Pacific Rim (2013)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Guillermo Del Toro

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By Roderick Heath

One of the great filmmakers working in modern genre cinema, Guillermo Del Toro has worked his way up to becoming one of the anointed few: a director of Hollywood mega-productions. And yet, although Del Toro has affinity for the sort of material that today fuels most blockbusters, a true top-tier success seems frustratingly out of reach for the portly Mexican auteur. Since his debut with the haunting, witty fable Cronos in 1992, he’s found his greatest critical success in the Spanish-language diptych of dark fairy tales, The Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Many of his films for the Hollywood market, like the fun and stylish Mimic (1997) and the Hellboy films, did middling box office, but gained fearsome cult followings. Well, at least they did with me. Hellboy II: The Golden Army was probably the best film of the past ten years to have a comic book source, offering both rigorous personality and teeming strangeness. That film’s sequence with the forest god clearly signalled Del Toro’s desire to make an unrestrained monster movie. Only Blade 2 (2004) has proved a true big hit in ratio to its budget, whilst Del Toro’s involvement with bringing Tolkien’s The Hobbit to the big screen ultimately proved a wasted effort, and he handed reins back to fellow nerd-lord Peter Jackson.

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Del Toro’s surprising incapacity to truly score with a mass audience, which seems confirmed by his latest attempt at a world-conquering work achieving only soft box office, seems rooted perhaps in the fact that his affection for fantastic film retains a nerdish delight in genre esoterica, his desire to build rather than merely remake franchises, and an old-fashioned ethic that’s determinedly inclusive, refusing fashionable filmmaking postures in favour of emphasising character interaction and particularity in the worlds he creates. In short, Del Toro is a native of this land rather than an interloper, and he lets viewers know the difference.

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Nonetheless, Pacific Rim is an overt bid by Del Toro to claim his rightful place at the top of the cinematic food chain. The oneiric, decidedly adult fantasy visions of his Spanish films that ironically involve children and their place in a dangerous world are balanced by the looser, goofier studies in misfits and oddballs cohering in his American works. But the hemispheres of his oeuvre still feel unitary not only in their lexicon of images and ideas harvested from centuries of folk tradition and mythology, but also in their essential tone, their emotional largesse and formal beauty, rendered in bold and fleshy, Renaissance-art colours and highly mobile, vigorous camerawork that maintains nonetheless classical rigour. Pacific Rim nominally annexes territory laid waste by Michael Bay, but is at odds with the preferred approach of most Hollywood big-movie directors like Bay.

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The annoyingly vague title, which seems to have aimed for a Cloverfield-esque obfuscation, should have bit the dust during production: to get a sense of this film’s gleeful inner nature, it should’ve been called “Fury of the Mecha-Men” or “Hell-Beasts from the Deep”—something flashy, trashy, and vulgarly poetic, perfectly in tune with this film’s B-movie roots. Easily the best big-budget film of the year so far, Pacific Rim is gloriously corny and entirely unashamed of it, and no small work of formal artistry. It suggests a joie de vivre in its own absurdity and cinematic nature as well as confidence in its cornball dramatics and audio-visual force that’s been frustratingly lacking from the endless series of reboots and franchise instalments of the past couple of years. Even this year’s estimable Man of Steel had an uphill battle to erase memories of earlier versions. Del Toro, on the other hand, may well have made the best monster movie since the original King Kong (1933).

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Of course, I am biased, both towards Del Toro as a filmmaker and his choice of references here. How much one enjoys Pacific Rim depends on one’s hunger for adventure, mayhem, and spectacle on the big screen, but will almost inevitably be augmented by a certain affection for ’50s scifi cinema and Japanese fantastic cinema and anime or kaiju, exemplified by the first and greatest, Godzilla (1954), and massive super-technology that offers symbiosis between human and machine, found in the likes of Godzilla director Ishirô Honda’s follow-ups like The Mysterians (1958) and Atragon (1961). Del Toro co-penned the script with Travis Beacham, who previously penned the lackluster Clash of the Titans (2010) remake, which shared at least two qualities Del Toro could appreciate: love of big, monsterish thingies and a certain democratic quality to the way it approached heroic quests. In pointed contrast to Bay’s fascist visions, Del Toro’s desire to create a more internationalist, multicultural vision of world saviours than one usually gets certainly comes out in the course of Pacific Rim, but that again is another way the film accords with old models, like Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and Conquest of Space (1955). With some emphasis on cooperation between talents of different nationalities and cultural resources, and brave new world solutions, the main plot hinges on the desperate need to create subliminal accord between two historically polarised entities, an American male and a Japanese female.

