Review: Pacific Rim

 Spoilers

Trailer

Guillermo Del Toro's monster movie was praised by parts of its primary audience before it was even released. But does it hold up?

Guillermo Del Toro’s monster movie was praised by parts of its primary audience before it was even released. But does it hold up?

Well, well, well, Pacific Rim.

I had really mixed feelings before I even sat down in the theatre to watch this film. I am what society has decided in all its wisdom to term, a “nerd”. I am part of this subset because I enjoy science-fiction and fantasy, gaming in many different forms, and because a large proportion of my friends are the same.

Pacific Rim was marketed at me, and the “nerd” community, big time. Nothing wrong with that, and I’m used to it, of this general feeling and promotion that something is “kick-ass”, “awesome” or some variation of any statement that could be fined tuned down to “Come on, its giant robots punching each other, what more do you need?”

Again, this wouldn’t have bothered me at all, I’m used to it. But then suddenly, Pacific Rim became more than just a film for “nerds”, it became a battleground, thanks largely to Adam Sandler and his comedy sequel Grown Ups 2, which came out on the same weekend.

Now, a lot of people don’t like Adam Sandler and his movies, for a lot of reasons. But the fact that Grown Ups 2, a mostly panned comedic offering, not only outdid, but substantially outdid Pacific Rim at the box office, and was tipped to do so for a whole month before release, galled a portion of that “nerd” subset, which I suppose I could dub the “hardcore nerds” or “fanboys”.

As a result, whenever I went anywhere where I go to check up on movie news or discuss them with others online, I seemed to see a never ending stream of aggressive exhortations to go and see Pacific Rim, to not let Grown Ups 2 “win”, usually followed a self-pitying rant at how cheap formulaic comedies seem to be the Kings of Hollywood over “unique” and fresh ideas like Pacific Rim. Such behaviour usually went hand in hand with OTT defences of Pacific Rim if anyone dared to criticise it. See here for a particularly obnoxious example, or check out the PWOT forum thread which was finally locked when the “fan Jihad” reaction got too tiresome for moderators to deal with.

That whole aspect of the build-up to Pacific Rim nearly made me ignore the movie completely, so unpalatable was the fan base it seemed to create. To try and suck me into some sort of contest between “nerds” and the rest of Hollywood over a science fiction action movie was distasteful, as was any attempt to paint Pacific Rim as the saviour of the movie business in waiting.

Pacific Rim is unlikely to make a profit, once you throw in marketing costs, so it can hardly be called a financial success. This is not a surprise, and I don’t consider it something to weep over either. I’m going to go into my thoughts on Pacific Rim in just a moment, but it certainly is not the shining diamond in the rough that so many of its fans seem to think it is, and earnestly want the rest of us to view it as. I would perhaps be more sympathetic to Guillermo Del Toro and his creation if I hadn’t been so off put by the fanbase that attached itself to this movie, which was one of the most negative and irritating I’ve seen a long time.

I wanted to get all that out there before I begin, since it’s not something that really fits into my review structure, but I felt that it was worth noting.

Also, “Pacific Rim” is a very stupid title for this movie. When I first heard that, I thought it might have been a documentary or something. This stuff actually matters, and I’m surprised that Del Toro went for something so obtuse.

Pacific Rim, in its prologue, does a great job with its universe building.

Pacific Rim, in its prologue, does a great job with its universe building.

In the not too distant future, humanity is under assault from the Kaijus: gigantic monsters that come from another dimension through a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. In order to combat this extraordinary threat, mankind comes up with the Jaegers: massive, bipedal robots, so complex that they require too kindred minds to merge with the machine together in order to pilot them. Jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) retires after his brother and co-pilot is killed in a Kaiju attack, but is brought back into the program by its commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) for one last attempt at ending the extra-dimensional  threat for good. He will have to do so with the help of the Stacker’s mysterious assistant Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), the father and son pilots of the Australian Jaeger, Herc and Chuck (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky) and the unstable scientist duo of Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman).

It is an OK story in general. Not a very good, or unique story, though I’ll talk more about that towards the conclusion. But it is an acceptable story, for a science-fiction action movie. There is a compelling universe, one set up rather brilliantly in a brief prologue. You don’t see enough prologues, good ones anyway, in movies of this nature anymore, but Pacific Rim’s hits the jackpot with its one: establish the basics, show off some excellent CGI moments and prep the audience for everything that is to come. That’s done very effectively in the opening few minutes and even better with the rest of the pre- title screen material.

Like I said, it’s compelling. It would be easy for Pacific Rim to go down a “brainless” route, but it has managed to avoid that, a bit anyway. The Kaijus are more than just some bland CGI monster wrecking up cities, they are something that impacts every facet of humanity and our culture to a large degree. Showing something as simple as a Japanese kids show mocking the Kaijus is a really good way to build the universe, far more than other directors, who would presumably have just showed that first beast destroying San Francisco in detail, could be trusted to do.

I liked the very feel of the universe, of the move from a bad-ass Jaeger army to a “resistance” of what pitiful remains of the human force are left in the “Shatterdome”. Del Toro, through this universe, is able to capture a lot of very good themes and vivid emotions. He’s made a very good stage to set his story on. Too good maybe.

Because while a hell of a lot of thought and work has been put into the universe of Pacific Rim and presenting it well onscreen, far less work has been put into the plot (story being a mixture of plot and setting in my eyes). It is a very basic tale at the end of the day – wounded veteran called back into action to save the day – and there are no plot beats that really surprised or intrigued me that much. The typical highs and lows that you would expect from such an action movie are in their proper places, as is the self-sacrifice angle of the conclusion, the whacky side-characters for comic relief etc etc. In many ways, it felt like a train ride, one that builds up speed slowly and has lots of nice scenery to gawk at outside, suddenly accelerates rapidly towards the end, and then glides to a stop, with never a hint that the driver is going to alter the route to take the passengers into the more interesting surrounds.

The big problem isn’t just that though. The utterly lame characterisation is what comes closest to ruining Pacific Rim as an experience. With the exception of Mako (and even then, only just) none of the characters in this production really stand out as living, breathing entities, they’re just copy and pasted from our old friend, the Big Book of Stock Characters. Wounded/traumatised veteran? Check. Stern, gruff commander type? Check. Sarcastic ally/rival who becomes friendly by the end? Check. Slightly deranged scientist? Check, twice. Opportunistic crime lord? Check.

Having stock characters isn’t inherently bad. You can take a stock character and go places with them, with good dialogue, good arcs, good conflict. Pacific Rim lacks that in most cases. I couldn’t really say that any of the characters really change that much from beginning to end, except in the most minor of ways.

As an example of plot issues, let’s talk romance. Pacific Rim lacks a clear romantic sub-plot, almost a requirement for this kind of movie. There are the bare hints of one between Raleigh and Mako, but in the end I think it was more implied that they were a good match due to their past traumatic experiences.

This kind of plot choice has its positives and drawbacks. It’s a relatively fresh take on how things usually go in this type of movie, inverting the traditional structure a little bit. With no love plot to spend time developing, there is more screen time for other stuff (like Charlie Day’s trip into Hong Kong for example).

But the drawback is that there is less emotional investment from the audience in the two characters. We see them go through the traditional “beats” for a romantic sub-plot alright, but without any of the expected pay-off and that can rankle a little at the conclusion, given the slightly foggy nature of the ending when it came to that relationship (which wasn’t a good move either). Given the weak characterisation applied to nearly everyone, a romantic sub-plot might actually have helped matters, in so far as giving the audience additional reason to actually root for the protagonists in the final battle. I just didn’t have the usual emotional investment for the finale, and I wonder if this might be part of the reason why.

Charlie Hunnam just doesn't cut it as the hero, with Rinko Kikuchi doing a lot better.

Charlie Hunnam just doesn’t cut it as the hero, with Rinko Kikuchi doing a lot better.

(That being said, I can only state my appreciation that the Mako character wasn’t just another Megan Fox-type sci-fi bimbo. It’s actually a bad thing, overall that I have to note this, but I was pleased by the distinct lack of ”TNA” throughout Pacific Rim especially compared to something like Star Trek Into Darkness).

The plot problems continue with the other sub-plots. The father/son Australians are probably the most cliché of the lot, and the dynamic between the two was always tinged in my eyes with a distinct sense of “I know exactly how this is going to turn out”. The only twist was that it was the son who died at the conclusion. The two scientists having to work together to get their own sub-plot finished worked only as far as a distraction from some of the more serious stuff, and by the conclusion was maybe egging the teamwork theme a bit too much for my liking.

Another big problem with the plot was the general sense of futility that I felt half-way through when a very important plot twist becomes apparent. When Geiszler discovers that the Kaijus, far from being mindless animals, are actually the colonisation tool of a vastly more advanced extra-dimensional race of beings out to conquer Earth, I suddenly couldn’t escape the idea that the entire rest of the movie and the quest to shut down the portal was a waste of time. I mean, these aliens were sending animals to our planet 65 million years ago. Why do we think that just sending one nuke to the other side of the portal is going to actually stop them? Won’t they just open up a new portal at some point?

The sense of futility really bugged me as I went through the motions of the heroic assault at the end, because this point never seemed to be addressed by anyone. Better I would have thought to leave that revelation till the very end in order to preserve the tension for the finale, but I guess that just isn’t the way that Del Toro does things.

I mean, in general the movie is paced quite well. There isn’t a glut of action every five minutes, and time is taken to try and build-up gradually to the extended Jaeger vs Kaiju fights of the last 45 minutes. Not all of that build-up time is actually that good of course, and it’s perfectly possible for a film like this to swing too far the other way when it comes to the action scale. I personally felt that Del Toro did a good enough job pacing Pacific Rim, choosing to hold back on the best of his visuals until the film is past its half-way point, I just wish that more of the lead-up was actually as interesting as the universe it was a part of. It’s the little things like what I just mentioned – the wrong time to reveal a plot twist, the wrong time to switch back to the comedy scientists, the wrong amount of time given to the “other” Jaeger robots and teams.

That last point especially. Del Toro makes sure we take notice of the Russian and Chinese Jaeger teams in all of their diverseness and varying styles, only for them to last less than two minutes in an actual fight, never to be heard of again. That’s the sort of thing I just don’t like, because the production work put into the robots, and the time taken to focus on them in the build-up, absolutely does not justify the meagre pay-off the audience gets. Perhaps a slightly extended first act might have been beneficial in that regard, to give them more of a chance to show off in a time when the Jaeger’s were having more success against the Kaiju threat.

I’ve mentioned the humour asides, carried by Charlie Day and Burn Gormann. These generally work ok, though they do become more distracting than welcomed towards the very end. Action needs that to alleviate the seriousness, doom and gloom of the general premise, and I think Del Toro was able to implement it without going too far (Ahem, Michael Bay, ahem). In fact, much like the universe building mentioned above, they’re implemented too well at times, and actually take away much needed limelight from the “main” actors.

Plot holes abound of course, mostly forgivable, some not so much. A slight failure of the Inception test. One wonders why the US Air Force is actually flying low enough to actually get destroyed by the Kaijus in the prologue when they could just batter them with missiles from above. In fact, why aren’t they just doing that the whole time? A nice big conventional ICBM would do the trick for these beasts. The whole idea of the “Global Defence Wall” is ludicrous to the extreme – won’t the Kaijus just climb over it if they can’t batter a way through? And the general design of the Jaegers is terrible too, with the “pilots” located in the easily targeted head section, which once destroyed renders the rest of the robot useless – as the Chinese triplets are unlucky enough to find out.

When discussing the story, I can only conclude by noting my surprise at how lacklustre it was at times, considering the director. Something like Pacific Rim is way outside Del Toro’s previous fare, which was far more story driven than this. While Pacific Rim’s general plot and everything involved in it is far from awful, it’s easily the least compelling of Del Toro’s back catalogue.

The "Global Defence Wall" is one the stupidest ideas I've ever seen on film. Won't they just climb over it, if not through it?

The “Global Defence Wall” is one the stupidest ideas I’ve ever seen on film. Won’t they just climb over it, if not through it?

The acting talent on show here is generally of a weak standard, which is actually surprising considering the director who got such good performances out of his cast in things like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. Maybe it is just an inevitable consequence of big-budget CGI (well, mostly inevitable, there will always be exceptions) movies that the acting will be of a secondary concern. But it’s actually worse than that here, because there are a few very good actors putting in a very mediocre shift.

Charlie Hunnam basically looks the part of the dashing action hero and little else. He’s bland, largely emotionless, with no charisma, simply going through the motions as Raleigh. Considering that the core of the early emotionality that is supposed to be on display should be coming from him after his brother’s death in the prologue, this is quite bad. I suppose I can’t quite say that he’s terrible, but he certainly isn’t good. Very much channelling the likes of Sam Worthington from Avatar in terms of performance, just the biological prop in an otherwise CGI/metal set filled production.

Rinko Kukuchi is a lot better, thankfully, despite a few problems with English. I suppose that’s just a standard problem when you want to cast someone from east Asia in your big-budget blockbuster, they’re just naturally going to have some problems with the correct pronunciations, but it really isn’t anything to get to distracted by (and boy oh boy, it is a lot worse in the next movie I’m going to be reviewing, The Wolverine). Kukuchi is the real emotional heart of the story, struggling with the death of her family, the traumatic encounter with a Jaeger in her childhood, and her dream of becoming a Jaeger pilot – which leads her to display an obsession bordering on romantic with Raleigh. Kukuchi does it all very well, even if she is basically taking a back-seat once we cross the half-way point. While she’s doing nothing Oscar-worthy, she is a shining light in a cast that is hardly covering itself in glory.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that her performance, her character and the way that she is treated visually (I think of all the characters, she’s the only one where her backstory is approached with something resembling subtly, with some interesting visual metaphors) meant that Mako should have been the primary protagonist, as her journey was far more interesting to me than that of Raleigh. Del Toro made a truly wonderful movie with a female lead before, in Pan’s Labyrinth, and I think it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity that he didn’t (or, knowing Hollywood, wasn’t permitted to) do the same thing here.

Idris Elba, oh boy. What happened? Stern, gruff and little else in a performance as flat and uninspired as I have ever seen him. I mean, this is a guy from The Wire, probably the best acted TV show in recent history. He’s the headliner of Luther, one of British television’s best achievements. He’s won awards. But here, he is just barely trying. I caught an interview with him during the films promotion, and he was fairly candid about his seeming embarrassment over his lines and the whole experience, and it really shows onscreen. Elba can give off an aura of authority. He has a presence. But his delivery and interactions with other characters are very poor here. Silently reflective isn’t going to cut it all the time. Apparently this role was initially offered to Tom Cruise, and I daresay he might have been a better fit.

Charlie Day is one of the last people I would have expected to be in this, but he sort of steals the show. I’m a huge fan of Its Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and Day is basically just playing the same character, albeit a little bit smarter. That makes his Geiszler really odd to see, but in a sort of endearing way. He provides the comic relief with his manic energy and almost genuine zaniness, and plays very well off Burn Gormann, whose Gottlieb is less noticeable but perhaps more witty. The two have a great back and forth throughout the whole film, and as previously mentioned only get tiresome in small sections. Day and Gormann are here to provide a few laughs and odd situations, and Day, revelling in this sort of role, is a real delight to watch. He’s enjoying himself and the part he has been given to play, the kind of description that is very lacking when it comes to Elba and the others.

Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky are the father/son Aussies. Martini I liked in The Unit and Revenge, Kazinsky I liked in Dream Team. But I would never rate either of them very highly as actors, since they tend to fall into rolls that do not require any kind of immense emotional effort. That’s pretty much the case here, as they mirror Elba: stoic, gruff, with the occasional inclusion of sarcasm. Their final goodbye, while scripted in a very cliché manner, was a lone exception, and actually felt like a very real portrayal of a masculine bond being broken for a final time, with both men struggling to say the words.

Last of the notables is Ron Perlman. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see him pop up, I just wish that it was a third Hellboy movie with this director, rather than an expanded cameo. His Chau is random and not really that essential to the plot, but still a colourful and eye-catching character. Pearlman plays with aplomb, clearly enjoying himself, rather like Day, with whom he has several good moments.

The rest of the cast is fairly one-note and lacking in screentime. Clifton Collins Jr is the Jaeger technician, not bad for what time he has. Diego Klattenholf is Raleigh’s brother, who has a good dynamic with Hunnam in the prologue. And Ellen McLain, that is, GLaDOS, shines as the Jaeger AI.

Everyone else – the Russian and Chinese Jaeger teams for example – barely qualify as characters, their entire impact in the film relegated to the visual, the odd grunt, the sardonic look. I suppose that might good enough for some people, and I’m sure there are plenty of audience members out there who’d infer reams of character notes from such things, but not me. I expect better if you want me to actually care about those characters when the Kaijus wipe the floor with them.

As accomplished as he is, Idris Elba can do nothing to improve Pacific Rim on the acting front.

As accomplished as he is, Idris Elba can do nothing to improve Pacific Rim on the acting front.

Ultimately, the few stand-outs – Day, Pearlman and Kukuchi – see their efforts dragged down by the poor showings of the rest, most notably Elba. Del Toro has focused on the spectacle rather than the human side of history when it comes to his direction, mores the pity.

Visually, the film is fantastic. Outstanding even. It should come as no surprise really that Pacific Rim is a very pretty production even if, like so many Hollywood offerings nowadays, it goes fairly overboard on the blue and orange tints.

The CGI is crisp and believable, the look of the giant behemoths onscreen never really straying too far into disbelief territory. Part of that is the way that they move and fight – slow and ponderous which adds a degree of believability that things like Transformers just don’t have. These kinds of giant machines and monsters should fight like this, where you can see every blow coming as the massive weights are thrown around. It really adds something to the fight scenes, and probably allows the visual team more leeway in crafting entities that look good and feel real to the audiences imagination.

Those fight scenes are nearly all great. There are some great set-pieces here, from the early battle off the shore of Alaska to set up the basics of Jaeger/Kaiju combat, to the extended battle in the streets of Hong Kong, where both ”sides” use elements of the local terrain to their advantage. Not least, Raleigh and Mako using a freighter as a club in one memorable sequence.

The Jaeger’s, while making no sense in terms of their design, still look really cool, and a good job is done on building up several different versions of them, that conform to the nation or pilots that control. The “protagonist” Jaeger, “Gypsy Danger” is the red, white and blue arsenal of democracy from America, the Chinese Jaeger is multi-armed and fights with a strange sort of martial art, the Russian one is a metal lump. There is a really cool wealth of diversity in the designs, and a lot of really awesome looking elements brought into play, from rocket arms to swords. Del Toro obviously had a vision of bringing this anime inspired vision to life on a big screen, and I think he succeeded.

It’s a little less of the same for the Kaijus. Ultimately, they all share a basic similarity, in terms of colour especially, although enough is done before the final battle to make each one a bit unique. They all look fearsome and impressive, with the right use of horn, teeth and other alien elements to build up this strange behemoth race onscreen.

The exception, as mentioned, is that final fight underneath the Pacific Ocean, which is an underwhelming and somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. The gloom of the surrounds and the very similar nature of the three Kaiju’s they fight make it very difficult to actually determine what is going on in the fight scene, who is fighting who and who is getting damaged. The impact of the first “Category 5” Kaiju is markedly lessened by the sudden switch to a wide angle shot over the more up close and personal camera angles of earlier in the film, as the size doesn’t look quite as impressive. The final fight does have one very impressive visual moment going for it though, in the nuke detonation that temporarily drives the Pacific Ocean away from the combat area.

There are lots of other visual things to give a shout out to. The “trail” effects are all really well done, giving that sense of two minds merging very effectively. The interior set of the Jaeger’s are all really well-built and immersive, a good mix of CGI and actual, physical sets, not unlike elements of the Iron Man franchise. I’ve mentioned before the “lived-in” feel of the universe, and some great visual imagery is key to that, like the city of Hong Kong rebuilding itself around the bones of a Kaiju, or the run down, grimy locale of the Shatterdome, or Hannibal Chau’s shining Kaiju backroom. The character of Mako gets some great little visual metaphors to flesh out her mostly silent back-story, with something as simple as a missing shoe really adding to the sense of dread and despair in all of these sequences.

One of the big visual motifs that I really liked was the switch from the prologue to the rest of the movie. Before the title screen comes up, the Jaeger program is depicted as a slick, state of the art production, with a sheen to it like JJ Abram’s Enterprise. Once Raleigh collapses on to that Alaskan beach, things change, markedly, as Pacific Rim turns to a grimier, make-do, slapdash sort of visual motif for the Jaeger program, with the hero working on a grubby, dangerous wall, the commanders office seemingly being in a water pipe conduit, and the Jaeger’s themselves being stored in something approaching a factory floor.

Both Jaegers and Kaiju are brought to life with vision and expertise.

Both Jaegers and Kaiju are brought to life with vision and expertise.

If only it could have been matched by a decent script. If Pacific Rim’s cast is hit and miss, the script is miss, miss and then miss once more. It’s totally pissweak to be blunt, a completely secondary concern for Del Toro and his team, which is pretty shocking considering his track record. Cliché to the very hilt, uninspiring, and completely unable to bring a unique voice to all but one or two characters.

I’m not going to go too much into it, because the wordplay for Pacific Rim is as stale and unimaginative as it comes, without a hint of the magic and verve Del Toro brought to Pan’s Labyrinth.  Maybe co-writer Travis Beacham is to blame, considering his CV of works that have actually gone into production before this seems rather limited.

Suffice to say, that most lines can be predicted well in advance, and on the occasion when they can’t, they stray close to embarrassing. “We are CANCELLING THE APOCALYPSE” springs to mind as an overwrought piece of action filler, or maybe Charlie Day’s brief and pointless aside that sucked an environmental theme briefly into play. The turgid delivery from Hunnam and Elba certainly makes the entire experience a bit worse as well, with the martial arts scene between Raleigh and Mako lacking any sort of chemistry and Stacker relegated to lines that are just verbal versions of grunts. Pacific Rim is not a very quotable movie, which is a shame. Even the most generic action romp would do a better job than this, where characters seem to just announce their aims and motivations like it is a requirement for being in the Jaeger program.

Pacific Rim boasts a decent score, swelling and invocative at all points, hitting all the necessary highs and lows to sweep the audience along. It is, however, an extremely LOUD score, the loudest I have heard in a long, long time. I mean distractingly loud, especially in combination with the equally loud sound effects, which roared out through the cinema speakers with an intensity that could only have been intentional. I suppose that added a little to the atmosphere and the made the Kaijus seem more impressive, but at some occasions it just became irritating, this recurring scream in my ears, suddenly matched by the booming of drums and wail of horns. Like I said, fine soundtrack, they just should have turned it down from 11.

Themes then. The obvious, that Pacific Rim is hammering home a little bit too much by the end, is teamwork. The Jaeger’s, humanities last hope for actually defeating the Kaiju threat, can only operate when two people essentially sync into one being, the sort of thing that gives Pacific Rim one of its few truly unique hooks. Obviously, Raleigh and Mako are the key example.

But the theme ties into this constant sense of duality as well, where characters are really only able to get things done when they partner up, and the lone wolf guys don’t tend to last. There’s the Aussie father/son pair, the two scientists, Stacker and Mori, Stacker and Raleigh, the two Kaiju’s who take out two Jaeger’s in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, Hannibal Chau, the movies personification of selfish self-interest, gets eaten alive.

If there is a deeper message behind Pacific Rim, it is simply that team work, the most intimate kind, makes things possible that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Building the Jaeger’s, building the wall, fighting the Kaijus, destroying the portal, all of these things require an immense effort from humanity, but so do the smaller things: Raleigh and Mako helping each other through their horrific memories, the scientist pair discovering the hidden secret behind the Kaiju’s, and the group effort that results in the portals destruction at the conclusion, where teamwork, or essentially, sacrificing portions of yourself, be it in terms of effort, time or a life itself, saves the day.

Teamwork, in a situation as extreme and unrelenting as the one depicted in Pacific Rim, means looking beyond gender, race, nationality or creed – essentially, the most obvious and urgent display of trust in someone else that you will see. Perhaps Del Toro goes too far with this metaphor – some greater inter-personal conflict with the Jaeger program could, perhaps, have led to some more interesting character development.

But Pacific Rim should be praised for the way it which it portrays such a positive theme, without too much resort to overly sentimental displays of comradeship.

Charlie Day is one of the surprising stand-outs of Pacific Rim.

Charlie Day is one of the surprising stand-outs of Pacific Rim.

The teamwork aspect ties into the next them: hope. Stacker, as a character, seems to exemplify the last vestiges of hope that the human race has, grimly hanging on to the Jaeger program – the one thing that can still save the human race – and refusing to even contemplate the possibility of defeat. He’s the father inspiring his kids, and he even namedrops the word “hope” in his big, dramatic speech before the conclusion. The entire Jaeger program and the effort that has gone into them is a personification of humanities industry and ability to work together, all tied up in the dream that the Kaijus can be defeated, that such a thought is not just an idle fantasy. Hope keeps characters going: hope that the monsters at the gate can be turned back one more time, or that their threat can be ended forever.

