In the weeks leading up to the release of PACIFIC RIM, I've been rewatching the films of director/co-writer Guillermo del Toro in order. And just for the hell of it, I've been watching the "making of" extras as well, just because for many of them I never did previously. What I was reminded of through this process is that Del Toro is an obsessive fan of practical effects. This isn't a big secret, but often he went practical because of a combination of budgetary constraints and him liking the weight and texture of the "realness."
I've known since the first trailers of PACIFIC RIM that the showcased Kaiju (the giant monsters that are being released from a wormhole-like portal deep at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean) and Jaegers (the human-made army of human-controlled, 250-foot-tall mech warriors that are built to defend the Pacific coastlines of North America and Asia primarily) were not going to be practical and nature, and I was willing to accept that this was Del Toro working on a scale he had never experienced before. My concern was that the emotional context that he so wonderfully maintains in all of his works would be lost at this scale. It wasn't that I had lost faith in his abilities, but scale sometimes triumphs over the most heartfelt of intentions.
One of the earliest things we are told about the operation of the Jaegers is that they require two pilots whose minds and memories must be melded together in order to get the robot to move and react at the speed required to fight the Kaiju, who are coming out of the rip in the ocean at an ever-increasing rate. The genius move that almost guarantees that emotion must be a factor in the Pacific Rim equation is that this mental "drifting" seems to be easier if the two pilots are related—brothers or fathers and sons seem like the best match. The downside to this is that if one of them is killed while the connection is still binding them, the trauma can be quite drastic.
When we meet pilots/brothers Raleigh and Yancy Becket (Charlier Hunnam and Diego Klattenhoff), the Jaeger program is fairly new and defeating the Kaiju is dangerous but far from impossible. The man in charge of the Jaeger program is former pilot Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who seems committed to enunciating every line as loudly as possible, and we love him all the more for it.
After a tragedy befalls his team in a Kaiju battle, Raleigh leaves the Jaeger program to work on a giant wall that will literally run the length of the Pacific coast in hopes of keeping out the Kaiju, presumably making the Jaegers obsolete. But after video surfaces of a Kaiju plowing through a similar wall in Sydney, Pentecost comes looking for qualified pilots to keep the Jaeger program going, including a hesitant Raleigh. The Kaiju are surfacing every few days at this point rather than weeks or months, and it becomes clear that soon the gateway they use to come to Earth (called the Breach) will soon just open up and unleash hell on earth. The mission now becomes not just killing Kaiju, but finding a way to plug the portal.
The thing I admired almost immediately about PACIFIC RIM was its sense of scale, and I don't mean how tall the monsters or robots are. One of the biggest problems I have with films about the end of the world (or the possible end) is that they tend to focus on a small group of people, and we never get a true sense of the global repercussions of whatever the destructive force might be. Granted, PACIFIC RIM mainly concerns itself with the destruction of coastal cities (San Francisco gets it bad, along with Seattle, Hong Kong, Alaska, etc.), but we get a sense through "news" footage just how massive this threat really is.
Character work has always been Del Toro's strong suit, and we truly do care about most of the major characters in this film, in particular the pilots. Aside from his accent issues (he's an Australian playing American), Hunnam actually does a great job wearing his pain and anxiety on his face and convincing us that he may not be ready to return to battle. But through his relationship with pilot-in-training Mako Mori (the great Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi), who ends up becoming his co-pilot, he is able not only to help her deal with her own past trauma but also work through his as well. Consider their missions the most expensive group therapy ever committed to film. And not surprisingly, their drifting experience causes them to become very protective of each other; thankfully, the film stops just shy of turning them into a couple, but things certainly seem to be headed in that direction when we leave them.
There have been a few people who believe that PACIFIC RIM could become this generation's STAR WARS, which is, of course, ridiculous. First off, even if that did end up happening, we wouldn't know it for years until the pre-teens and teens of this era started making movies of their own a decade or more from now. And yes, I'm sure some kids who see this film will be inspired by its jaw-dropping visuals and impressive emotional content. But I'm guessing other movies that came out this and previous years have the same amount of potential to inspire impressionable minds as well. I'd love for Del Toro to be the shaper of young minds; don't get me wrong. But let's scale back on trying to predict the future of movies and judge PACIFIC RIM on its merits rather than its sway. That being said, if I'd seen this film when I was 12 or 13, my brain would have melted with glee.
I haven't really talked about the action sequences, which dwarf (literally and figuratively) much that has come before them. There's such an enormity to what we're seeing (especially if you're lucky enough to see the film in proper IMAX projection) that it's almost overwhelming. I found myself opening my eyes wider to let more of the image into my brain. The unique designs of both the Jaegers and especially the Kaiju are so impressive; each one reflects a specific attitude and personality, along with weaponry and biology. I found myself wanting to stop the film so I could really marvel at these creations and the way they move, fight, recover, and fall apart.
PACIFIC RIM is not without its flaws, and chief among them are the non-pilot supporting parts. I say this as someone who has always enjoyed Charlie Day as a scene-stealing force in movies before, but as a researcher looking into the brain functions of the Kaiju, the only reason he is in the film is to reveal a key piece of information at the very end of the movie that changes the mission of the Jaegers as they attempt to close the wormhole. He has a few funny lines and his pairing with fellow researcher— a numbers man played by Burn Gorman—is vaguely amusing in small doses. Unfortunately, we get large doses of them, and they go from comic relief to major time suck. Whenever the film cut to his storyline, I groaned. I was happy to have the occasional moment to breathe away from the action, but a lot of Day in this film goes a looooong way.
The one upside to Day's plot (courtesy of Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham) is that it brings him together with Ron Perlman's Hannibal Chau, a black market seller and distributor of Kaiju body parts. His team of thugs moves in as soon as a monster hits the ground, and before long Kaiju bones have been powdered and are being sold as a male enhancement drug. It's a fun little side story that combines silly behavior with a deeper look at how the world has changed because of the Kaiju.
Another unnecessary aspect to PACIFIC RIM is a rivalry set up between Raleigh's Jaegar (named Gipsy Danger) and one piloted by the father-son team of Herc and Chuck Hansen (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky, a newcomer to recent episodes of HBO's "True Blood"). The younger Hansen sees the Gipsy Danger crew as emotionally damaged and not ready for the big final mission, which may be true, but an awful lot of time is committed to this dopey in-fighting, and with the world's end literally at stake, I find it hard to believe these pilots would waste the effort trying to figure out who is the more capable pilot when it's clear they both have to perform equally well.
But I see these flaws in PACIFIC RIM because what surrounds them is damn-near perfect. I want to watch this film a dozen more times today and then repeat the procedure tomorrow. If some or most parts of this movie don't thrill you, there might be something broken. That's not an insult; I'm genuinely concerned for your well being. This is easily the best all-purpose film the summer has given us so far, and I've enjoyed works like IRON MAN 3 and MAN OF STEEL to varying degrees. But there's a smart, imaginative brain behind PACIFIC RIM. When I first saw the image of the Breach, I thought of Del Toro's mind finally able to explode onto the screen and wreak havoc on his audience. There are a few surprises scattered throughout, but mainly it's just an old-fashioned good time. And yes, I feel confident kids will love it too; it might even open up a new part of their imaginations, with any luck.