I’ll just say it outright and get it out of the way and say that Guillermo Del Toro is one of the few filmmakers whose body of work has earned him my admiration. The Mexican-born filmmaker has made some of the most fully-realized and visually-beautiful films of the last twenty years. It doesn’t matter whether its genre staples like Blade II and the two Hellboy films or arthouse fares like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro has a unique talent for making one believe in the world his films inhabit. This is probably the reason why Peter Jackson had tapped him to direct the film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. The man just has an eye for every detail, no matter how big or small, that he believes will add to the overall experience of watching his films.
When delays and behind-the-scenes studio bickerings kept the production of The Hobbit from moving forward Del Toro was already two years into pre-production of the long-awaited new trilogy, but finally backed out. He would try to make one of his dream projects his next move with the film adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s classic At the Mountain of Madness. This was a film that looked to set the horror and genre scene by storm. It was a story that was right in Del Toro’s wheelhouse. The film would require him to create a believable world where cosmic Elder Gods and Old Ones existed and still make it terrifying and awe-inspiring. But once again his ideas would require a huge budget from the studios and his stance on making the film an R-rated one finally shelved it (though hopefully not for good).
With two major productions either cancelled or dropped out of, Guillermo Del Toro was now without a film to direct and it’s been years since his last (Hellboy II: The Golden Army). Maybe it was providence or just plain ol’ dumb luck, but in comes a screenplay from Travis Beacham which included such terms as “Jaegers” and “Kaiju” and Del Toro finally got a film that wasn’t an adaptation of someone elses work, but something he could build from the ground up and make his own. That film was and is Pacific Rim.
Pacific Rim finally arrives in cinemas around the world and it couldn’t come at a better time. The last couple years have seen summer blockbusters get bigger and bigger. Each new blockbuster tried to outdo the next with something more extravagant, louder and, to their detriment, more complex and convoluted in their storytelling. This is not the case for Pacific Rim which comes in with a simple premise that managed to stay together from start to finish: giant robots fighting giant monsters.
From that idea was born a film that lends itself well into Guillermo Del Toro’s visual and world-building talent. He had to find a way to make this film, that harkens back to the old kaiju films from Japan’s Toho studio and its mecha/giant robot anime genre, a believable world where adventure and spectacle ruled and not post-modern deconstruction and cynical characters and storytelling. It’s an endeavor that succeeds, though not perfectly, to do more than just entertain but also show that sometimes the old ways of telling a story does belong in this new world of hi-tech filmmaking.
The plot to Pacific Rim is simple enough and an extended opening prologue narrated by one of it’s lead character (Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy fame playing the role of Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket). Sometime in the very near future an interdimensional rift (called The Breach) in the Pacific Ocean where two tectonic plates meet open up to allow gigantic creatures dubbed by people as “kaiju”. These kaiju wreak destruction and havoc on a massive scale to the world’s Pacific coastline cities like San Francisco, Manila, Cabo and Tokyo. When conventional military means take too long and and only nuclear options remain on the table the world’s governments band their resources and technical know-how to find a new weapon to combat these kaiju. In comes the “Jaeger Program” where two pilots control 25-story tall giant robots through a “dark science” called “The Drift” to finally fight the kaiju on even terms.
We see through this prologue how the “Jaegers” and their pilots have become rock stars in the eyes of the public as their successes stems and stops the tide that’s been destroying cities in the Pacific Rim for years. It’s also in this prologue that we get to the point of the film where this success has led to overconfidence and the beginning of the end of not just the “Jaeger Program” but that gradual slope that leads to humanity’s inevitable extinction.
The bulk of the film deals with the last few days of the war when the world’s government have stopped funding the Jaeger Program and instead have pooled all resources and manpower towards building massive anti-kaiju walls along city coastlines as a measure of defense. The Jaeger Programs leader, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (played by the ever-present Idris Elba who seem to live the role), believes that his Jaegers and the Rangers piloting them still can finish the war once and for all with a final strike on The Breach with the remaining four Jaegers left in his arsenal. When the politicians tell him no he resorts to dealing with the less than legitimate sector to fund this final strike. But for this last mission to succeed he needs one of his best pilots back from the brink of remorse and mourning to pilot an older, refurbished Jaeger by the name of Gipsy Danger.
From then on the film takes on the premise that Del Toro promised when he first took on the project. We finally get to see giant robots fighting giant monsters.
Pacific Rim lives on it’s simplicity. Whether the simplicity of it’s story, dialogue, characters and themes. The film works within those parameters and does it well. One never feels lost with in the film’s narrative. There’s nothing convoluted with this film’s story. Some have said this need to be simple is an inherent flaw. I would agree with this if someone with less talent took on the job. Del Toro understands that keeping the story simple doesn’t mean dumbing it down, but keeping the promise of what the audience expects from a genre film of giant robots fighting giant monsters needs to deliver. The film’s simplicity allows for the story to flow from it’s hi-octane action sequences to it’s more personal moments without having it seemed forced.
Even the characters themselves come off as the archetypes of past adventure films. Whether it’s the stern father figure leading the pack to the hot-shot hero looking to redeem himself for a past failure to the cocky rival whose hothead personality acts as a counter-balance to the hero’s. Even the mysterious newcomer whose past acts as one of the film’s central emotional anchors harkens back to an earlier era of storytelling that preceded the more realistic and gritty era of film narrative born during the late 60’s and 70’s.
