Pacific Rim (2013)
Even in an increasingly geek-friendly entertainment environment, I didn’t believe that Hollywood would do justice to two classic Japanese genres that are dear to me: Super Robot Mecha and Kaiju stories. The industry has a poor track record when it comes to translating more recent otaku-based obsessions for the North American audience, let alone older concepts. So when I heard that acclaimed horror/fantasy director Guillermo del Toro would be directing an action/SF spectacle combining the two, I was a little nonplussed. As it turns out, he's quite the fan. Coming after a disappointing crop of summer blockbusters, Pacific Rim has proven to be an exciting romp. Finally, someone actually gets that watching giant robots hitting giant monsters in the face is supposed to evoke a childlike sense of wonder.
Pacific Rim is constructed as the closing chapter of a protracted war helpfully recapped at the start of the movie. The premise is spot-on for the genre: Aliens from another universe launch an invasion of Earth by sending Kaiju through an interdimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. At first, the Kaiju trickle in one at a time, as par for the course, fixated on destroying major coastal cities. But after realizing that conventional weapons are ineffective against them, and unable to close the portal, the world’s governments pool their resources to construct an army of gigantic mecha they dub “Jaegers.” Initially, these Jaegers mop the floor with the Kaiju. But the Kaiju become smarter and stronger with every new incursion, and the rate at which they emerge gradually increases to the point were they begin to outstrip the world’s capacity to repair existing Jaegers, or to design and construct new ones. When the main story begins, humanity is retreating behind giant seawalls while the last remaining Jaegers are being housed in a decaying hanger at Hong Kong harbor called the Shatterdome. Facing defeat, the base commander is determined to launch one last-ditch effort to stop the invasion.
As expected from a 2-hour SF movie, there’s plenty of clunky exposition to go through accompanied by the usual technobabble. A bit of dialogue about how climate change facilitated the Kaiju invasion gets lost in the shuffle. But moving past the commentary reveals a world teetering on its last legs. Its technology has seen better days. Resources are scarce, but people carry on because what else is there to do? If a Kaiju falls in the middle of a city and the proper authorities can no longer be bothered to clean up the mess, build around it and harvest the carcass. No reason not to make a (less than) honest buck before civilization itself finally goes the way of the dinosaurs.
The Jaeger and Kaiju are unsurprisingly the movie’s stars, and they’re magnificently realized digital creations. Each possesses it’s own unique look and arsenal.The Jaegers’ utilitarian designs have a certain retro feel, vaguely resembling oversized mobile suits of the 80s. Their mechanical simplicity provides a welcome contrast to the overly-complicated technology found in most other films, such as the Transformers franchise. The Kaiju are also similarly retro, marrying the general outline of those classic movie monster suits with hyper-realistic anatomy and textures. The battle set-pieces are among the best-realized CGI action scenes I’ve ever watched, possessing added weight and physical presence. While the Jaegers lumber across the screen like giant, anthropomorphized machines, the Kaiju are hulking predators. They’re larger and swifter than the Jaegers, imbuing each confrontation with a sense of danger for the human pilots. One of the coolest moments is when an otherwise landbound Kaiju suddenly spreads a pair of massive, hitherto hidden batlike wings to drag a hapless Jaeger into the sky.
In a summer were critics have complained about the excessive use of destruction porn mixed in with 9/11 imagery, Pacific Rim stands out for being emphatically lighthearted. This is a war were millions have presumably died at the hands of the Kaiju. But del Toro keeps the focus firmly on the single combat. Scenes of mass destruction take place primarily at the beginning recap and in a few flashbacks. The one time the Jaegers are forced to fight the Kaiju within a densely populated area, its residents have already been evacuated to underground shelters, allowing the Jaegers to go all out. There’s goofy otaku fun in watching the Jaegers unleash the movie’s rough equivalent to chest missiles, rocket punches, arm cannons, and fire blizzards. I swear, at some point their pilots were even calling out their attacks. Once the lightning sword came out of nowhere to slice a Kaiju in half, I couldn’t help but grin and pump my fist at the sheer zaniness of it all.
Character development isn’t Pacific Rim’s strong suit, as the writing mostly follows certain Hollywood archetypes: the reluctant hero, the steely leader, the jerkface rival, the nerdy scientists, the vengeful warrior, the fast-talking huckster. But even here, del Toro is smarter than the average action movie director. Any super robot fan knows that teamwork is needed to synch the pilots with their gigantic mecha. And with the Jaegers, the pilots have to be telepathically linked in a state called “the drift.” This forces the pilots to bond with an unusual degree of intimacy. As a result, familial connections often play a huge role in Jaeger pilot selection and training, whether they be siblings, spouses, or parents and their children. The drift is often used as a plot device to uncover suppressed memories, self-doubts, fears, and hidden traumas. Heck, even the scientists prove their mettle when needed by entering the drift more than once. But the central relationship of the movie is between Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori. Raleigh is searching for a new partner after his older brother died in battle five years ago and gravitates towards Mako. This is what passes for a love story in the movie. But it’s more a meeting of hearts and minds than an erotic encounter. Their unusual courtship commences when Raleigh fences with Mako to test their drift compatibility, and further develops within the cockpit of a Jaeger. Martial arts followed by a mind-meld in a giant robot? How delightfully geektastic!
And in a mostly capable cast, Rinko Kikuchi and Mana Ashida (playing a younger Mako in flashbacks) are fantastic. Conventional war stories tend to be exercises in delineating brotherhood and all manly stuff. Not that Pacific Rim doesn't have its moments of male bonding. You’d expect Raleigh (played by Charlie Hunnam) and commanding officer Stacker Pentecost (played by the always solid Idris Elba) to form a kind of substitute father-son dynamic, and they do to some extent. But it’s the concerned father Stacker fretting over his adoptive daughter Mako going into battle that tweaks the formula and provides the tale with much emotional heft. Mako earns the respect of the boys and becomes Raleigh’s copilot, and what a difference this makes: man and woman psychically linked. Together, they go out to kick monster butt and save the world.
So yeah, this is a noisy, special effects-filled movie with heart. A big, nerdy monster and robot lovin' heart that beats within Guillermo del Toro.