Guillermo Del Toro channels his inner Harryhausen with this Kaiju blockbuster, but did it deserve to become a franchise? Oscar gives it another look.
When one thinks of a Guillermo Del Toro film, one imagines uniquely beautiful and intimate films with rich subtext. Yet here with Pacific Rim, he shows he’s more than capable of dealing with fist-pumping fun and grand spectacle that other Hollywood directors became famous (or rather infamous) for. There really aren’t many who can do it as good as Del Toro does, and here he manages to infuse a lot of his own heart and soul into a summer movie that’s clearly his own.
In the future, massive alien monsters called Kaiju emerge from an interdimensional portal and attack cities on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. In response to this, the governments of the world construct the giant mechanical Jaegers to combat the Kaiju, and have stood their ground for several years.
As the Kaiju attacks grow more frequent, Jaegers are being destroyed faster than they are built. The remaining four are relocated to Hong Kong under the command of Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who plans to end the Kaiju War by destroying the Breach using a nuclear weapon. Pentecost recruits former Jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) at a wall-construction site and persuades him to join the new program. Travelling to the Hong Kong base, the Shatterdome, Raleigh is introduced to Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), director of the Jaeger restoration program. As the two train to become compatible for piloting a Jaeger together, they begin to fall in love. However, two scientists Dr. Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) uncover evidence that the Kaiju are not simply mindless beasts on the rampage.
Hunnam does a decent job as Raleigh; he handles the physical aspects competently and captures the basic essence of a good man hardened by his experiences, whilst still having a rebellious side. Kikuchi delivers a very strong performance as Mako, having a wonderful expressiveness and a sincere charm that makes her standout amongst other blockbuster lead actresses. While the romance between them is predictable, both actors manage to show a fair bit of chemistry and are likable in their interactions. The ever-dependable Elba gives a lot of weight to the cast with an intense and commanding performance as Stacker, and you can easily see him leading an army into battle, which he does to great effect. Day and Gorman are both very funny as the two scientists, and they are fun to watch bounce off one another, even if they play their parts dangerously close to cartoonish at times. Max Martini as Herc Hansen and Robert Kazinsky as his son Chuck work very well in their father-son dynamic as boorish but loyal Jaeger pilots, and Clifton Collins Jr. as operations technician Choi handles the nitty-gritty of the Jaegers with snarky wit. Lastly, we have Ron Perlman as Kaiju organ black marketeer Hannibal Chau, giving a charismatic, off-kilter, intimidating performance that steals the screen every time he appears.
While the human cast acquit themselves handily in the film, the biggest draws are the Jaegers and Kaiju themselves, and the visual effects on them are superb; the intricate detail on the mechs and monsters, right down to the scratches on their armour or the wrinkles of their skin, is all there to see. The Jaegers and Kaiju come in a variety of cool and memorable designs. The fights have a great sense of weight and presence to them, making you feel the force of every punch or bite between the combatants. The choreography is fairly basic with a lot of punching and shoving reminiscent of the monster brawls in a Ray Harryhausen film, but in this instance, simplicity is an asset. The camera hangs on the fights long enough for the audience to appreciate the action, in contrast to the fast editing, frenetic camerawork, and overly-designed robots in the Michael Bay Transformers series. Regardless of how one may feel about those films, there’s no denying that opting for boyish fun and excitement is a fitting antidote to Bay’s preferred style. The production design is highly-detailed and full of personality, with the combination of sets, practical effects and CGI to build the Jaeger Bay being seamless. Such sets are grand and very anime-esque, but feel real at the same time. The booming sound design also adds to the size and scope of the battles.
The cinematography by Guillermo Navarro goes for a colourful, grungy and stylised aesthetic, and despite being shot on digital, it looks as rich and vibrant as anything shot on film. It also demonstrates the level of artistic detail. The decision to shoot with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio (consistent with other Del Toro films) allows for greater visual spectacle and beautifully captures the massive size of both the Jaegers and the Kaiju in battle. The use of tracking shots to convey as much world-building information as possible as we are introduced to the Shatterdome is great to watch. Navarro and Del Toro weave in a good amount of visual comedy involving the Jaegers interacting with the world around them, from using a ship to fight a beast to inadvertently setting off a pendulum in an office in the heat of battle. It is this sense of fun and playfulness with the material which makes the fights memorable.