These characters some would call one-dimensional or plain cardboard cutouts, but in the context of the film being seen they work. We get enough of what motivates each character to fully understand why their characters do what they do in the film. The motivations range from honor-bound duty to accomplishing the mission, to revenge, redemption and just plain old-school heroism. Yes, this film brings back heroism minus the recent trend to downplay such an archaic notion. The film treats heroism as something noble born out of the shared sacrifice and the need to do what’s right and to protect not just the person next to them but everyone else who cannot fight the monsters that are at their doors.
The characters of Raleigh Becket, Stacker Pentecost, Mako Mori (played by Oscar-nominatedted actress Rinko Kikuchi who channels her inner anime not just in her attitude but even her appearance) and even the dueling scientists Newton Geizler and Gottlieb (played with manic and eccentric enthusiasm by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman respectively) all come off as heroes who accepts the challenge and nobility inherent in the term. They don’t balk at the duty put on their shoulders, but go full-bore in making sure what they do doesn’t have any moments of self-doubt or cynicism. These are characters who don’t become heroes because they were forced into it. They’ve made their choice and thus have to realize that taking on the mantle of heroism would mean making the ultimate sacrifice.
Yet, for all the talk of themes and narrative styles the film will ultimately live or die on the film’s promise. Does the giant robot fighting giant monsters hold up?
I can honestly say that it does and goes beyond what the studios have been hyping it up to be.
The action sequences between the Jaegers and the kaiju have to be some of the best action sequences of the past decade if not even farther back. It’s a loving homage to the classic daikaiju and mecha of old from Japan that Westerners grew up watching on Saturday mornings on the local UHF channels. It’s mecha anime like Mazinger Z, Macross, Gundam, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Tetsujin-28, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann and many others seamlessly melded with the old-school monsters flicks from the Toho Studios with kaiju bearing the iconic names of Godzilla, Gamera, Rodan, Mothra, King Ghidorah and many more. Pacific Rim is a film aimed at the inner-child of men and women who grew up watching these films and shows, but also one that seeks to fire up the imagination of the current generation of children who have been fed on the latest trend of snarky and self-doubting heroes.
The fights between the the jaegers and kaiju also does one thing that most Hollywood filmmakers who make action films have been unable to pull off. I’m talking about action sequences that remains as kinetic and explosive as any we’ve seen in the past but also aware of it’s space and environment. Pacific Rim’s action sequences never come off as being confusing. There’s no hand-held, cinema verite stylistic choices when it came to filming these sequences. We know exactly which jaeger is doing to fighting and which kaiju is fighting back. Even while set mostly at night and in the rain (or in some cases in the water and underneath in ocean), these fights and the digital effects created by ILM (with some practical ones from Legacy Effects) come off just as clear as if they were done for daytime. In fact, having them set at night with the many differing kinds of light sources available in the scene sometimes gave the fight scenes an almost psychedelic look with Hong Kong’s neon-lit streets and cityscape to the reflected bio-luminescence of the kaiju to the utilitarian lights on the jaegers themselves.
Yet, it still all comes down on whether the promised throwndown delivers and yes it does. We’ve come to learn that even ILM can make the most awesome looking digital effect visuals but still having them end up being confusing because of the filmmaker involved. Some have called this the Michael Bay Effect. Even some of today’s most visually talented filmmakers have fallen prey to it, but not Del Toro who eschews rapid-fire editing and shaky-cam moves. He instead goes from strady shots both close-up and wide to show the battle progress from one move to the next as we see each counter-move develop into more counter-moves. These jaeger-kaiju fight scenes have an almost balletic grace to them despite the massive amount of destruction heaped not just on each other but their surrounding environment as well. They also have a sense of weight to both jaeger and kaiju. With each step, punch, crash and bodyslam there’s a sense of real actual weight being protrayed on the screen unlike films like the Transformers trilogy and, more recently, Man of Steel during some of it’s major action sequences.
Once again this boils down to the simplicity of the scenes and how this choice makes the fights more exciting and thrilling than anything we’ve seen this summer. Up-and-coming filmmakers looking to find out how to set, block and choreograph action scenes could find no better filmmaker than Guillermo Del Toro to learn from.
So, does this mean that Pacific Rim is a perfect film which has no flaws and can do no wrong. It’s a question that probably splits critics and those who talk endlessly about film, but the simple answer is that Pacific Rim is not a perfect film. It does have it’s faults that’s born out of it’s simple narrative and simple-drawn characters. Yet, these flaws also comes across as strengths depending on who ones asks. But as a piece of action-adventure filmmaking that promised the simple idea of giant robots fighting giant monsters the film was perfect.
Pacific Rim reminds us that Guillermo Del Toro is one of the few filmmakers who definitely earns the label of genius. It’s not hyperbole. It’s just fact. It takes a genius filmmaker to do the sort of varied films as he has done throughout his career both as director and producer and still have each and everyone of them feel original (whether they are or not), thought-provoking and just plain old fun. Pacific Rim may be Del Toro’s love letter to his childhood loves of mecha anime and daikaiju films from Toho and other such studios, but it’s really a rallying cry to audiences both young and old that blockbuster filmmaking doesn’t have to be gritty, journeys through psychological darkness to be successful. He’s brought the fun back in epic, grandiose filmmaking that hopefully becomes a trend and not a one-shot.
P.S.: Also, make sure to stay to watch the end title sequence that was created by Imaginary Forces to make a sequence similar to the awesome end titles for The Avengers last year. Plus, there’s a small scene mid-credits at the end that ends the film on the proper note.