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This accord becomes vital because, sometime in the near future, colossal monsters start crawling out the Pacific seabed, and attacking major cities. Del Toro gives an immediate nod to It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955) as the first monster attacks the Golden Gate Bridge, severing its span while assaulted by jet fighters who find their weapons hopelessly outclassed by the terrifying beast. The animal is finally brought down after several days and apocalyptic damage to several cities. Soon, however, a steady number of of the so-called kaiju crawl out of some kind of dimensional portal hidden deep in the Pacific rift to create more havoc. A counter-weapon to the epidemic of monsters is rapidly developed and deployed: colossal, hard-to-control robots called jaegers (German for “hunters”) that are piloted by specially chosen people who have the ability to “drift,” that is, symbiotically join minds through technological linkages. People tend to drift best with people they already share connections with, so many jaeger pilots are related or have similarly close bonds. Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket, who pilots a jaeger with his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff). Vigorous and unorthodox fighters with an elastic approach to the rules of their trade, Raleigh and Yancy venture out of their designated defence zone off the Alaska coast one night during a fearsome storm to save a fishing trawler in the path of a kaiju. Although they succeed, the kaiju they thought they killed surfaces. The monster slices open the jaeger, and Yancy is ripped away to his death. Raleigh manages to keep enough control over the machine to finish the beast off and bring the mangled jaeger to the coast, where it flops on a beach before a grandfather and grandson (David Fox and Jake Goodman), fleetingly reminiscent of the main characters of Cronos.

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Yancy’s death marks another turn in the tide of the kaiju war, as more of the tougher, more intelligent breed of beast that killed him emerge. Raleigh, left bereft and mentally scarred in more ways than one by the loss of his brother and drift partner, spends years in exile working construction shifts on the new sea wall the United Nations has directed be built to hold out the kaiju. There seems here to be a bit of a satirical pot-shot at the infamous Israeli security wall as well as “pragmatic” solutions to the eventuality of flooding from global warming, or a genre conflation of the idea with Hadrian’s Wall or the Great Wall of China. But it’s still really a broad metaphor for any problem that can be blocked out of sight and thence out of mind. Of course, that doesn’t last long. Meanwhile the jaegers have their ranks thinned, and finally the marshall of the force, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), is told by assorted bigwigs that the jaegers are to be decommissioned. Just as soon as Pentecost is informed of this, however, a kaiju easily bashes a hole through the wall in Sydney, and is brought down by Aussie father and son jaeger pilots Herc and Chuck Hansen (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky).

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The jaeger force’s science team, garrulous American nerd Geiszler (Charlie Day), who finds the kaiju unremittingly cool, and snooty, fussy Oxbridge type Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), who loves numbers far more than the messy elements, predict that kaiju will start to arrive in massed groups. Realising that the human race’s days might be numbered, Pentecost tries to get as many jaegers in the field as possible for a last-ditch attempt to close the portal, and particularly wants Raleigh because he’s the only one apart from Pentecost himself who ever managed to pilot a jaeger alone. Nonetheless, a new drift partner for Raleigh is sought, and the best candidate proves to be Pentecost’s assistant Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). In good contemporary fashion, Mako proves her grit and equality by besting Raleigh in a kendo battle. But Pentecost is reluctant to field Mako, for good reasons: she has personal, tragic spurs to want to take on the kaiju, with the kind of trauma in her past that can turn drifting into a destructive psychodrama. As both she and Raleigh share such trauma, they are a combustive team—risky, but also potentially extraordinary. Many films have explored how traumatic past experiences can both bring people close in kinship and retard their capacities to operate in the urgent flow of life, but here they’re quite crucial to the way the plot unfolds.

