Pacific Rim Review: Del Toro’s ode to all things Mecha, Monster and Massive
In 2007, The Michael Bay directed film Transformers – based on the beloved giant robot toys and cartoon series that raised a generation, was a state of the art visual event. The notion of the franchise being brought to the big screen was greeted with both awe and lamentation however as despite the idea of seeing these behemoth characters in live action was exciting, a fairly average and completely mainstream film-maker at the helm sullied the potential film to be a plot hole riddled money making focused blockbuster (as is Bay’s forte). The only thing fans could cling too was the hope that Bay would allow and then inject as much nostalgia towards the original creation as possible. To a degree he did and the original film did have its charm but of course the final product was weak, borderline annoying, predictable and basically not the film a lot of fans could have one day hoped for. There was a justification for that however; as a film of that scale almost demanded it be made by someone like Bay – at least in 2007 it did. There were only a handful of directors Hollywood would grant such a gratuitous amount of money to bring to life a franchise that, at the time, was not very mainstream to anyone besides pre-teens and over-aged geeks. If you wanted to do it, it had to be this way. That was the best – almost only – way to look at it.
Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro’s own “giant robot” movie, initially drew a lot of comparisons to Transformers understandably, but while that justification of Bay’s film still applies theoretically here, it would be doing the Spanish director a disservice to compare the movies or even go in expecting they have the same level of agenda. Things have changed a lot in the last six years, and maybe Pacific Rim proves that Hollywood doesn’t need to go with their usual dubious director/s for hire to handle such projects anymore. Just maybe. Regardless, I watched it within its own context (as every genre film should be) and won’t overtly compare it to Transformers either as even though both contain similar elements, Pacific Rim has much more passion, qualities and an agenda that would be insulted by Bay’s (and the studio) one for that film. This is all completely obvious after the first five minutes too. Still, when you’re spending this much money, you need to make money and trying to please everybody is a necessary evil for such films that this one can’t escape either whilst other films of blockbuster ilk basically embraces the medium as a cash register.
The world has a pretty big problem in the not too distant future. Things such as war, famine and global warming take a back seat to a much more pressing issue in Pacific Rim; one that involves massive alien monsters (traditionally known by the Japanese word “Kaiju”) rising through an inter-dimensional portal at the bottom of the ocean to lay waste to our big cities. The Kaiju plan to habitat on our planet and need to “clear the vermin” that is the human population before setting up the TV and getting comfortable. Kaiju are enormous, Godzilla-like creatures, each one unique in size and design but mainly behave like animals (an ape or shark for example) as they smash through buildings etc. like toothpicks. After about the forth attack in several years, the humans implement a plan to fight back and set a war in motion by designing equally massive mecha robots – piloted by humans – to take them down. These are the Jaeger; which loosely translates to hunter, and require two pilots both being connected via a mind meld or telepathy called “drifting” to handle the intense mental strain of operating the metal giants.
The stage is set then for Pacific Rim to be an assault of state of the art CGI and insane levels of action. It pretty much is, with Del Toro fortunately trying to build something extensive around that also. UN-fortunately, it is a shaky foundation of character development and lack of convincing emotion between our three leads that threaten to derail the whole thing. He steadies the ship as best he can, but once we enter the final third of the movie, these holes and weak scripting appear a little more obviously. Again, fortunately, it becomes merely serviceable at its worst. Embrace a little context and Del Toro’s motivations and it becomes a lot clearer that lumping this movie in with mediocrity that is often trotted out as the latest Summer blockbuster is a tad unfair. Style out numbers substance without question, but unique sci-fi action on this scale doesn’t happen often and it’s best to enjoy the ride over demanding explanations or wanting HBO levels of drama. This is the closest we have gotten to have a $200 million live action manga; I couldn’t help but just feel grateful most of the way. However, it is a tad frustrating that having a concept such as drifting (something that allows deep levels of emotion for each character to be brought to the forefront), just isn’t capitalized enough.
A well-handled pre-title sequence gives us a decent prologue and Del Toro is solid in his direction throughout, but for fans of the director it should be mentioned, that given what this film represents (see: first two paragraphs), whether intentional or not, his unique fingerprints are more absent than they are relevant. Calling it by the numbers for him is too harsh though as sequences in Hong Kong and production design overall is pure Del Toro. The orchestral score by Game of Thrones composer, Ramin Djawadi, is patriotic and dark while never being overbearing, it suits the visuals well. Cinematography is also excellent. With the majority of the film set during night and battles taking place mainly in the ocean, this was a bit surprising but a nice dark sci-fi aura envelops the whole setting; grimy overcrowded cities create a reality more akin to Blade Runner than Transformers.
Performances are – as expected – adequate with no-one really taking centre stage. Idris Elba comes out on top as the booming Jaeger commander Stacker Pentecost. Sons of Anarchy star Charlie Hunnam is our lead as a veteran pilot and he brings a solid screen presence consisting of strength and emotion, but as mentioned, emotion is not the film’s strong point. With the exception of a harrowing scene involving a young girl, most of the script falls flat and unmoving. Rinko Kikuchi suffers similar fate not being able to truly connect with the audience, but she does well enough to provide an unfamiliar strong heroine role to the film. Del Toro regular, Ron Pearlman, provides the only real laughs that work and is great as black market dealer, Hannibal Chow. The rest of the cast are not worth mentioning overly. A pair of competing scientists adds some more (albeit forced) humour and two non-Australians actors provide an Australian father and son team that ultimately come off as corny. Regardless, ALL of our players take a backseat to the Jaeger and Kaiju and so they should. This is a monster movie after all and the ILM CGI is truly gob smacking. A little more expansion on the eclectic pilots would have been welcome however and given the film a little more character.
