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To simply state that summer blockbusters have become sterile and lifeless in execution would be to ignore the often literal implication of that statement. Fare like Transformers and Battleship are robotic in nature, encapsulating what is supposed to be visceral emotion – one versus the world – in a tomb of metal and gears that turn only to spew out lifeless destruction and mayhem. What director Guillermo del Toro achieves with Pacific Rim is a film mechanical in setup and aesthetic only – one which never forgets the real, flesh and blood people at the center. It is with this approach that through every epic monster-robot throwdown we remember at the physical heart of these mammoth mechs are characters we care about. Plus the action is just off the walls incredible.
The bits and pieces that comprise Pacific Rim are certainly assembled from familiar bits and pieces seen in other summer flicks, monster movies and the Kaiju and Mecha genres del Toro honors and from which he draws inspiration, but fused together as they are, makes this spectacle its own beast entirely. The creature design of the Kaiju behemoths that emerge from a glowing rift in the Pacific Ocean are not only varied and hugely creative but are impeccably rendered through flawless CGI effects. Similarly the Jaeger robots are products of different design cycles, fuel sources, materials and ultimately the pilots are their own people, so it never feels as if we’re watching a hoard of big grey androids lumbering towards battle. The Jaegers have just as much personality as their human counterparts.
As promised in all the epic trailers that Warner Bros. unveiled in preparation for release, the action, destruction and slimy sea monster clashes remains intact but what I wasn’t prepared for was the time taken to develop the central characters and the deep seeded themes of honor, duty and sacrifice. Del Toro said right off the bat he wanted to create an airy spectacle that would serve as the antithesis to some of the more recent brooding summer fare but in sticking to his morals and never losing sight of his vision he crafted something anything but light and sprightly. Don’t get me wrong for one moment, Pacific Rim is unadulterated fun from beginning to end, something amplified by some effective comic relief throughout, but almost everything has weight, and I’m not talking about what the monsters clock in at on a scale.
Not explained in the marketing is that the Jaeger program had been scrapped in light of slipping performance and a growing Kaiju threat, causing the powers to be to opt for the construction of a mammoth sea wall instead of a mechanized defence. This leaves an international, unsanctioned, often privately funded resistance of just a few Jaegers to spring into action when needed, leaving us with a much more immediate and desperate setup – literally the last line of defence. So it is when these handful of pilots, especially in the instances of the main protagonists, enter their machines we feel scared for them but also marvel at their commitment and lack of fear in the face of a very likely demise.
Another chief part of that sensation again comes down to the creature design which on screen involves into a threat that I will actually say at times comes off as scary. Like the last character trying to survive from a killer in an effective slasher film, we feel the same visceral impact as these soldiers, and when it comes down to the fact it’s family members and close friends sharing the cockpit, every loss is felt twofold. Thankfully this isn’t some cheap ploy to try and make us teary-eyed but in the film’s explanation that these machines need two individuals behind the helm, linked brain to brain, and the stronger the bond, the stronger the operation of the machine. It is a very interesting idea and one that was explored more deeply then I would have surmised and in a lesser film one which would have used this mild melding, sharing of memories idea to forgo actual development and conversation in lieu of a quick “I already know you, let’s move on.”
The acting in Pacific Rim is universally strong, utilizing lesser known and less exposed thesps to wonderful effect. Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam exudes pure starpower as the talented but somewhat disobedient Raleigh Becket, showcasing a combination of compassion and bravery as well as a deep-seeded loss. He shares instant sparks with Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori, who gives us a strong female protagonist – something sorely missing in most summer fare. Then there is Idris Elba as their commander, the man I’m getting tired of saying is fantastic (ok, I’m lying I’m nowhere close to sick of it). He is the standout in every scene but never so volcanic or towering he diminishes the effectiveness of those around him. It’s one of the great blockbuster performances of the decade.
Then there is the aforementioned comic relief which comes down to Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as two of the last remaining scientists to stick around with these resistance fighters and del Toro regular Ron Perlman as a sleazy, black market Kaiju part dealer. Together they share fun banter, deliver their lines with zeal but don’t detract from the mayhem of which they are a part. These players are part of a clear three act structure, beginning with a close call battle years before the Jaeger program is scrapped that sets the stage for the Raleigh character. We then get the lengthy but never boring second act which gives all these characters the trajectory needed to each pull off a satisfying arc and even serves to amplify the effect of what follows as we’ve been absent from the large scale action for so long. Then comes the finale. The Hong Kong-set climax is a 40 minute orgy of mayhem and badass monster kills, one broken up only briefly to set up an equally inventive deep sea battle that will leave you chilled and pulsing with adrenaline.
Bobbling right near the surface as the best film of the summer (and year for that matter) Pacific Rim is the type of gleeful, sometimes absurd but emotionally grounded summer fare we are treated to far too sparsely. Guillermo del Toro takes his first big budget and runs right to the sandbox with it, not only showing us the birth of a talented blockbuster filmmaker but proving that there is a spark – a beating heart – yet remaining in this type of offering.