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An immediate, stand-out quality of Pacific Rim is how good it looks, not an entirely superficial piece of praise. There’s been some criticism in various quarters of the photography of the fight scenes, and indeed, Del Toro occasionally frames his action close to the battles in that modish fashion that makes them blurry, dizzying studies in motion. But Del Toro never lets the action devolve into the kind of gibberish that some directors like Bay or Jonathan Liebesman have wrought lately, trying rather to break up the potential visual monotony of big things hitting each other. Del Toro knows how far to take it, and where to step back, and frankly, the inability of some observers to discern the difference worries me. Raleigh and Yancy’s first battle takes place in a churning squall: following Raleigh’s comment that the jaegers make their pilots feel able to take on hurricanes, the notion that these machines can compete with the very elemental nature of the Earth is rendered thrillingly literal in combat. More importantly, Del Toro sees no reason why special-effects-based cinema can’t be not just thrilling, but actually beautiful in a fashion that avoids the plasticity of a lot of CGI work. Pacific Rim is absolute eye candy. The lysergic vivacity of the colours comes to resemble some brand of modern art, with a palette close to Ridley Scott’s early films, in a peculiar, visual tone poem of modern urban noir, except on a far larger scale and blended with a techno-gothic largesse. His delight in swathing battles in rain and night helps contribute to the sort of visual density that distracts from flaws in the effects, of course, but also helps Del Toro create a rich atmosphere for his battles, apt for a director who loves his Universal horror films.

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To expect Del Toro to offer the kind of polymorphic strangeness of his far smaller films in something like this would be pretty foolish. Pacific Rim doesn’t try to upset the apple cart in terms of genre rules; on the contrary, it tries to recreate the naïve tone and deceptive simplicity of classic models whilst blending it with the supercharged spectacle modern cinema can offer. Whereas Jackson’s take on King Kong (2005) was an enormous, gorgeous, but defanged and unwieldy love letter to the ideals of the monster movie, Del Toro keeps focused on the mode’s basics: titanic entities wailing on each other. At the same time, Pacific Rim manages to introduce some scifi gimmickry with genuine depth without getting bogged down in its own conceptualism: the concept of “drifting” delves into cyberpunk territory where barriers of the psyche are broken and definitions of physical reality and human intimacy lose some of their traditional meaning. It also presents a speedier version of the construction of empathy between people, which in most human experience, begins on a familial level, then extends to romantic partners and, if we’re lucky, close friends and immediate colleagues. When Raleigh and Mako first drift and take charge of their jaeger, Raleigh’s traumatic recollection of Yancy’s death shoves spiralling Mako into a recollection of her own formative trauma: the memory of wandering the lanes of decimated Tokyo with a colossal kaiju stalking her after killing her family.

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Del Toro’s feel for the roots of such fantasy in childhood phobia is keen here in the nightmarish evocation of abandonment and the fear of a colossal force that feels straight out of any number of childhood bad dreams, and plugs back into the same mythopoeic zone Del Toro investigated with Pan’s Labyrinth, particularly in the totemic red shoe which Mako clutches in her memory and which adoptive father Pentecost hands to her to signal her graduation to monster killer. However, here the children are not abandoned in the face of horror, but rather the jaegers stand for all parental strength to hold back the nightmares, according with Mako’s ascension to full adulthood. Pacific Rim doesn’t mimic the feel of a fairy tale, and yet its underpinnings certainly maintain those qualities, as well as employing a delightful fetishism for taxonomy and offering peeks into bazaars of the esoterically charming and strange, in the colossal barns that house the jaegers and the kaiju party emporium run by Hannibal Chow (Ron Perlman) that captures the essence of being a kid and wandering into some pit of nerdish delight. Another thing Del Toro succeeds in which filmmakers who try to make monster movies often fumble is making their creatures not only malicious enough but also tough enough to make seeing them smote actually enjoyable, as the difficulty in killing colossal monsters is charted vividly: the rise of Raleigh and Mako is depicted purely in relation to their building ability to kill kaiju, from desperate and frantic tussles to lethal efficiency.

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The film’s central battle takes place in Hong Kong, as the kaiju seem to hunt Geiszler following his invasion of their hive-mind, tracking him down to a public shelter, whilst the jaegers are faced with defeat by the new, specifically engineered beasts, including one that generates a charge that knocks out the electrics of the jaegers. Only Mako and Raleigh can save the day, and save it they do, marching into battle with a container ship wielded like a club, and finally bisecting a winged demon with their suddenly revealed super-sword, a compulsory mecha flourish saved for the most beautiful reveal and pay-off. The ebullient absurdity and grandeur of Pacific Rim can and should impress itself upon any receptive viewer, but if you’ve ever shared any of the fetishes I listed earlier, you’ll be especially tickled.