Overall Pacific Rim deserves to be viewed through the eyes of someone that wants to appreciate where Del Toro is coming from. His passion and love for its inspirations from Japanese Mecha anime to the classic Kaiju/Godzilla (the film is dedicated to its creator Ishirō Honda alongside Ray Harryhausen) movies of old cannot be faulted, yet in his designs he retains a surprising amount of originality. From feeling the literal weight of the Jaegers crushing through buildings to the roar of the Kaiju, the authenticity and homage of all these things are present and yes, it is exhilarating seeing it on a live action $200 million budget finally. In that respect, it is all he could have done; the best old fashioned monster movie in almost a decade despite its screenplay flaws. Anyone looking for such a thing, to leave Pacific Rim disappointed would be baffling. Scrutinizing it is fair enough but maybe not in the spirit of appreciating the unique situation creating such a movie and experience can be. In the end, the film-makers have decided not to compromise, not resort to product placement, big name actors or service over sexed teens. Its focus is where it should be and that it doesn’t soar in other departments and plays out fairly predictably is merely unfortunate. Pacific Rim is broad and massive in every sense of the word entertainment and has come out unashamedly fan-boy driven as opposed to studio driven. That’s a good thing for all film lovers.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
To me, the film is basically “Voltron meets Godzilla (the 1998 version)!” It’s a movie that’s all about having some big, dumb fun, as it asks you to check your brain at the door. I’m not complaining.
You are funny, sir(s) or madam(s).
Good review! When the Jaegers and the Kaiju clash, the results are nothing less than spectacular. The scope of these fights is quite unlike anything I have seen in rival blockbusters, and was a real treat in 3D.
Michael Bay, learn. Learn.
Wow… it appears that my opinion stands in stark contrast to the majority opinion. This was not the Guillermo del Toro I remember from Hellboy nor Pan’s Labyrinth.
My friend and I were laughing throughout the movie, but not due to intentional puns or jokes, but at the ridiculousness and blatant plot holes.
These are some of the questions I would ask someone responsible:
-Why do Jaegers feel the need to do the “hit the fist” gesture with their machines and wrestle and/or have a fist fight with the aliens, when they have sophisticated weaponry?
-If Jaegers are connected with a neural link and can see into each others mind, why do they even need to talk during “alignment”.
-Why do Jaegers prefer to have a fist fight with an alien instead of using any sort of weapon?
-How can a Jaeger be so out of touch with the machine their piloting that they forget a weapon they have (the sword), which coincidentally slices through alien meat much faster than anything else?
-How are 6 helicopters able to lift these colossal mechs for transportation, when these mechs can use a supertanker as a weapon?
-How was the headquarter able to communicate with the Jaeger pilot through (!) a wormhole / into another dimension, but seem helpless at first when locating the rescue pod back on earth (very end).
… The list goes on and on and on. It felt very incoherent and not thought through.
I loved Del toros past work, specifically Pan’s labyrinth and hell boy….
and I did enjoy watching transformers, but they were not outstanding films for me… I saw the trailer for this in the Cinema, I thought it was the Godzilla remake at first! I wasn’t interested in watching this before, can’t say I am now based on what I’ve been eharing and reading too…
It’s such an amazing and compelling movie. Despite the cliches and simple characters, the pacing, action and visuals create an exciting visual feast fit for anyone.
It’s not made for everybody just like every other blockbuster. What I found unique about it was such a thing wouldn’t have been touched with a barge pole for a summer blockbuster not that long; the only reason Transformers got made was because Bay came aboard. That was my initial point. Yes this is not up to GDT’s best work but it was never going to be. GDT has given himself up as a bit of a director for hire with PR whether he likes it or not. He has always been fairly inconsistent if the we want to be honest.
It worked for me because he delivers where it counts and his design and set piece choreography come from a true love of Mecha and Kaiju films. If Bay or Roland Emmerich made this it would have really suffered – in the details. Picking apart the plot holes is fine if you want too but I don’t see the point. Entertainment factor goes a long way to ranking the final product to me and what I tried to explain in my review was if YOU want a $200 million live action anime epic, you MUST except it’s not there to please just you and the director. I don’t think this film insulted anyone’s intelligence or offend anybody, so I basically accept plot holes and appreciate what it does do well.
Loved the movie, the 3D effects added greatly to the experience by making everything look like model miniatures, which was fitting with the “feel of being a 10-year old” that Del Toro was trying to achieve.
I will be seeing this film purely for the special effects to see how it fares. Great review!
Really enjoyed reading this review. I particularly agree with your last paragraph mentioning that the film excels where it should, which is exactly how I see it. I think the film is brilliant, seen it 3 times already! Del Toro delivers!
I agree that Del Toro’s designs maintain a “surprising amount of originality.” To put it simply, I thought it was one of the best “Aliens vs. Robots” films I have ever seen.
I loved the movie more than I had thought I would. It is definitely a movie that needs to be seen on a big screen.
It’s such a shame that this movie tanked the way it did at the box office. It seems to have everything American audiences want in a summer blockbuster—state-of-the-art effects, wall-to-wall action, etc.—but it couldn’t even match Grown Ups 2’s income in its opening weekend. I think it comes down to the absence of a brand that people recognize (Transformers, e.g.) and the lack of big-name celebrities. Either way, it doesn’t bode well for directors who want to bring similarly original, ambitious (and expensive) projects to fruition. Even if you’re Guillermo Del Toro, studios will think twice before taking a chance on something that’s not a sequel, spinoff, or franchise again…
Del Toro being at the helm would be my only reason for considering this movie, but even then, I’ve grown so tired of films in this mold. That said, I’m glad to hear it was geared toward people who are truly fans rather than completely engineered by the studio.