Then there is the nature of monsters. At the start of the movie, the Kaijus are just animals – large, destructive ones, but not considered to be any different to the dinosaurs that they turn out to be descendents of (pretty dumb idea, it has to be said).

But then the revelation: the Kaijus are essentially the foot soldiers of an alien race, bred specifically for the purpose of wiping out humanity. This calls into question the very nature of these Kaijus, and of the threat that humanity faces: putting down an animal is one thing, but a creature with a higher, driving intelligence? The Kaijus are seen as an evil, but the fact that they are being controlled from beyond the portal makes them even more insidious, surely a worse kind of foe than any overly-large animal. The recognition of this fact leads to greater success in the field.

This can also be turned back on the Jaeger’s themselves, metal giants who stride the landscape like mechanical titans. While basically bipedal, they are, in fact, as alien in the landscape of Earth as the Kaijus are.

But while the Jaeger’s are a form of monster as well, they have less monstrous characteristics: defending humanity. Humanity builds a monster to defend themselves from monsters, but makes sure to give it a heart, and two guiding consciences. Both the themes of hope and the nature of monsters can be vividly seen in Mako’s traumatic flashback to the Kaijus attack on Japan. Her younger self loses hope when confronted with the hideous Kaiju beast, but hope is restored by the arrival of another monster: Stacker’s Jaeger, which appears almost like a medieval knight errant, slaying the dragon to save the maiden.

Lastly, I want to mention trauma. The movie revolves around characters who have suffered some serious physical or mental trauma in their past. Raleigh lost his brother, while connected to his mind. Mako lost her family in a Kaiju attack. And Stacker is carrying the physical remnants of his experience as a Jaeger pilot.

All three of these characters find a measure of healing for that trauma in each other. Stacker adopts Mako after finding her in the rubble of humanity, seeing, perhaps, some salvation from his past destruction in her upbringing. In Raleigh, Mako finds someone whom she can relate to on a very personal level, and who can help her gain the confidence and strength to put her body and mind on the line for a higher goal. And Raleigh, through both Mako and Stacker, finds replacements for the family that he lost when his brother was killed.

In Pacific Rim, trauma is not a burden that can be carried alone, not if the sufferer ever has any realistic hopes of healing. As with the earlier themes of hope and teamwork, that trauma must be shared and a healing process must be a joint one. That’s what makes humanity human, and it’s what separates them from the leviathans emerging from the portal. Raleigh and Mako in particular, by becoming one within the Jaeger, are able to symbolically fill up the damaged and missing parts of each other.

Before I move into a conclusion, I thought that it would be interesting to compare Pacific Rim to a few other movies. A lot of the discussion, both reasonable and flamewar-ish, on Pacific Rim that I have witnessed revolves around how unique a story is actually is, which is crucial to determining its overall worth. Pacific Rim, by its very nature, is going to be compared to several movies of a similar bent. How does it measure up? There are several aspects I want to explore.

Godzilla and that whole franchise is an obvious one, but let’s just take the Roland Emmerich version. His Godzilla was a fairly mindless, shallow affair, featuring an unbelievable monster trouncing around Manhatten at insane speed. Pacific Rim can’t really claim to be the better of Godzilla in terms of general plot, script or acting, but it does have a lot more depth, and goes in a much more intelligent way with its exploration of the nature of teamwork and trauma than Godzilla, which was a movie overly-obsessed with getting to the next big action sequence. In that respect, Del Toro has created a Kaiju movie of an above average intelligence, even if the execution was a little botched.

The same can probably be said for any attempt to compare Pacific Rim with Transformers. Michael Bay’s CGI filled franchise is often namedropped by those I mentioned earlier when it comes to defining the evils of Hollywood. In truth though, Pacific Rim isn’t really all that different. Deeper in its themes, a bit better with its action scenes, but in terms of having a stand-out plot or good acting or a good script? Not really. It’s pretty much neck and neck with Transformers on those scores, and attempts to paint Pacific Rim as some form of cinematic savoir against that of Transformers doesn’t ring too true to me. I can appreciate that Del Toro has made a better production that Michael Bay, but it is important not to delude ourselves too much into thinking that one movie featuring giant fighting robots is that different to another movie featuring giant fighting robots. At the end of the day, the main draw is still giant fighting robots, and I imagine there is a hell of a lot of crossover between the two audiences.

