Overwhelmed with joy. That was my feeling after the lights went up after Pacific Rim. The feeling wasn’t on account of being a die-hard fan of monster movies, which I am not, but I do enjoy watching them every now and again. It was because it was a new film from Guillermo del Toro. Too many years have passed – five to be precise – since his last feature, but the director hasn’t been resting. No, he’s been a creative influence on a multitude of projects ranging from animation to even lifting the profiles of young directors like J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage) and Andres Muschietti (Mama).
Touted as Monsters vs. Robots, Pacific Rim plays on the notion that we were once were kids who played in a sandbox. I’m sure at one time or another you created your own elaborate scene of awesome involving G.I. Joes, Hot Wheels and an old Lando Calrissian (that’s Billy Dee Williams for you non-Star Wars fans out there). Now del Toro has trampled through that sandbox and laid waste the only way he knows how. By creating a menagerie of Godzilla-types and humanoid mechas (I bet you thought I was going to say Transformers) just as a child would. Only del Toro does so on a grander scale. The world is his sandbox now.
On the surface it is easy to suspect Pacific Rim as a Transformers rip-off. Ah, but that would be an incorrect assumption. Whereas Transformers is based on a very profitable line of toys, Pacific Rim inspires its own brand of toys. A much better trade off if you ask me, especially if you were a kid watching this now and being introduced to monsters and robot warriors in one swell swoop.
Arriving in a season where audiences are fine to check their brains at the door and just enjoy the spectacle that lies before them, del Toro asks why not have both: brains and eye candy. Pacific Rim is a really big piece of entertainment with 200 tons of mayhem and delivers on what its tag line promises, “Go big or go extinct.” If Man of Steel was the event film of the summer in terms of refashioning one of the greatest literary heroes of the 20th century, del Toro’s cinematic opus is the spectacle of the summer. Not a minute is wasted on screen whenever del Toro gives us monsters stomping on cities and giant robots pounding on those monsters.
The film opens with a concise and well-edited recap of what has happened up until now. Alien creatures called Kaiju – taken from a Japanese word that’s literal translation means “strange beast” – have arisen from a rift deep in the Pacific Ocean to lay siege to the world populace one big city at a time. In a show of unity world governments, both allies and enemies, fund the Jaeger program – massive robots piloted by two mind-synched humans to go toe-to-toe with the kaiju. At the start the jaeger program is the solution and the pilots of those robots see their popularity status rise. They are the new rock stars. The high-fives and congratulatory applause on the talk-show circuit is short-lived, however, when the tide starts to turn and favor the monsters. The kaiju become bigger and faster and stronger, and the frequency of their appearances increases dramatically. Jaegers are being destroyed at an alarming rate that the decision is made to de-fund the program. The remaining machines (four in all), are transported to Hong Kong as an underground resistance led by Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba).
With experienced pilots in short supply Pentecost turns to a once-elite pilot in Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) to bring him back into active duty. Raleigh used to fight the monsters along with his brother, but a fatal encounter off the coast of Alaska left not only his robot severely damaged but he as well. Getting back into a robot proves difficult with a co-pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who has no formal time inside an actual mecha machine, just simulators. But when a pair of kaiju attacks Hong Kong and disable the three other jaegers, it’s up to him and his rookie co-pilot to play underdog and get into action.
Raleigh Becket is a lot like Maverick in Top Gun. Only in Raleigh’s case he fights by the seat of his pants when it comes to squaring off against the kaiju. Whatever protocol existed to defeat these beasts he apparently didn’t commit it to memory. He basically functions as a World War II soldier incarnate, chiseled grin and all; a relic from the Greatest Generation that embodies the American spirit of hope and optimism.
Idris Elba shows why he has such an incredible screen presence as Pentecost. He doesn’t even have to verbalize his thoughts. His face says it all. But when he does open his mouth his words are strong and tactile. General Patton would be proud.
Guillermo del Toro also brings the funny with a pair of research analysts, Dr. Newton Geizler and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman). If it’s all bang and boom when it comes to the kaiju/jaeger confrontations the audience could get worn out. So these two give us a levity break from the fighting. They have a good chemistry when they are on screen together. It was like watching the bookworm versions of Abbott and Costello. And of course it wouldn’t be a del Toro movie without a Ron Perlman sighting. He plays a black marketeer named Hannibal Chau who deals Kaiju organs.
Pacific Rim has its fair share of amazing visuals, but the biggest highlight is the Battle of Hong Kong. Forget Fifty Shades of Grey; this is Fifty Shades of Awesomeness. I could just write “wow” and leave it at that. But one syllable isn’t enough. Take everything you’ve seen before in monster movies, robot movies and action films, then multiply that by a megaton. The scene is why men feed off of adrenaline and testosterone. Guillermo del Toro is in fine form choreographing a ballet of destruction in and around the neon glow of the Pearl of the Orient. The way the pink hues play in the background or reflecting off the metal armor is a thing of beauty. As is the attention of detail of seeing rain water cascade down the jaegers before touching ground.
Yes, Pacific Rim is a big rock’em sock’em special effects driven spectacle. But it’s not all about the fights, explosions or destruction. While it does carry the same wow factor as a Transformers release, Guillermo del Toro gives us a proper narrative, logic and memorable characters. Seriously, I bet screenwriter Travis Beacham and del Toro had a few brainstorming sessions just to fine tune the character names. A catchy name goes a long way. It’s why we can easily recall the likes of Luke Skywalker and Hannibal Lecter. You’d be hard-pressed to not remember names like Herc Hansen and Hannibal Chau.
But enough about names. As a visually dominant feature you are probably wondering if it is worth springing for the 3-D presentation. The 3D is used effectively, but its impact is downgraded because most of the action occurs at night or deep under the ocean. Since the 3-D diminishes the amount of light that the viewer can see due to the glasses, it could be an issue. So you must ask yourself if you are willing to forgo seeing a fuller picture in two dimensions or add a little to the coffer and get a more immersive, but diminished 3-D experience.
Away from monsters squaring off against machines the film has some memorable small moments like Raleigh and Mako engaged in bo staff combat to see if she’s worthy of being his co-pilot. And of course there’s Idris Elba just owning every scene he’s in (and he doesn’t even have to engage in scene-chewing).
Whether or not Pacific Rim is a hit with audiences, one thing is for certain: Guillermo del Toro proves his worth as a tentpole showman. The word visionary gets thrown around loosely to describe a filmmaker of particular merit. Del Toro is a visionary and Pacific Rim is another wonderful addition to his filmography. And for him to dedicate the film to the late Monster Masters (stop-motion expert Ray Harryhausen and Godzilla director Ishiro Honda) it’s a nice tip of the hat of one joyous director paying homage to the men who inspired him.
Simply put, Pacific Rim is worth passing the popcorn around over and over again.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro
Notable Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman