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Review: “Pacific Rim,” Guillermo Del Toro’s Love Letter to Genre Cinema

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by on July 12, 2013

The short review: In a marketplace filled with somber sequels, run of the mill reboots and asinine ensemble comedies, Pacific Rim is a breath of fresh air, creating a sense of high adventure and even higher octane action even when characterization falls flat, thanks to Guillermo Del Toro’s studied direction and the visual wizardry of ILM.

The long review: Worrying about tracking forecasts is like worrying about your fantasy football team or being the winner on Whose Line Is It Anyway? – it’s all made up and the points don’t matter. What does matter, however, is quality content, and once again Guillermo Del Toro lives up to his reputation as one of the most prolific, earnest, and impassioned directors of our generation. By all outward appearances, Pacific Rim is another $200 million summer blockbuster in an already crowded marketplace, but what sets it apart are what it represents: 1) Del Toro’s longstanding love of Japanese kaiju cinema and mecha-laden anime; 2) a brand new IP – a story that we haven’t seen before – which is a rarity in the modern marketplace; and 3) a chance for audiences to put their money where their mouths are – if you are tired of seeing the same glossy, prepackaged garbage with a different coat of paint year in and year out, then seeing Pacific Rim should be a priority for you.

Now, let’s talk about the film itself. It’s perhaps the closest experience I’ve had to seeing a live-action anime that actually works, something that is by all accounts a difficult feat, if misadventures like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Dragonball Evolution are any indication. At times, the dialogue is awfully cheesy, leaving me to wonder if it wouldn’t be better if the audio was slightly out of sync, like watching a bad dub. What makes Pacific Rim succeed where others have failed though is the painstaking attention to detail, which gives the film a sense of weight to match its mammoth scope. These are not the lithe, weightless mechs of Michael Bay’s Transformers films; rather, they are gigantic, lumbering steel behemoths. Giving something rendered entirely in CGI a sense of palpable mass is a feat unto itself, which is to Del Toro and ILM’s credit.

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Del Toro’s labor of love is a devotion to pursuing the impossible, which is something to which many audiences have become jaded. He has always managed to wring outsize amounts of cinematic magic and imagination from his works even when operating on restrictively small budgets and timeframes. Pacific Rim gives him his biggest canvas yet on which to paint his uniquely insane vision and push the action sequences to the nth degree. Steel clashes against chitinous plates while rain beats down on Jaegers and Kaijus doing battle knee-deep in the ocean. Corrosive acid eats through metal and massive armored fists fracture monstrous skulls in the middle of skyscraper-lined city streets. The action is over-the-top in the best way possible, making the most of its astronomical budget, and there are moments that will have you pumping your fist triumphantly in the air.

At its heart, Pacific Rim is a story of how mankind reacts in the face of a global threat that takes them from the top of the food chain and unceremoniously knocks them to the bottom. There is symbolism behind the giant mechs, referred to as Jaegers, a German word for “hunter.” We may not get to see his version of At The Mountains of Madness, but Del Toro gets his Lovecraft fix through the obsessively detailed creature design of the Kaijus, which mange to exude a shared biology and enough diversity as to keep one guessing at the same time. These are not sleek, streamlined beasts; they are craggy, lumpy, pudgy horrors that pour out of a scar on the ocean’s floor, emerging from the briny deep to threaten our way of life. They are the unknown, the seemingly insurmountable odds that we fear most: the idea that there’s something out there which we are helpless to fight against.

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(SPOILER AHEAD) The charismatic, eternally affable Charlie Hunnam serves as both our ostensible protagonist, Raleigh Becket (an upgrade in believability from his original name, Raleigh Antrobus, which sounds like a North Carolinian transit authority), and a representation of how humanity feels: once a hotshot Jaeger pilot, he has been down on his luck, destitute and disheartened after a massive battle left his Jaeger, Gipsy Danger, all but destroyed and claimed his brother Yancy’s life. The rub lies in how the mechs are operated, a process called the Drift, through which the two pilots create a neural bridge where they share each other’s thoughts, memories and feelings.

The Drift is essential to Pacific Rim‘s story because it neatly explains why you can’t just throw any two people into the mountainous mechs. Raleigh and Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) are such exemplary Jaeger pilots because they share an unbreakable bond, which is consequently why Yancy’s death is so traumatic. They are intimately connected and hence, when Yancy dies while Raleigh is still connected, Raleigh feels his pain, fear, shock — all of it. It takes every last ounce of his strength to make pilot his Jaeger solo to the snow-covered shoreline, a feat so impossible that only one other pilot in history has done it. Washed out and washed up, Raleigh fills his days working dangerous, menial jobs on the Wall, a mammoth construction project designed to keep the Jaegers out and humanity in, caged like animals.