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Neither the monster movie nor the concept of the giant or humanoid robot are concepts peculiarly native to Japan, of course. Godzilla was directly inspired by the Ray Harryhausen-enabled The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), whilst men driving robots has been a genre fixture since the early 20th century. But the kaigu eiga or “strange creature film” that Godzilla defined has its roots in the moment following World War II, as Japan faced modernisation in the face of atrocious destruction. Godzilla stood in for all the awful, impersonal threats of the atomic bomb and the modern age, and the kaigu eiga became a hugely popular style as a result; overseas, they became perhaps the key introduction to Japanese cinema and literary culture for most people. Soon enough, in the likes of The Mysterians and King Kong Escapes—epic technological reactions to these metaphoric menaces—began to appear, big enough and brash enough to answer such awful figurations with force, but requiring evolutionary boldness from humankind. The notion of humans forming symbiosis with machines became a fulcrum of the mecha genre, which has analogues in the American tradition like Iron Man, but which remains distinctively Japanese nonetheless. In mecha, an emphasis on collective power is always nascent, the notion of parts fitting together to make a whole on both a human and a technological level, a sort of gestalt power.

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This aspect is realised in perhaps the most surprising and resonant edge of the traditions Del Toro is quoting here in how Del Toro perceives and draws out the faint mystical quality that often underlies them. Having recently made a repeat viewing of Tsui Hark’s gloriously loony-tunes Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1981) just a few days before seeing Pacific Rim, I was freshly attuned to the degree Del Toro and Beacham evoke the same conceptual fulcrums as their models. As in Zu, the ultimate unity of two different people linked on a supraphysical level to become a greater entity becomes the necessary ideal for conquering evil, though here it’s achieved on a techno-psychic level, rather than a spiritual one, but the difference is negligible, especially as there’s often a mystical edge underlying the fetishized futurism of a lot of anime. Notably, another recent film to channel the same influence and with similar configurations was Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), which also paraded an anime influence, but in an entirely different key. The functioning accord needed between Mako and Raleigh is echoed by the need for the entire jaeger team to work together with their multitudinous nationalities, and the biology/abstraction schism of Geiszler and Gottlieb’s concepts of science and their radically different personalities, and the brain/hand link between the scientists and the warriors. Geiszler eventually decides to try drifting with the brains of the kaiju to learn about their motives, and successfully divines the forces employing them. Not surprisingly for Del Toro, Pacific Rim eventually edges into the sort of Lovecraftian territory he adores, that realm on the borderline between science fiction and psychological monstrosity.

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Del Toro also finds peculiar humour and thematic heft in the sight of a whole kind of illicit industry growing off the literal detritus of the kaiju wars, giving him a chance to revisit the kind of mischievous black-market economics and underworld life he’s explored before in Hellboy II’s troll market sequences, evoked here as Geiszler travels down into the boondocks of Hong Kong, in a neighbourhood called the Bone District that’s sprouted in the shadow of a gigantic kaiju skeleton. Geiszler searches for an intact kaiju brain he can drift with, and with Pentecost’s guidance, he tracks down the distinctly un-Chinese Chow: “I got the name from my favourite military leader and my second favourite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn,” Chow explains, which sounds exactly like Del Toro and Beacham explaining how they thought the name up. Perlman’s appearance gained an appreciative laugh from the audience at my screening: he’s finally become a popular cinematic icon.

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Geiszler is startled and excited to discover that Chow’s operation has mastered preservation and exploitation of the kaiju in a way the biologist thought impossible, with grotesquely amusing touches, like the colossal, squirming ticks Chow’s operatives pry off the fallen beasts. Chow ends up as, well, chow for a baby kaiju after airily proclaiming one dead, but Geiszler and Gottlieb joins forces in drifting to invade the kaiju’s mind and extract the dreadful truth about their origins and purpose. Geiszler’s adventures in Hong Kong see the bespectacled boffin singled out for annihilation by the kaiju who attack the city, and, thrown out by Chow who realises this, he’s forced to take refuge in a public shelter, where the panicking denizens thrash around him trying to get away from this Typhoid Mary but unable to escape their supposed shelter, as a kaiju bashes its way in from above.

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The character postures—Pentecost is the armour-assed leader, Raleigh the bruised saviour, Mako the talented neophyte who only needs to get her act together—are fundamental, but handled with such verve and straight-faced force by cast and director that it fits this fare perfectly. There’s a merciful lack of Joss Whedon-esque flippery or pseudo-hip humour. Even Del Toro’s casting of two Americans to put on cheesy accents as an Australian father and son, and perpetual xenomorph Clifton Collins Jr. as the team’s Chinese-monickered tech wiz, has a certain aptness in recreating the pasteboard tone of many B-movies, and there is a music hall sense of humour underlying the regulation Alpha male head-butting of Raleigh and Chuck. Although this could just be a by-product of watching it as an Aussie with an audience of such: hoots of delighted derision were exploding around me whenever Martini and Kazinsky opened their mouths. Even if there’s nothing as happily off-message in the film as Hellboy 2’s hilarious Barry Manilow sing-along, Del Toro still manages to offer fillips of character comedy, from making Mako a bit of a perv, constantly trying to catch a glimpse of Raleigh with his shirt off through her cabin door peephole, to Gottlieb enthusiastically, if cluelessly trying to match Geiszler’s homeboy handshake. Del Toro’s riffs on stock characters are much like his riffs on anime: gleeful in recreating their essence whilst also subtly undermining them or warping them to his individual purpose.

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Hunnam, who’s been hovering on the edge of a major career ever since appearing in the original British version of TV’s “Queer as Folk,” and his enticing performances in Nicholas Nickleby (2002) and Cold Mountain (2004), leaves behind his smooth-cheeked Dickens hero for a modern variety with bruises on his soul. He’s entirely likeable, to the degree Raleigh’s an upright and solid hero, though the film’s one lack is a protagonist as flagrantly cool and richly conceived as Hellboy. Kikuchi and Elba ultimately own the film. Kikuchi, who broke out with her performance in Gael Garcia Bernal’s very different fable about internationalism, Babel (2006), and provided a slyer pleasure in The Brothers Bloom (2009), still looks barely out of her teens even though she’s over 30, and offers a slightly oddball elegance to her roles; here the mix of supple humour and emotional immediacy she brings to her part is vital. Normally I don’t like iron leader characters (in films or real life), but the compensating factor for Pentecost is being played by Elba, whose capacity to project formidable authority overlaying a contemplative depth, hinted at in Thor (2011) and Prometheus (2012), is utilised here and mixed with a certain fearsome humour, as when he chides Raleigh, “Rule number one, don’t ever touch me. Rule number two, don’t ever touch me,” and serves the lippy Chuck a harsh character analysis.

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The thunderous finale is gloriously over-the-top, as multiple hell-beasts attack our heroes, noble sacrifices and hair’s-breadth escapes are made, dimensions are crossed, and alien swine are righteously roasted. It’s certainly possible to wish that Pacific Rim had more down time for its characters and time to expand on some of its trippier ideas, but it ultimately remains faithful to its chosen brand. Many films try to make me feel eight years old again; this one succeeded.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    11th/08/2013 to 7:31 pm

    I planned on seeing this sooner or later, so any spoilers were no problem for me, but reading some of the reviews and comments, I was struck by the throwback feeling, uncredited except for comments from others, to “Robot Jox” the loopy C/B-movie. In addition, the portal destruction reads like a riff on the ending of Harry Harrison’s short SF story “Or Battle’s Sound” from ‘If’ magazine in the late sixties, but it’s been anthologized a few times. Something to look forward to, and your review, which seems the best of the lot, just adds to the positive feeling.

  • Roderick spoke:
    11th/08/2013 to 9:54 pm

    Van my man: I never actually watched Robot Jox, but I do remember it being advertised for its video release, and indeed the similarity of the visuals has hit me before (as it did before with Real Steel), to the point where I considered tracking Robot Jox down. The finale has many antecedents I think, but few staged so giddily well. I hope you go and see this soon, on the biggest screen you can find.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    12th/08/2013 to 1:19 am

    You should watch “Robot Jox”, it was…earnest in its own curious way, and actually was fun to watch. Of course, I like “The Ice Pirates”, too, so go figure.

  • Roderick spoke:
    12th/08/2013 to 1:35 am

    I kind of liked Ice Pirates when I saw it too, which is a long, long time ago now; one of those quintessentially goofy self-satirising ’80s flicks. The finale when they were battling the villains in the time warp and ageing rapidly was genuinely funny and clever.

  • Cannon spoke:
    12th/08/2013 to 6:12 pm

    Thanks for the review, Roderick. You never half-ass these things and to see this film getting a proper analysis beyond the usual surface-skimming critiques is a real treat.

