Pacific Rim is the last of the Hollywood blockbusters for 2013. With a marketing slogan of “Go Big or Go Extinct” and a trailer full of giant robots punching giant alien dinosaur things in the face, Pacific Rim knows it’s place. It’s big, loud, Hollywood excess, but that’s not to say it’s dumb.
The film wastes no time dropping the audience into action. We meet brothers Yancy and Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) as they suit up to control a Jaeger, a giant robot designed to beat the living crap out of Kaiju, equally giant sea creatures that have been popping up infrequently to destroy coastal cities around the world.
The opening battle is such a phenomenal piece of action film-making, using rain, crashing waves, a swirling 3D camera and of course, a giant-arse robot to full effect. In the struggle, Raleigh shows he’s a bit of a maverick who doesn’t play by the rules (of course). To cap off the stereotype sundae, Yancy is killed in battle.
Distraught at his brothers death, Raleigh retires as a Jaeger pilot. But we soon learn through his gravelly voice over that during the next decade the Jaeger program was slowly dismantled, in favour of giant coastal walls to protect the cities.
All of this happens before the opening credits.
When we see Raleigh next, he’s helping build a wall around Alaska. Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba—aka Stringer Bell from The Wire) finds him to ask if he’ll join the ‘one-last-mission‘ of the Jaegers before the program is shuttered for good.
These seem to be the only two options the people of Pacific Rim are willing to entertain. If there’s a faction of humans lobbying for increased spending on long range missile programs, we don’t get to meet them. And nor should we! You’re either a) in favour of boring, safe, cowardly city-walls, or b) in favour of jacked-up giant robots to go punch those damn aliens in the face.
So: which one are ya, commie?
Raleigh ends up joining Stacker in the final Jaeger base off the coast of Hong Kong. There’s a Chinese Crew and a Russian Crew (both never speak, so you’re never left wondering how long they’ll survive) as well as a father and son crew from Australia, who’ve just kicked a Kaiju all over Sydney. By the way, the Australians have possibly the worst accents ever committed to film. There were times I wished they were subtitled so I could actually understand them.
Equally cartoonish are a team of scientists who kick off a sub-plot trying to understand the Kaiju. One seems to have wandered out of Diagon Alley, complete with ridiculous british accent, bowl cut, limp and walking cane. The other, played by comedian Charlie Day, nervously stumbles over plot points like he’s channeling Rick Moranis from Ghostbusters. Even the base captain wears goofy suspenders and a bow tie while yelling orders at giant robots, for seemingly no reason. Additional flair maybe?
Raleigh meets Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) who’ll soon become his co-pilot and possible love interest. They argue, they fight, they steal glances at each others perfect bodies… You get the idea.
There are almost no surprises in Pacific Rim. But who cares?
Every plot twist, every character reveal, every dramatic beat is sign-posted to the audience a few minutes before it happens. When someone declares (declaration changed to prevent spoilers) that they’re allergic to shellfish, you know a minute later they’ll be chowing down at a seafood restaurant. This should be infuriating, but for some reason it just gives the film an incredible momentum.
And that’s the thing about Pacific Rim. I could fill another ten pages with all that’s wrong with it, but despite it all, I loved the film.
It would be easy to write off Pacific Rim as dumb, Hollywood schlock. And it’s true too that it there’s really nothing new here, we’ve seen it all in the manga that inspired Pacific Rim, and the countless blockbusters before it.
I’ve seen giant robots beat each other up through Michael Bay’s Transformers. I watched Superman get thrown through buildings for what seemed like hours during the final act of Man of Steel. In those examples, the action was boring, repetitive, played out. Here, every action sequence is amazing.
Del Toro is always aware of the cities around his robots. The robots might take a quick breather against a large sandstone building in Sydney. Or stumble over a freeway off ramp that almost trips them up. In one great moment, a robot and alien coming crashing down at the end of a pier, prompting a few seagulls to fly away. But despite the size of the crash and the size of the creatures that created it, the seagulls fly off with as much urgency as one might at the MCG, quietly dodging a boundary. These are the moments that elevate the action, that keep you watching every frame.
And then there’s the robots. The Jaegers are simply the perfect balance of shiny future tech on the inside (think Portal), with years of war, rust, and neglect on the outside (think Battlestar Galactica or Aliens). They’re gorgeous, they move beautifully, with a certain swagger and personality all their own.
Even the humans of this film have their moments. At the midway point of the film, when Del Toro’s film has wandered so far into a militaristic cheerleading that it’s putting Starship Troopers to shame, we get a flashback. The flashback is of a tiny Japanese girl running from a Kaiju/Jeager battle. We know it’s a flashback, so we know the girl will survive, but it doesn’t matter. The scene is terrifying. It’s beautiful.
It bypasses the brain, gushes straight into your amygdala, and leaves you utterly breathless.
On paper, Pacific Rim is dumb. It’s populated with dumb people doing dumb things in big dumb robots. But to write it off would be like writing off Django Unchained as a big dumb western. You’d be missing the precision of every frame.
Del Toro is a filmmaker who’s studied all the best (and worst) blockbusters before him, stolen the good stuff, re-worked the wonky bits, and thrown it all in a film that comes at you like a raging Kaiju.