Ramin Djawadi’s bombastic score blends the energetic style of bass guitar with orchestral composition, creating a memorable main theme for the Jaegers and an ominous four-note counterpoint for the Kaiju, employing the use of a choir for those epic robot moments. The bass is performed by Tom Morello, giving it and 80s rock n’roll quality accentuating the score nicely.
The script by Travis Beacham and Guillermo has a good balance of character development, humour, adventure, and even drama. The dialogue is clever, to-the-point and gives each actor something strong to work with. There are some hiccups, such as the basic romantic angle, but this is still made very agreeable by the actors and the direction. The opening narration by Hunnam starts the film on a bit of a weak footing, but the visual storytelling through the use of news clips and fictitious TV shows and even in-universe merchandise fill us in on the world and the war taking place. Despite the first twenty minutes offering satisfying glimpses of the action, the film realises the need to develop the protagonists and gives us just enough to make them likable if not necessarily deep. By the end of the first hour, the action really kicks into gear.
The film manages its universe-building economically whilst having a few tongue-in-cheek moments thrown in, such as the nakedly stupid idea that is the government-funded coastal wall, which we see quickly rendered useless by an invading Kaiju. This is an example of how to organically implement a multi-ethnic cast, each of them having their own contributions to bring to the story and to each other. You find yourself wanting to believe that this kind of international partnership could happen in such a life or death situation. This level of optimism makes it stand apart from other blockbusters. The most evocative theme in the film to me is that of becoming greater than your circumstances, a position shared by Raleigh and Mako with their respective moments of tragedy, as well as being raised out of it by Pentecost. Raleigh and Mako share similar revenge motivations, but go about them differently, with Mako repressing her desire to avenger her family until it almost breaks out in lethal fashion, whilst Raleigh wears his frustrations like a badge of pride, even in front of his superiors.
While it is a fairly tight screenplay, it does have its flaws. Pentecost’s decision-making regarding Mako seems to change on the demands of the plot, at first vehemently refusing that she partners with Raleigh but changing his mind a few scenes later .The rivalry between Raleigh and Chuck Hansen is fairly perfunctory and doesn’t lead to anything interesting. Little things like that build up over time and the pacing is slowed down during the middle stretch. Without saying what exactly, there is a plot point that is eerily reminiscent of the aliens’ true motives in Independence Day, and seems out-of-place.
Ultimately, Pacific Rim is a fun, boisterous ride of a film, and minus a few deficiencies in the script, it serves as an example of how to do a big summer movie with flair. Del Toro made a stylistically rich film that stands apart from its contemporaries thanks to its heart and humanistic approach. Towards the end of the credits, we have a dedication to veteran monster creators Ray Harryhausen and Ishirō Honda, and I think this film would have pleased them both despite its very modern craftsmanship.
- Approximately a hundred Kaijus and a hundred Jaegers were designed, but only a fraction of them appeared in the film. Every week, the filmmakers held a vote for their favourites.
- A life-sized version of the robot cockpit was built on a soundstage at Pinewood Studios in Toronto, Canada. It weighed about twenty tons and stood nearly four stories high. It was built on a gigantic hydraulic gimbal, which would move, shake, vibrate, drop and rock the entire set as if it were actually being piloted. A smaller version was also built with a smaller gimbal, allowing for different movements. The VFX team used some of the Conn-pod footage for reference while animating the robots. The set was also redressed to depict the interior of each robot differently.
- Gipsy Danger is named after the “de Havilland Gipsy” aircraft engine. This was intended as a nostalgic nod to the World War II era, which was a major influence in the design of the robot.
- Screenwriter Travis Beacham also wrote the graphic novel Pacific Rim: Tales from Year Zero. Released along with the movie, “Tales from Year Zero” serves as a prologue to the film and is set twelve years before its events.