    The one defining element to which I found little to no trace in Michael Bay’s Transformers films is imagination – a sense of awe and wonder. This, I suspect, lies in the fact that Bay is a jock rather than a geek. Oh, he certainly has his fetishes, but not for 80s born cartoon robots from outer space; such is all but perfunctory. No, the Transformers films were slickly visualized, a la Bay’s continuing 1990s advertisement/MTV aesthetic, to emphasize sex, sports cars and the US military. That is, countless shots of Fox or Huntington-Whiteley (take your pick) in Maxim mode, performance hotrods, even when anthropomorphize as Autobots, and a near pornographic overload of jets, choppers, aircraft carries, Special Forces warfare etc. This, I also suspect, is why the series, despite bad reviews, has done consecutive gangbusters at the box office over three films, and is why the fourth installment slated for next summer will likely follow suit. In other words, the Bay helmed franchise hooked the masses by settling for broader, average-Joe appeal: T ‘n’ A, expensive shiny things and jingoistic flag-waving.

    Not so with Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. This movie is so lovingly indebted to the various influences you mention; coupled with its meek box office return, I can’t help but reason that the current filmgoing fixation with geek culture is, at best, superficial. Granted, there’s a certain ‘FX disaster mayhem’ that plagued the film in tandem with having no preset fanbase or marquee title (I’m curious how well Godzilla will do next summer). That’s part of it. But I also suspect that Del Toro’s ‘giant robots vs. giant monsters’ movie was so genuine that it bordered on niche, and if last year’s Dredd perhaps suffered a similar fate.

    I disagree with many who say this isn’t Del Toro at his best. Putting aside the luxury in the form of artistic freedom that comes with making comparatively smaller independent films like Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, this truly is the director’s finest hour to shine amidst the mega summer blockbusters. For me, Pacific Rim is the summer movie, putting to shame the messy, bloated nonsense of The Lone Ranger or the joyless angst of Man of Steel (or Nolan’s Batman films before it). This film also marks the difference between inspiration and mere placation, for it never succumbs to blatantly appeasing fanboy culture regurgitation like Abrams did ever-so-tactlessly with Into Darkness, by simply ripping off beloved movie memories, nor, as you pointed out, does it try to win over the hip crowds with pithy self-awareness à la Marvel’s recent spike of superhero movies; it certainly surpasses Whedon’s amateur-hour direction in The Avengers by not looking like a made-for-Syfy movie.

    First and foremost, Del Toro is a fully committed world builder. Here he has created a vividly distinctive, rain-soaked tomorrow of monster rampage and grungy robot factories mixed with exotic colors of the Far East and bizarro mind-melding imagery. It really is a lightshow of a movie in that respect, made all the more fantastic with stereoscope depth that takes full advantage of its massive scaled settings and set pieces. A shot early on when our hero, Raleigh, shimmies down the strut of a sea wall in construction or, later, when touring the main silo of the Hong Kong jaeger base, is like Fritz Lang mixed with dieselpunk (or maybe atompunk? I dunno). As for the story and characters, the whole endeavor is Saturday morning cartoon heroism at its finest. It’s simple and formulaic, yes, but equally earnest and sincere, and is not the kind of feature where goofy dialogue and broad-gesture acting should be taken as a negative. For the hip, too-eager-to-be-mature cynicism of today’s cinema zeitgeist/pop-cultural standards, such has become a hard pill to swallow: when 12-yearold boy comic book movies act like 12-yearold boy comic book movies. In fact (to repeat myself over at Musings of a Sci-Fi Fanatic), both in terms of its constant immersion and jubilant tone, this to me felt the most like a Star Wars movie than anything I’ve seen since, well, the last Star Wars movie.

    The neural handshake ‘drift’ is the story’s best asset, for thematic aspects that you covered, but also on a basic functioning level, as it helps develop the characters and further maintains investment in their emotions during the big battles; a clever way of bridging what could have been a nearly impossible gap between human drama and robot-monster spectacle. Even on the most immediate gut level, the scene where Mako (Rinko Kikuchi, my new crush) “chases the rabbit” into her own traumatic past, taking Raleigh with her, was both visually transfixing and emotionally powerful. Was Del Toro plucking heartstrings with a cute little crying Asian girl running helplessly from gargantuan doom? Maybe. But there’s also something slightly ballsy in the way he so arrantly juxtaposed the most titanic of otherworldly terrors with that of a mere child – your point on abandonment is keen, for no other pedestrian is seen running from the monster in Mako’s nightmare memory; a stranded child locked in the eyes of a metropolitan-contextualized apocalypse incarnate strips collective human fears down to the bone. It’s like, holy shit! Not only is the world ending, it’s ending at this one remaining little girl. It’s probably the best scene in the film.

