Remember when summer movies used to be fun? Del Toro clearly remembers, and he makes every moment in Pacific Rim a treat for audiences. It’s funny without being corny; playful without being condescending; and artistic without being pretentious. It’s all something that’s very surprising for a movie that’s basically about giant robots fighting giant alien monsters. I had my reservations about the movie to be sure when I first saw the film’s trailer. I couldn’t be happier to see my doubts proven wrong. It’s a refreshing summer movie that actually takes it’s premise to its full potential; as simple a premise as it may be. Guillermo del Toro doesn’t try to force feed his audience anything that this movie doesn’t need. We come to see giant fighting robots; we get giant fighting robots. There’s no unnecessary interplay and buffonery among the characters like you would see in a Transformers movie. Also, the movie isn’t padded with pointless comedic incidents like with The Lone Ranger. It’s a simple story done on spectacular scale and in the end, that’s all it needs to be.
Taking place in the near future, Pacific Rim has a story-line familiar to any monster movie buff. Deep in the Pacific Ocean, an inter-dimensional rift opens up and unleashes giant alien monsters that wrecks havoc on the major population centers along the coastlines of the titular Pacific Rim. In response to the threat, human beings have invented giant robots named Jaegers to battle and destroy these monsters that they’ve called Kaiju. To pilot the Jaegers, there needs to be two people sharing the controls and they both have to be linked neurologically together. To make the mechanisms work perfectly inside the robots, the two pilots have to be compatible physically and psychologically; so the pilots are often related by blood to one another. One pilot named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) has lost his brother in a fight with a Kaiju, which leads him to abandon the Jaeger program altogether. But, soon he’s brought out of retirement by the program’s director, Marshall Stacker Pentacost (Idris Elba). Paired up with a fresh new co-pilot named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who also has a tortured past of her own, Raleigh reenters the fight with a renewed purpose.
There isn’t much of a story beyond that premise. The Jaeger team must seal the rift with a nuclear device, but are met with interference from even bigger Kaijus. There is a subplot involving a set of eccentric scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) attempting to study the true intentions of the Kaiju, and there’s a run-in with a black market dealer played by Del Toro-regular Ron Pearlman, but together it all doesn’t matter. They are just the connecting thread for the spectacular fight sequences that make up most of the film. I’ve never been more content with a film that had thinly drawn characters like these in it. The characterizations in this movie would make the ones in Top Gun look Shakespearean, but I believe that was the intention of the director and the stars. We are only given enough development to have the characters earn our sympathy, and then the movie moves on quickly to the action. Overall, the writing in this movie, from a script by Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham, is deceptively balanced. By having characters that are simple and strong, the story is able to breathe and stay focused, because it’s not overly complicated with personal dilemmas. Like Bogart said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” and Pacific Rim‘s characters seem to understand that. What do our petty issues matter when there is a giant monster coming at us?
Because of this, Pacific Rim is a refreshingly breezy film. It runs 2 hours and 11 minutes, but it feels a lot shorter. The pacing is invigorating and doesn’t waste a moment, with only a couple of brief lulls throughout. The tone is also consistent, demonstrating Guillermo del Toro’s skill as a storyteller. We’ve seen director Del Toro tackle stories that have ranged for the tragic (Pan’s Labyrinth) to the disturbing (The Devil’s Backbone) to the playful (Hellboy). Pacific Rim is his most ambitious film to date, and it shows all the work that he’s done to build himself up to this point. Del Toro is clearly a fan of the kind of monster movies that inspired this story, and that love is felt in every frame on screen. From the production design of the creatures (many done by Del Toro himself) to the staging of the fights, everything is perfectly crafted to excite and satisfy audiences. Sometimes a crowd-pleasing film will sink to some baser elements just to get a rise out of people, but this film deftly avoids being just a stupid actioner. There’s creativity on display here and action that actually serves a purpose in the story rather than creating a lot of noise.
The performances also work to the advantage of the film. Everyone involved knows what kind of movie they’re in and they play their parts accordingly. I liked how the characters we’re playing off of the archetypes in the genre, very much like how a comic book would portray its characters. There’s no brooding, introspective personalities here; everyone is a walking stereotype, and that’s part of the fun. I particularly liked the scientist characters, because they were about as cartoonish as you could possibly make them; which is in sync with the tone of the movie, and the actors were perfectly cast. Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy fame makes a fine protagonist and he thankfully keeps his character consistently simple throughout. He just needs to look good fighting, which he does very well. Rinko Kikuchi is given a little more darkness to her character, but she doesn’t feel out of place here and also plays the part well. Idris Elba gives a strong commanding performance that helps to anchor the film perfectly and hopefully this movie boosts his star power, because he deserves it. And I’m probably not alone in saying this, but Ron Pearlman is so Badass.
The film only has a couple, very minor low points; and while they don’t spoil the film overall, they do stand out. It’s clear that the film is conscious of the cliches of the genre, but every now and then they do affect the movie negatively. The dialogue is definitely tongue-in-cheek ridiculous throughout, but I could sometimes find it irritating too. Idris Elba’s Stalker delivers your typical rousing speech to the troops near the end, and while I liked his delivery, I wish that the speech had been stronger. A moment like that make me think that Del Toro took a “good enough” approach to the scene, which clashes sharply with the more creative parts of the movie. Other moments like this happen sporadically, though they are thankfully few. Also, there are a lot suspension of disbelief moments in the film, which audiences are not likely going to think about, but if you start to, they can be hard to swallow; particularly one near the end (At what point did we invent inter-dimensional radio technology?). But still, they are minor complaints in an otherwise overwhelmingly solid movie.
This was the first movie this summer that made me want to watch it again right away. That’s a good sign of the movie’s staying power. This is a textbook example of how to make a Summer blockbuster. It delivers on its potential and doesn’t try to complicate things with needless plotting. Giant Robots fighting Giant Monsters for a whole movie may not be for everyone, but I can see little else this summer will satisfy anything else that an audience wants. I personally couldn’t be more grateful to Guillermo del Toro for this movie. This made my inner 10 year old boy squeal with delight. It’s the kind of movie that we all created in our minds when we played with our action figures as kids, and now Del Toro has brought it to the big screen. This is a dream come true for the teenage boy crowd, though I think most girls will also come away entertained as well; and most people too, regardless of age. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a movie just forget about trying to be all things for all people and just be what it wants to be, which in the end does make it appeal to all people. Hollywood should take note. This is what happens when you let a quality filmmaker make something fun and entertaining without making it follow a trend. Sometimes it’s better to be different.