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Other Jaeger teams include the Chinese triplets of Crimson Dynamo, the Rocky-villains-in-waiting of Cherno Alpha and the Top Gun-like Australian father-son duo of Herc and Chuck Hansen. When Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the grim military man in charge of the anti-Kaiju defense program behind the Jaegers, comes to Becket to bring him back into the fold, it isn’t because he’s in a fit mental state for combat; rather, the situation is so dire and no one displays the kind of affinity that Becket did. No one, that is, except for Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Pentecost’s Japanese female protege and his ward whom he rescued from a particularly brutal Kaiju attack in her youth. They prove an unlikely pairing to pilot a mech and thankfully the romance isn’t forced – it remains a subtext at most. Moreover, their partnership is one born of circumstance and a shared inability to quit when the going gets tough. Like it or not, they were made for each other, much like Neon Genesis Evangelion‘s Shinji and Asuka… which brings me to my next point.

To those decrying Pacific Rim as an Evangelion rip-off, please hold your breath, count to ten, pass out, and wake up ideally with some fresh perspective. The film is clearly influenced by the seminal anime series, right down to the concept of the Drift, the process through which the two pilots neurally sync up, tapping into each other’s memories to operate in perfect synchronicity. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and Pacific Rim is clearly flattering Neon Genesis Evangelion in this regard. Is it a rip-off, though? No – that point of view assumes the lowest common denominator. Rather, it draws inspiration from the show and other pop cultural elements from Del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham’s youths. Like the headline says, this film is a love letter to pop culture, a pastiche of their favorite bits and pieces of genre cinema and TV from last fifty some-odd years, from Toho films to Voltron.

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Despite Del Toro and Beacham’s best efforts to show the humanity behind the monster vs. mecha action, this proves to be the film’s weakest link. Hunnam, who I enjoy so much as Jax Teller on Sons of Anarchy, is often one-note, pausing only to alternately smirk and snarl. Elba’s steely gaze serves him well, cutting through much of the bullshit and giving him a sense of gravitas. It helps that his baritone seems to smooth over any misgivings one might have over what he actually just said (I’m sorry, but “Today we are canceling the apocalypse” isn’t as cool as they thought it sounded). Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau, a black market Kaiju parts dealer, and Charlie Day‘s Newton Geiszler, a nerdy Kaiju biologist with pretensions of hipsterdom, shine in their supporting roles, providing equal parts comic relief and exposition to keep the plot rolling along. The rest is a mixed bag of action movie tropes – both successful and unsuccessful – that don’t equal the sum total of what happens when they step inside the Jaegers.

Where Pacific Rim succeeds isn’t so much in the story, which has some spots of laughably bad dialogue that are often carried on the stars’ charisma alone. Rather, it is triumphant in its tone. The majority of the summer’s blockbusters - Star Trek Into Darkness, Iron Man 3, Man of Steeltemper their fun with long spells of sad-sackery, traumatized heroes and a general sense of pervasive dourness that can leave a bad taste in viewers’ mouths. Although Pacific Rim is dealing with an apocalyptic all-or-nothing scenario, the sense of fun, action and, most importantly, adventure carry it above its peers – at least tonally speaking. It’s quite refreshing to see a big budget film this season that laughs in the face of danger, running headlong towards it, rather than wallow in it, feeling bad for itself before treating us to 45 minutes of uninterrupted disaster porn.

In case I haven’t been clear, I genuinely enjoyed Pacific Rim and even when I didn’t exactly dig what was happening on-screen, I respected the hell out of them for swinging for the fences. This is an all-or-nothing gamble on Del Toro and Beacham, who have taken an unproven genre piece with massive potential fanboy (and fangirl) appeal and bet $180-200 million on it. For my money, it was worth the risk, and if this is what Del Toro can do with a sometimes lackluster script, it fills me with boundless excitement to see what he could do with a better writer (Justice League Dark, anyone?). Pacific Rim is not carried just by its stars’ rippling abs or its dazzling visual effects; rather, it is elevated by the passion behind it, something which is sorely missing from the multiplex these days and ultimately makes a ticket to Pacific Rim money well spent.

What did you think of Pacific Rim? Let us know in the comments below! Then, be sure to check out my behind-the-scenes interviews with the film’s cast, exclusively on the Nerdist Channel!

 

(Note: Legendary Pictures, co-producer of Pacific Rim, owns Nerdist Industries, which remains editorially independent)