One thing I’ve heard a lot of in the run-up to Pacific Rim is that it looks like a a Transformers film that’s actually good. Having watched Pacific Rim last night, I can safely say it is not like a good Transformer’s film. That’s not to say it isn’t good, in fact it’s downright fantastic and one of my favourite action movies in a long time, but that comparison to Transformers is almost insulting to what Del Toro has created here. Apologies in advance for putting so much emphasis on the giant robot fights, but that was really why the ten year old in me was so excited to see it.
Pacific Rim brings the Mecha genre of science fiction to Western cinema. There have been many movies that make use of piloted humanoid robots to some degree, but nothing has really put them front-and-centre before now, as far as I’m aware. The movie is centred around humanity’s battle against a race of aliens known as the Kaiju, monsters the size of skyscrapers attacking earth one by one through a portal that has opened between the tectonic plates of the titular Pacific rim. With conventional weapons proving ineffective and an unexplained refusal to use nukes (presumably because of the fallout, as the Kaiju are shown reaching cities within hours), the world comes together and pools its resources into building Jaegers, similarly enormous robotic structures controlled by two neurally connected pilots, tasked with engaging directly with the Kaiju and defeating them by way of bludgeoning, grappling and generally ripping them to pieces. The program sees enormous early success, but with increasingly frequent attacks from increasingly large monsters destroying Jaegers faster than they can be rebuilt, the world’s governments pull the plug and begins exploring other solutions. Now with dwindling resources and options, Commander Stacker Pentecost pulls disgraced pilot Raleigh Becket out of retirement and takes him, along with his old Jaeger, to Hong Kong where the world’s four remaining Jaeger crews are gearing up for one last attempt to rid the world of the Kaiju threat.
One of the things that most impressed me after watching Pacific Rim was the sense of balance that permeated the entire film. In films such as this there is always a very real risk of getting to ambitious in terms of scale and sending the entire thing into unbelievable ridiculousness, or to get so caught up in the conventions of the genre that it became inaccessible to the casual cinema-goer. Del Toro did an excellent job on both fronts. The size of the combatants was very well judged, large enough to inspire awe in the watcher without going overboard and demoting the surroundings they fought in, from dense cityscapes to ocean caverns, to insignificance. Similarly it could have been quite easy to make them overly nimble and agile, and the fights too theatrical. Instead there is a pacing and deliberation to both the Jagers and Kaiju which lends to the feeling of enormity, with even the most mobile of Jaegers retaining an unmistakeable mechanical feel. Likewise the fights are brutal and well measured- these aren’t charismatic heroes and antiheroes dancing around one another, they are spectacles of ruthless efficiency squaring off against animalistic rage. Every attack feels significant with very real damage inflicted to all involved, with the victors never coming away suspiciously unscathed. Needless to say the special effects involved in making all of this happen are utterly fantastic.
However this is not at the expense of enjoyment simply to create as realistic a scenario as one can between giant robots and monsters. This feels like an apt description for the entire film- The fights are awesome to behold, with plenty of action in each and with enough variety between them to stop the whole affair becoming dull. The jargon is kept to a minimum, once you’ve got your head around why they’re using Jaegers and need two pilots you’re pretty much set. This is something the everyday action movie fan can enjoy as much as the anime enthusiast with a long time love of the genre (although I shan’t embarrass myself by trying to call upon the names of popular examples). Pacific Rim goes on to tick the other boxes that go into building a fantastic film, it’s well cast and well acted, the narrative is interesting and it has great pacing. Along with the awesome CGI comes similarly awesome set design, just excellent presentation across the board. Plus it stars GLaDOS of Portal fame, how can it not be cool?
My largest criticism would probably have to be the tendency to fall back on sci fi clichés, some of which didn’t feel necessary for the story being told here. There’s the exiled hero looking for redemption, the talented rookie out for revenge, the bumbling scientist nobody takes seriously, amongst other things. It’s common knowledge that this film was Del Toro’s homage to his beloved genre and intentionally kept light in an effort to make it as accessible as possible to younger generations, however I feel he could have done that without falling back on tired genre conventions. However this is offset somewhat by the relationships forged out of the neural linking the pilots of the Jaegers undergo, bringing about interesting dynamics between various characters. I also can’t help but feel that the film was a bit too dark in the most literal sense, it would have been nice to see a couple of fight scenes during the day for a bit more variety.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call Pacific Rim revolutionary, even in the context of Western media. What it is, however, is an extremely enjoyable action movie and one that will feel like a fresh take on the genre to a lot of people. The set pieces are spectacles to behold and backed up by similarly robust production across the board. It is definitely worth a watch for any fan of action or sci fi, and if you’re going in with preconceived benchmarks from Michael Bay’s recent outings, prepare to be seriously impressed.