Review: Pacific Rim (2013)

Pacific Rim is a film that draws on a child-like yearning for adventure and the cool trappings of Japanese pop culture, all while managing to combine them together in satisfying playground logic. While other summer movies this year have offered up stories with city-scale destruction and fights between outlandish combatants, no other movie does so with such lack of cynicism or sense of outlandish imagination as Pacific Rim does.

One of the recent trends in blockbuster action filmmaking is bringing in a director with a specific filmic voice, such as Joss Whedon (Marvel’s The Avengers) or Shane Black (Iron Man Three), and having them tackle a franchise in an effort to inject the films with personality. Guillermo del Toro was brought in to direct Travis Beacham’s original story after his proposed adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness fell through (though a touch of Lovecraft’s cosmic horror still clings to this production), collaborating on the screenplay with Beacham and overseeing just about every aspect of Pacific Rim’s production. While fans of Del Toro’s acclaimed Spanish language fantasies may be disappointed in the relatively straightforward Pacific Rim, the film is unquestionably Del Toro’s.

Overstuffed with details, fantastic sets, clichéd-yet-relatable characters, and monsters – oh my, the monsters! – Pacific Rim is more Hellboy II than Pan’s Labyrinth. But where Del Toro succeeds in bringing this giant film more in line with his vision than the aforementioned fanboy favourites, Whedon and Black, is that his imaginative vision is anchored in a defined visual sense. Each aspect, from the costumes to the well-worn sets, seem to have sprung into existence fully imagined from Del Toro’s head, not just given a witty script.

Pacific Rim tells the story of humanity’s near future where humans have created Jaegers, giant robots controlled by two mind-linked pilots (and named after the German word for “hunter”), in order to battle, kaiju (“monsters” in Japanese) which spring from a inter-dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Oceanand begin to devastate cities around the Pacific rim. The kaiju seem to be getting bigger and bigger (they are classified by category–1,2,3–like hurricanes, as they are forces of nature), and after a dozen years humanity seems to be on its last ropes.

But the Jaeger commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) has recruited a few last teams of Jaeger pilots to Hong Kong, including Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), each of whom has a traumatic past with the kaiju. For good measure throw in a couple of scientists working to study the kaiju (Charlie Day, as a “kaiju groupie” and Burn Gorman, channeling Jeffrey Combs), and a black marketeer dealing in kaiju parts, played with panache and steel-tipped brogues by Del Toro’s regular collaborator Ron Perlman. What results is a sprawling adventure that never loses track of its central humanistic touch.

Pacific Rim is essentially a film about family and the connections forged between human beings. The mind-melded pilots take this connection literally, sharing memories and traumas in the “drift.” Like Del Toro’s other films, it also looks at aspects of the monstrous that haunt the edges of our humanity and our ability to harness our capacity for destruction into something creative. But these aspects never become rote or heavy-handed, instead helping maintain the film’s unfailing belief in the human spirit.

One thing that Del Toro does that few other action-adventure movies have done in recent years is instill his creation with moments of real beauty and awe. Not just echoes of “serious directors” style (as much as I enjoyed Man of Steel, the comparisons to Terrence Malick in the few scenes of quiet have got to stop), but showing us something we may have only imagined or seen in a cartoon or comic book. Pacific Rim is stuffed to the brim with shots that are awe-inspiring, but also shots that are about the small details: costumes, sets, and incidental details about characters' pasts or interests that are often overlooked in other similar fare.

It is that attention to detail, combined with genuine affection for the genre and characters that sells me most on Pacific Rim. The film it reminds me of the most is Star Wars. Not just because at one point a character warns another, “Don’t get cocky, kid!”, but in the way that it lays out its elaborate, lived-in mythology while invoking the broadest genre conventions in order to draw the viewer in.

Pacific Rim is stuffed with things to see and titanic, awe-inspring battles, but it never leaves the viewer confused or liable to mistake one character for another. Day’s Dr. Newton “Newt” Geiszler and Perman’s Hannibal Chau, for example, are memorable and idiosyncratic creations. The actors Del Toro has assembled also do a good job at selling the basic emotional stakes of the film. Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi’s characters in particular share a touching dynamic.

Pacific Rim may not be the greatest film of the year, but it does what it does so well that it may well be the most enjoyable (at least so far). And it does so without pretension or cynical striving. Del Toro manages to balance all the elements so well, cementing his position as one of our foremost imaginers of the fantastic, making the kinds of movies no one else seems to be making.

9 out of 10

Pacific Rim (2013)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro; screenplay by del Toro & Travis Beacham, based on a story by Beacham; starring Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman.