“Pacific Rim”, the new film from writer/director Guillermo Del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”, “Hellboy”) is very simply the film we all hope to see every time we go to the movies during the summer. It is, with one small exception, the perfect summer film.
Every summer, the studios overhype their biggest bets and get the movie going public excited about films that will probably end up letting us down. From the sequel with too many special effects and little or no character development to the endless big screen adaptations of super heroes and countless attempts to scare us with gory humor or gross out comedy, these films are usually missing at least one element to make them something special, something to care about, something to remember. Usually, that element is balance; special effects are good but need to be balanced by character development and narrative.
But “Pacific Rim” isn’t a sequel, has great special effects, great action, a believable and interesting backstory and significant character development. If there is anything to criticize, it does use a tried and true formulaic set-up for the ending. But the rest of the film is so good; this can and should be overlooked.
The film opens a few years into the Kaiju War. A few years back, giant space aliens begin to invade Earth through a rift in the Pacific Rim. These monsters begin to attack our cities, killing untold millions of people and causing catastrophic destruction. Governments join forces and form an alliance combining resources to figure out how to battle these monsters. The solution? Jaegers – large robots manned by two pilots who are connected via a mind probe operating the large robots as a team. The Jaegers are dispatched from a number of stations located around the Pacific. And the program works until the Kaiju start to learn. And start to win again. Flash forward a few years, and the program is going to be shut down. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the leader of the program recruits a number of the best Jaeger pilots to lead one last ditch attempt to get rid of them once and for all. He brings everyone to Hong Kong, the last operational station, to join Dr. Geiszler (Charlie Day, TV's "It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia"), who believes he can do a mind meld with one of the Kaiju, Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, TV's "Torchwood"), the crazy inventor who comes up with the equipment they need and Ops Tendo Choi (Clifton Collins, Jr.) who is the man in charge of guiding the missions. One of the pilots Stacker brings to Hong Kong is Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) who has been living incognito for a few years, since his last mission failed and his co-pilot died. When the team is assembled, they begin to realize certain things about the Kaiju and come up with a plan to end the invasion once and for all. Stacker is forced to team Raleigh with a trainee, Mako (Rinko Kinkuchi), his own protégé, but watches them very closely to see if they can handle the assignment.
I admire Guillermo Del Toro. He was clearly influenced by fantasy and sci-fi films as a kid and has devoted his career as a filmmaker to create more films to add to this genre. This early influence seems to drive him to make more interesting and unusual films, films that test the boundaries of these genres. As a director, he brings an incredible depth of detail to the composition of his films, layering images and ideas, creating something for the viewer to feast on, much like the creatures feast on their victims in many of his films. He has also used his newfound clout in Hollywood to produce and ‘Present” a number of projects from other filmmakers - his hand has been in everything from animation to genre horror. While these films are more interesting and unusual because of his involvement, the films he directs are the special ones, the ones to keep an eye out for.
In “Pacific Rim”, he and his team create an incredible backstory, smartly placing us in the middle of the action. Brief voiceover from Raleigh gets us up to speed and then we join him on a battle, watching the robots and monsters battle in the waters off Alaska. But that isn’t enough for Del Toro – as each character is introduced, we learn something about them, their history, even if it is just from a seemingly offhand comment. Because we know more about these characters, they seem more real and we invest more emotion in them, making the outcome of their journey all the more important to us.
I have to say that with all of the CGI flooding the multiplex, I was worried that “Pacific Rim” would be another example of a director who runs rampant with his toy box, using every toy at his disposal whether it makes sense or not. And that is exactly what Del Toro does, but he does it in a way that works brilliantly. The key difference between Del Toro and most other directors is that the CGI is used to tell the story, not to cover up the holes in the narrative. In the “Transformers” films, the robots crash into buildings and streets and construction, causing destruction but surrounding areas are remarkably intact. In “Pacific Rim”, these robots and aliens are huge, so when they move through specific types of areas, their movements cause destruction, breaking windows and walls simply because the huge creatures are moving through the area. It is a big difference and adds to the realism of the story.
The battles between the Kaiju and the Jaegers are impressively staged. The action is pretty thrilling and easy to follow, which isn’t often said when watching action staged using CGI. Generally, a ‘real’ element is needed to ground the action – frequently actors on the ground running from the large CGI beasts – and make it seem real. In “Pacific Rim”, the CGI is so good everything already seems real so this extra distraction isn’t needed. What is even more impressive is most of the battles take place at night, in the rain, or both, so the palette is darker. These scenes are more interesting and better staged than scenes in the “Transformers” films, most of which take place in broad daylight. Del Toro isn’t afraid to step back and use a wide shot occasionally, allowing us to view the entire scene. Michael Bay keeps his compositions much more confined, which limits them and makes the film feel less grand.
The actors are all good and create viable characters - It helps that they all have a history to work with making them more interesting. Hunnam, cast in a role that was reportedly written for him, brings a lot of complexity to the role of Raleigh. Living off the grid for a while, it takes him some time to get back up to speed, to refill his hero batteries. Idris Elba is very good as the leader of this group. When the heads of the nations involved in the program tell him the Jaeger’s will soon be replaced by a giant “Kaiju-proof” wall, you can see the disbelief, pain and disappointment in his eyes. His relationship with Mako also helps to create a lot of empathy for both, making us as invested in his character as we are in Rinku Kinkuchi. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman provide some much needed comic relief. And it wouldn’t be a Del Toro film without Ron Pearlman, who plays a black market dealer specializing in Kaiju parts. His role is also funny, adding some much needed laughs.
My one complaint is that the last act is pretty predictable. Del Toro places all of the characters in very familiar places and you can easily see what will happen and when. In the hands of a less experienced or less interesting director, this would be a problem. But Del Toro has already created such a unique landscape filled with interesting characters when this happens that it is easier to overlook.
I enjoyed the first “Transformers” film, but “Pacific Rim” is heads and shoulders above that level. Which shouldn’t really be a surprise. Michael Bay is no Guillermo Del Toro.
Come on, how could any film with giant robots battling giant aliens be bad? It’s like watching a new, good version of a Godzilla-on-steroids film.