    And on the topic of Japan’s cultural, post WWII history expressed through cinema, I find it particularly noteworthy that (in my opinion) the other great summer movie of 2013, The Wolverine, opens with a frighteningly real depiction of the Nagasaki bombing before proceeding with its own assortment of Japanese devoted genre elements. In the same month we get a kaiju adventure and a criminal underworld, Yakuza/ninja/samurai thriller, each featuring plucky young Japanese heroines (one with ruby-colored hair, the other with purple highlights) fighting the good fight. Pretty cool.

    Props to Del Toro and cowriter Beacham for conceiving Charlie Day’s character as a kind of Comi-Con embodiment of someone who’s devoted their life obsessively to monster geekdom; the hyper-enthusiastic Geiszler, at one point, proudly showing off his kaiju tattoos. And I, too, dig the subplot that follows him into Hong Kong’s smoky black market, for yet more superb art direction and set designs and also to see Del Toro’s penchant for all things weird; enter Ron Pearlman and a bonkers scene, boyishly gooey and slimy in nature, where his team of monster organ scavengers penetrate the corpse of a fallen kaiju only to be chased out by a still-living mini-kaiju! Moments like that just made me laugh, in a good way (P.S. I hoped you stayed for the closing credits gag). My only lasting criticism of the film is the lackluster score by Ramin Djawadi. It wasn’t terrible, just humdrum mediocre – more of that hammering orchestral rock stuff that has since replaced lyrical melody. It just didn’t fit the tone of this film, which really needed both the soaring flights-of-fancy and the marching, old fashioned heroic themes, say, in the vein of Basil Poledouris’ score for Starship Troopers. What we got was just kinda there. Never in the way, but never really memorable either.

    That aside, I thoroughly loved this movie. Okay, so, maybe it doesn’t speak profoundly on the human condition but it does have a moment where a robot delivers a rocket punch into the face of an alien hammerhead monster. Win.

  • shashibiya spoke:
    13th/08/2013 to 5:25 am

    Best informed and most sensible appreciation I have read so far.

  • Roderick spoke:
    13th/08/2013 to 2:00 pm

    Hi Shashibaya: thanks. Glad this hit the mark for you.

    Cannon: thanks for that great, long, enthusiastic comment. Needless to say I think all of your points in the first paragraph are accurate, and indeed this film has done a lot to reveal how shallow the appropriation of geek culture has been by many commentators and audiences. Of course, no film that racks up $300 million at the box office – and yes, that’s how much it’s made with the foreign grosses included, which means that it must be edging into the black even with marketing costs included, thank heavens – is exactly an ignored film, but I am surprised how divisive it’s proved amongst a lot of folks I really would’ve expected to get behind it — people complaining that it fails to match your average Ishiro Honda or Ray Harryhausen flick standards when it precisely and deftly matches their qualities and then goes a few steps further. Perhaps the fact that, as you note, Geiszler is a transposed, genuine ComiCon nerd explains why a lot of viewers have found him overtly irritating. Frankly I don’t think anyone who praises the writing of a Christopher Nolan film could have the gall to critique this film’s script, but nonetheless, they’re out there. Your comment that “it bordered on niche” concurs with my own thinking as expressed above, indeed. You’re equally right to mention Dredd, which I didn’t like half as much as this, but did appreciate and which, as you correctly note, represented an accurate transposition of its inspiration with few compromises. I think in regards to PR’s weak box office, I’d mostly blame the title, which does little to sell the concept or its tone to an audience coming to it blind. Yes, Cloverfield did the same thing, but that was a far cheaper film, it could get away with that. I have a friend who’s dab-smack in the middle of its target audience, a young internet-savvy guy who loves anime and sci-fi, and he had no idea what it was about until he caught a trailer for it in the movie theatre shortly before release. Someone in marketing didn’t do their job right, although surely not as badly as they did with John Carter.

