Monsters vs. Robots.
What? You need more? How about Giant Monsters vs. Giant Robots?
Oh, there is an actual plot to Pacific Rim, but it is and forever will be known simply as the monsters vs. robots movie. As for the plot, in the not-too-distant future, giant monsters known simply as kaiju (the Japanese word for “strange creature” or “giant monster”) periodically emerge from the Pacific Ocean to lay waste to the coastal cities along the Pacific Rim of Earth.
They come to us through a pathway between universes which has opened up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Eventually, humanity pools its resources and technology to create giant humanoid robots known as Jaegers to defend the coastal cities via hand-to-hand combat with the kaiju, a Mechagodzilla to their Godzilla.
Piloting each Jaeger are two individuals who are are mentally linked to each other and the machine through a process known as drifting. Their movements from inside the machine dictates its movements. The Jaeger program is initially effective, but eventually the kaiju adapt. Before the program is scrapped entirely in favor of simply walling off all coastal cities, Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) has a plan to pool together all of the remaining Jaegers and pilots (including Raleigh Becket, the only man thought to have piloted a Jaeger by himself) and take the fight to the kaiju. Oh, by the way, almost everything I just said is explained in the film’s opening 5 minutes.
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: Pacific Rim is unbelievably derivative of any number of other action/war movies. There is almost no single plot point within it I had not already seen done elsewhere. The mental checklist in my mind of films it was pilfering just kept getting longer, with Independence Day (ID4), oddly enough, earning multiple checkmarks. Pacific Rim doesn’t even necessarily improve upon the material from other sources. For example, when it does the big hero speech before humanities’ last stand in the last act Elba punctuates it with such glaring actor-ly, Shakespearean pauses that his “cancelling the apocalypse” is but a rather insistent question compared to Bill Pullman’s authoritative declaration of “This is our Independence Day!” in ID4.
Moreover, the secondary characters outside of ostensible heroes Raleigh (Charlie Hunnan), his potential partner/quasi love interest Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), and their boss (Elba) are mostly just a collection of cliches with goofy names (e.g., Herc Hanson, Hannibal Chau). Plus, the hot-shot upstart (named Chuck, played by Robert Kazinksy) to Raleigh’s slightly more seasoned veteran is so similar in appearance to Hunnan that with such little real characterization on hand it’s very easy to occasionally mistake one for the other.
Sometimes a collection of cliches results in nothing more than a derivative mess. On occasion, though, it can result in something truly transcendent that, though painted in broad, familiar strokes, manages to get audiences involuntarily pumping their fist in the air in response to each impeccably edited call to arms. It can be something that is simply a lot of fun. That’s Pacific Rim.
This is a film which should not work. Beyond its derivation, its mere premise is complicated enough to warrant a rather understandable “I’m sorry. In trying to understand this whole thing I just went cross-eyed” ala the way Austin Powers reacts to the explanation for time travel. Plus, once one does understand the premise they might ask unwelcomed questions. Part of the film’s greatest success is how it manages to convince you to stop wondering, “But, I don’t understand – why don’t they just evacuate the coastal cities and leave nuclear bombs behind or something? And why, again, do the big, giant robots have to be piloted by two people who are mentally linked together?”
Based upon the film’s marketing, enjoyment seemed as if it would be directly proportional to the level of excitement you felt when the film’s trailers mostly just asked, “So….want to see some monsters and robots fight each other?” That appears to have been exactly how the original story was conceived by screenwriter Travis Beachem. There is a certain sense during the film’s second half that we are watching the equivalent of a director (Guillermo del Toro) indulging his child-like glee with the material and using technical wizardry to bang action figures together. However, del Toro and Beachem make a great effort to make the audience actually care when the two forces collide on-screen.
The story shares a roughly similar structure to Man of Steel – big action opening set in the past, time jump a little bit to a prolonged middle section devoted to world building and character introductions/interactions, non-stop action in the final hour. The middle point is so focused on the characters I distinctly remember thinking, “I really thought there’d be more monsters and robots in this monsters vs. robots movie.” However, that stretch of the film settles the audience in with Raleigh and Mako and the secondary characters so that hopefully we’ll find ourselves shouting “Hell yeah!” when all of the characters join forces to attempt to defend Hong Kong from a kaiju attack halfway through the story.
The action sequences are predictably amazing, although they are not to immune to the Transformers problem of struggling to differentiate one CGI combatant from another. So, there is an unfortunate amount of, “That was awesome! I think. Well, it was loud. Okay, what the hell just happened? Did the jaeger get hit or was it the kaiju?” Plus, any of the sequences involving Jaegers not containing either Raleigh or Chuck as one of its pilots are a little underwhelming because those other Jaeger pilots are no more developed than any of the nameless pledges from The Hunger Games. However, the aforementioned defense of Hong Kong sequence is easily the most thrilling thing I have experienced at the cinema this Summer.
Of course, also like Man of Steel (and pretty much all other Blockbuster films this year) there is quite a bit of collateral damage on hand. However, unlike some others this film actually has a sense of humor, albeit almost exclusively isolated to quirky scientists researching the kaiju (Charlie Day, Burn Gorman). So, when the carnage occurs the audience isn’t necessarily counting how many people are likely dying in large part because the film isn’t taking itself too seriously and doesn’t invite that level of criticism. Plus, it doesn’t share Zack Snyder’s fetishistic habit of holding shots to focus on the crumbling buildings, thus distracting the audience.
On the acting side, Charlie Hunnan is okay in a bland role who begins as the lead character before giving way to an ensemble cast. As Mako, Rinko Kikuchi, the Japanese actress who was nominated for an Oscar for Babel in 2006, kicks down gender barriers for action heroes ala Sigourney Weaver while also displaying a touching level of emotional vulnerability and respect for Japanese tradition. Idris Elba has little more to do than glare and glower, but the few moments of vulnerability the story allows him are not wasted. Charlie Day and Burn Gornam make for a sufficiently diverting comic relief duo. Long-time Guillermo del Toro actor Ron Perlman shows up, although I found him distracting and showy in his limited role (even if he is Hellboy).
On the technical side, del Toro and his team of artists, special effects people, and editors show that none of the $190 million budget appears to have been wasted. Each environment we encounter feels completely lived in, with great attention paid to the backgrounds, and the action believably animated and brilliantly edited. Fans of del Toro’s will no doubt find themselves occasionally reminded of his Hellboy films (one of the sets is so familiar I expected Abe Sapien to swim by in a glass tank in the background). The rock-infused score from composer Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man, Game of Thrones) seems to feature little variation, with the main theme repeated so often even John Williams thinks it’s a bit much. It’s dang catchy though.
Pacific Rim is an audacious mix of story elements and plot points borrowed from other sources and should result in a horrible, derivative mess, yet it somehow, almost inexplicably, ends up being a ridiculously enjoyable movie. Those more familiar with the film’s sources of inspiration, i.e., various works of Asian art and cinema, as well as those who might catch geek-tastic references (such as homages to video games like Portal/Portal 2, Shadow of the Colossus) will find more to latch onto. These are the ones most likely to beg for a sequel, which del Toro desperately wants to do if the profits will allow it. Will that actually happen? Ask again later. However, the film’s self-contained narrative can stand on its own, regardless of whether or not there is ever any kind of continuation.
See It – Stream It – Skip It – See It