If I was to find a more exact movie to draw a comparison too, it would probably be James Cameron’s Avatar. I thought about putting Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day in this slot, because Del Toro is taking a fair amount of plot points straight from that movie, but I thought Avatar would demonstrate the point better, in the end. Both based largely on stories from foreign cultures. Both with very basic plots. Both big budget affairs. Both featuring lots of CGI. Both focusing on universe building over story. Both focusing on a damaged man thrust into a very alien word. Both having to use advanced technology to inhabit a surrogate body. Both trying to gain acceptance from the world they now inhabit. Both winding up trying to save the world from monsters. Both featuring similar back-up characters. Both suffering from poor scripting and mediocre acting. Both placing too much emphasis on the visual side of things. Perhaps the biggest difference between Pacific Rim and Avatar is the box office returns.

I make note of this not to claim that Del Toro is ripping off James Cameron or Roland Emmerich, but to counter the claims that he has made a unique snowflake of a movie. Pacific Rim is not unique. It’s the latest in the mecha/kaiju genre, which is hardly under-developed, and has very little originality in its plot, albeit it has some originality in its general setting. But at the end of the day, it’s a movie where the whole point is giant robots fighting giant monsters – a premise that can be applied with equal accuracy to something like Power Rangers, which was never praised in the way Pacific Rim has been.

"WE ARE CANCELLING THE APOCALYPSE!"

“WE ARE CANCELLING THE APOCALYPSE!”

Lastly, I’d like to draw a comparison to Man of Steel. Might seem a bit odd, but I only mean in a very limited sense.

Man of Steel got some flak for smashing through the “carnage threshold”, as I discussed in my review of it. It fact, it seemed to get a lot of criticism for this, especially from the aforementioned “nerd” subset. While I recognised this as a flaw, I was surprised by the vehemence with which it was pursed.

Pacific Rim also has some problems of a similar nature, but for some reason has received nowhere near the same amount of criticism for it. The Kaiju’s destroy whole cities in the prologue, and the Kaiju/Jaeger battle at the mid-point wrecks large parts of Hong Kong. Not on the level of Metropolis’ destruction in Man of Steel perhaps, but still enough that a large amount of people would have been killed. Just as in Man of Steel, such death is not shown directly, but enough damage is done for it to be implied, yet Del Toro has not had to deal with accusations that his movie is dehumanising the effect of the Kaiju’s or the Jaeger’s as they throw each other through buildings.

I suspect much of this apparent double standard – not just for the immediate point before, but also for the general way that members of the community seem hell bent on promoting and defending Pacific Rim over the likes of Man of Steel – might be to do with the director. Del Toro is seen as more acceptable by the community, one of their favourites, due to his sterling record in the past, which has resulted in his movie being treated with kid gloves. In comparison, Zach Snyder is sort of an acquired taste, whose moves seem to be either loved or hated. As a result, I see excuses being made for Pacific Rim when it comes to things like the carnage threshold, while Snyder gets it with both barrels on the same topic.

Finally, I will say that I generally enjoyed Pacific Rim. It has a well-built universe, excellent visuals, a good soundtrack and one or two good performances. But its plot is by the numbers and nothing special, most of the cast aren’t that great, the script is poor and some of the fan reaction to it can be a seen as off-putting. A “mixed bag” is a very good way of putting it.

Del Toro had his vision and has managed to come with something that is worth watching, but we, as an audience, need to be careful before heaping too much praise on this, something that when all the sums of its parts are looked at, works out at about average. Pacific Rim is no masterpiece of cinema, or even of this genre. It is not the kind of film that I would be interested in seeing twice.

But I would still recommend it, because I think that the more positive, interesting parts I have discussed outweigh the subpar ones. That is, of course, provided you enter it free of unwarranted and undeserved expectations.

A watchable affair, with impressive visuals and a good universe, but failing on every other level.

A watchable affair, with impressive visuals and a good universe, but failing on every other level.

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).

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