    But enough with the kvetching. I’m glad, too, that you mention the similarities to The Wolverine, which I noticed too (but I saw it after I’d written this). That film, which has been largely lauded a success but which I found an inanely plotted mess, offered Yukio as easily the most engaging aspect other than Wolverine himself. But, as if the filmmakers got scared of having their musclebound lunkhead hero on a level playing field with a heroine, they then wrote her out of the middle half of the film, and had Logan romance the boring lady instead. C’est la Hollywood (also, you note the powerful realism of the opening A-bomb blast; I agree it was quite convincingly stage, except that viewed at that range, the flash should’ve blinded both men). Pacific Rim follows its equitable spirit right through. Whilst I liked The Avengers and Man of Steel a lot (more MOS in the near future, which I will go to bat for, and the TV-ishness of The Avengers was a kind of strength to me, at least in that it resisted all temptation to follow the Bay route) and mildly appreciated Into Darkness, I felt this surpasses most of its rivals in large part because it’s nodding over its shoulder at its forebears, not constantly staring back at them. And because, yes, Del Toro’s a truly accomplished filmmaker, one who, having worked over 20 years in many different modes now, most now be as armour-plated as a jaeger. Perhaps also his experiences as an independent, an international filmmaker, and a producer have all armed him with great confidence in executing his own vision. Zack Snyder, a relative neophyte, and J.J. Abrams, who learnt how to survive in Hollywood over a long time, are two major talents (and I do think they are), but nonetheless really seemed on short studio leashes with their films this year, and it showed: the intelligent Spielbergianisms of Super 8 and the oneiric, fluidic free-for-all of Sucker Punch were present only in spurts.

    Otherwise I also obviously agree with your points about the film’s stylisation and its emotional resonance. Del Toro does a job here like what Spielberg and Lucas were once hailed as pop-cultural heroes for, way back when, for making their films exactly in the spirit of their sources, naïf but not naive. I recently finally watched Joon-ho Bong’s The Host, which tried for damn close to two hours to create the sort of empathic immediacy and sense of human fragility that Del Toro does here in a couple of minutes, whilst labouring also to create a similar sense of goofy fun. Your shout-out to Fritz Lang is acute. I was reminded of such old sci-fi works as the various versions of The Tunnel in the mid-’30s, which were made in a Langian vein, and as I said the spirit of Universal Gothic is in there too. The scenes in Chow’s operation were vintage Del Toro, so fully in line with the Troll Market scene in Hellboy II, and, moreover, for me actually really touched my own heart. It threw me back to when I was kid in an old Sydney shop that used to sell specialist models, the first time I ever realised there was this huge, semi-subterranean world of affection for the stuff I’d always been told was throwaway kid junk, for it teemed with model Mechagodzillas and Macross Saga figures; yes, I thought, this film comes from someone whose experiences in this genre resemble mine. Lastly, I also fully agree that the score wasn’t up to the quality of the rest of the film. This actually seems to be epidemic this year (it’s the one fault of The Grandmaster, too), and has been for some time, these crashing, dully rousing scores that are immediately forgotten, and the disparity is most obvious in Man of Steel, of course, where one constantly waits in vain to hear John Williams’ fanfare.

    Oh, and no, I didn’t catch a credits gag. I had to run for a train. DVD, hurry up!

  • J.D. spoke:
    13th/08/2013 to 2:34 pm

    Excellent review! I enjoyed this film as well. It really is a proper fusion of Del Toro’s artistic pretensions and his commercial sensibilities and the end result that is something that is funky hybrid, which is probably why it isn’t crushing at the box office. Lack of a major movie star probably didn’t help, but I hope that it’s international box office will be strong enough to greenlight a sequel. It would be really cool to revisit the world that Del Toro created in this film.

  • Roderick spoke:
    13th/08/2013 to 10:33 pm

    Good point about the movie star lack there J.D., one I’d thought about myself. Idris Elba’s climbing up there, but he’s not there yet; Hunnam and Kikuchi deserve to be, but both are practically only known to art-house audiences before this. Although there’s been evidence to the contrary lately (the Smiths with After Earth, Tatum and Foxx in White House Down), there’s been some signs lately to my eye indicating how much audience clout some movie stars still have, and how much Hollywood tends to squander it. The Wolverine and Iron Man Three are nothing without their stars, ditto The Heat, Grown Ups 2, probably even The Great Gatsby. I think the cumulative effect of this will be to push Hollywood back to a more old-fashioned model, at least to a certain extent, in that studios will be looking more at tailored star vehicles as much as tentpole flicks where it seems they’re relatively indifferent to who’s in them from now on. Still, with The Numbers saying that Pacific Rim‘s gross is now pushing up around $342,000,000, it’s quite clear that the film’s international engine is roaring (as I thought it would be), and indeed, by the time all’s said and done, a sequel may be forthcoming, thus provoking curiosity from me as to just how Del Toro might expand his template.

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