A war movie in the grandest tradition, set in a rich new fictional universe that we’re going to be talking about for a long time.
I’m “biast” (con): the trailer made the film look sub-Michael Bay awful
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
It’s pretty silly. Of course it is. It’s robots versus monsters. It’s giant freakin’ robots versus Japanese monster-movie monsters. It’s every cheap goofy old flick with bad dubbing and stuntmen in rubber suits that made being stuck inside on rainy Saturdays watching TV when you were nine years old not so bad after all. Except, of course, Pacific Rim ain’t cheap: it’s all astonishingly realistic FX that cost a CEO’s salary — per minute — to create and Dolby Atmos that bursts your eardrums and more cities virtually devastated onscreen in a single film ever for your entertainment.
Except… it’s more than that, too. It’s not really a monster movie, although the “Kaiju” — the term is a direct homage to Japanese monster flicks — are so horrifying and so destructive that they make Godzilla look like a fluffy kitten. Pacific Rim is, rather, a war movie in the grandest tradition, the one that goes back to the very first Oscar winner for Best Picture, Wings, which was about World War I flying aces. For our heroes here are the pilots of the giant freakin’ robots humanity built to fight the Kaiju. It takes two pilots to manipulate a “Jaeger” — “hunter” in German, and I can’t help but imagine that invoking that language is a sort of homage to the other legendary pilots of WWI; it also lends a certain exotic feel that simply dubbing them “robots” never could have. And those pilot teams are global rock stars… when they aren’t being torn apart on the inside — and sometimes on the outside — by defeats and losses, of course. (The pilots work in tandem via a neural link that connects their brains; the deeper the bond between copilots, the better they fight, so the teams are often siblings or parent-and-child; but also the deeper the hurt, in more ways than one, when you lose your copilot. That is the stuff that angsty fan fiction is made of, people, and I hereby predict that we will see lots of it. This is that kind of movie, the kind that inspires people to play in its universe — to want to play in its universe — long after the movie ends.)
This isn’t just a story of war: it’s a story of the last desperate days of the war. (Whether it means victory for humanity, or defeat, this war cannot go on much longer.) One of the more unexpected — and most welcome — aspects of Pacific Rim is how it lets itself fast-forward to the most interesting part of the tale it has to tell. I get particularly frustrated when science fiction movies never know quite what to do with their ideas, and end up stopping just when those ideas could be taken to their next level. But with Rim, what would have been the third-act twist in most other films comes in the first ten minutes, leaving it time to explore the more dramatic extrapolations of its concepts. Most of the stuff you’ve seen in the trailers happens in those first ten minutes as well. That opening sequence zips by so fast — enjoyable fast, but still — that I can’t wait for the DVD so I can freeze-frame on some of the imagery that barely registers before it’s gone.
And then, we get to the meaty stuff. Most of the action takes place in 2025, 12 years into the Kaiju War, when things have taken a bad turn the nature of which I wouldn’t dare spoil for you. Shit is seriously beat up: the Jaegers are rusting hunks, as are the Jaeger bases. The global economy is in the toilet. (“Who wants to work? Who wants to eat?” the foreman at a construction site asks those assembled hoping for a shift.) Tactics against the Kaiju, shifting away from the Jaegers, have developed into something almost preposterously insane and abject and enormous and guaranteed to fail. Research into the Kaiju problem seems to be at a standstill: it’s long been known that they’re coming via some sort of wormhole from another dimension into the depths of the Pacific Ocean, and from there stalking to coastal cities to wreck havoc, but why? how? are they “merely” animals, albeit big ones, or something else entirely? When the head of the Kaiju program — the ridiculously named Stacker Pentecost, played by the indescribably awesome Idris Elba (Prometheus, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance) — comes looking for one of his washed-up pilots — the only slightly less ridiculously named Raleigh Becket, played by the supercute Charlie Hunnam (Children of Men, Cold Mountain) — his only weary explanation for asking Raleigh to return is, “You were my first choice. All the other Mark 3 pilots are dead.”
Very much like WWI flying aces, then: their careers are short because they are quickly killed in action.
The Kaiju are still coming, and they’re being called Category 4, which you don’t even need to know more to know that that cannot be good. The Jaegers are still fighting, as much as possible. Raleigh needs a new copilot. Might it be Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi: The Brothers Bloom), who’s so keen to get into a Jaeger that she’s practically shaking with anticipation? (Mako’s backstory is one of the most extraordinary and riveting sequences. Again, I wouldn’t spoil, but I will say this: Whatever they did to get the little girl playing young Mako [Mana Ashida] to cry like that, I don’t want to know.)
The smartest thing director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy II: The Golden Army, Pan’s Labyrinth) — who cowrote the script with Travis Beacham (Clash of the Titans) — has done here is somehow, magically, balanced the goofy movie-movie tropes with honest-to-goodness human feeling. Could be this is the closest a popcorn movie has come to such a thrilling combination since Star Wars. Every character breathes with real passion, even if it’s sometimes misplaced, and even if he (it’s mostly he’s, of course, *grrr*) only features in a small way… such as one pilot (Robert Kazinsky) who doesn’t trust Raleigh enough to fight alongside him. Some characters manage to be pretty absurd — such the R2-and-3PO team of scientists (Charlie Day [Monsters University, Going the Distance] and Burn Gorman [Up There, The Dark Knight Rises]) who are studying the Kaiju — and yet end up so real that you want to hug them… especially Day’s, especially after one of his biggest wishes comes true in a way he never would have wanted it to.
The second smartest thing? Del Toro makes this an authentic world through touches small — like how the Jaegers all have names (Raleigh’s is “Gipsy Danger”) and WWII-style pilot-supplied graffiti — and big, as with its whole-subplot extrapolation of the question: What happens to the Kaiju after the Jaegers kill them?
Pacific Rim is haunting in the most fun sort of way: you won’t be able to stop turning it over in your head, and it won’t be the incredible visuals that linger most. You’ll find yourself wondering about all the corners of its world that it barely touches on (while also hinting that there’s more there). This is but the tip of a rich new fictional universe that we’re going to be talking about for a long time.
• Pacific Rim: Uprising movie review: robot smash