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Film Review: Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim (2013; Directed by Guillermo del Toro)

Regular readers of my film reviews (all three of you) will be well aware of my tendency to intellectualize the implications of Hollywood blockbusters. No critic can deny their abiding methodology, and my own focus on the ideological undercurrents in mass-market movies is often front-and-centre. But whether I’m tracing the contours of the Hobbesian social contract in Disney animation, suggesting that the Wizard of Oz’s origin story carries suggestions of Straussian neoconservatism, or diagnosing superhero epics as hermeneutic black holes, never convince yourself that my intention is to ignore or lose track of the sense of wonder and awe that the movies can produce at their best. I may marginalize the elements of pure visceral entertainment as I consider deeper implications, but if I don’t often discuss these elements it’s probably because movies so rarely come up to that standard.

220px-pacific_rim_filmposterThis preamble may go some way towards explaining why Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is such a refreshing and renewing cinematic experience, and how wonderful it is as a frequent consumer of Hollywood product to be gifted with an onscreen vision of such astounding scope and resonant power as to submerge ideological quibbling. This does not mean that there is no quibbling to be had, but the prevailing feelings engendered by Pacific Rim are precisely those elusive inklings of wonder and awe. The images that del Toro unleashes in this film are nothing short of astounding.

Pacific Rim is the enthusiastic geek auteur’s imaginative, muscular contemporary take on the monster-centric tokusatsu films produced in Japan in the 1950s and ’60s, the most famous of which was Toho’s iconic 1954 Godzilla. The Japanese name for these strange cinematic beasts was synechdochized into the generic term for the films featuring them: kaiju. Del Toro’s quasi-reptilian monsters are named this as well, enormous amphibious beings emerging from an inter-dimensional rift in the ocean floor and wreaking havoc on the cities at the edge of the Pacific. Earth’s response to these attacks is to pool economic resources and build robotic mechs of equivalent size to battle the kaiju. These mechs are called jaegers (German for “hunter”) and are operated by two pilots who are neurally linked to fully control the movements of their fighting colossus (this is called “Drifting”).

The initial countermeasures of the Jaeger Program meet with great success in defeating the kaiju, as we are told in a prologue that feels like its own mini-movie and establishes the reach of del Toro’s sci-fi panorama. The pilots become rock stars, the Jaegers become action figures, and the kaiju become children’s plush toys. Complacency creeps into the defences, and when the kaiju gain size and strength and adapt to the Jaegers’ methods, robot and pilot casualties result. We witness one of these defeats in the opening fight sequence following the prologue, as hotshot kaiju-killer Raleigh Becket (the merely adequate Charlie Hunnam) loses his co-pilot brother in a stormy nighttime dust-up off the coast of Alaska.

Years pass, the kaiju keep gaining ground, and the Jaegers fall out of favour and lose their funding to the construction of a defensive wall around the ocean perimeter (it should be no surprise that this measure is ineffective; del Toro is Mexican, after all). Becket, haunted by his brother’s death (they were Drifting at the end and the mental trauma was shared), is labouring on this project, following the work wherever it takes him until he’s offered a chance to get back in the proverbial saddle. This offer comes from the outstandingly named Stacker Pentecost (an ineffably commanding Idris Elba), the embattled marshal of the Jaeger Program who has scraped together the funds, manpower, and equipment for a last-ditch mission to drop a bomb down the neck of the kaiju-spewing dimensional rift and close it for good.

Becket doesn’t seem to have much union seniority on the wall project anyway, so he makes for the last Jaeger base in Hong Kong. Working with an international team of pilots (including forbidding Russians, Asian kung fu triplets, and an Aussie father-son crew), techies, and scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are the main researchers, continuing the head-scratching American blockbuster tradition of science being played for comedy), Becket and Pentecost aim to finish off the kaiju menace once and for all, even as the monsters get bigger, smarter, and meaner.

This story is dotted with the macho militarism, troubled pasts, heroic self-sacrifice, and futuristic holographic tech common to the big-budget blockbuster genre. Indeed, del Toro is working along fairly conventional avenues in Pacific Rim, and considering the breathtaking, evocative originality of previous work like Pan’s Labyrinth, his choice to skew to genre convention here caused no small disappointment in critical quarters. It doesn’t help, either, that the film’s sub-surface meanings deal with grand but fuzzy liberal-humanist themes like international cooperation and environmentalism; the kaiju incursions are rated on a Category 1-5 scale similar to hurricanes, and lines of dialogue make this association absolutely explicit. Additionally, as J.F. Sargent points out at Film School Rejects, the atomic-age alarmism of the classic kaiju films is directly, troublingly inverted by del Toro, as the nuclear science that spawned the monsters in those films saves the world from them in this one.

To be perfectly honest, though, none of this matters much when placed up against the blazing glory of del Toro’s fantastical images. The central set-pieces of the Jaeger-kaiju battles are pupils-dilated, jaw-to-the-floor spectacle, staged in an awestruck style both magically epic and scrupulously real. Del Toro has cited the unsettling painting The Colossus (long attributed to Francisco de Goya, but now believed to be the work of one of his disciples) as inspiration for the scale of the kaiju-Jaeger encounters, and the lineage is clear. Wonder and terror are inextricably mingled in del Toro’s mighty cinematic canvas as they are in The Colossus; human beings are dwarfed by the city-leveling combatants, but their fundamental agency is never diminished. A flashback to a kaiju-attack trauma from the youth of Becket’s putative partner Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, played as a little girl by the riveting Mana Ashida) features these tones most prominently, as she stands face-to-face with a crab-like behemoth amidst urban ruins, a red shoe in her hands, her scream seeming eternal.

Scale aside, the battles are massively entertaining and stunningly imaginative exercises. That geek-out shot from the film’s trailer of a Jaeger dragging a container ship down the street of a wrecked city to wallop a kaiju with it? Barely scratches the surface, as far as amazing action beats go. And del Toro’s peculiar monster-crafting sensibility finds a large-scale outlet here as well. The kaiju designs suggest toads, iguanas, frilled lizards, crocodiles, hammerhead sharks, and other crawly, scaly predators. A scene in Hong Kong involving the salvage of a dead beast for its body parts by a local dealer (played by crusty del Toro favourite Ron Perlman) features a slime-covered newborn kaiju being strangled by the winding umbilical cord, precisely the sort of visceral image of disrupted innocence that del Toro finds himself returning to.

Del Toro’s smaller touches are indeed unique and finely-tuned. The almost inexpressible delight felt at the unexpected appearance of a Newton’s cradle in the midst of a city-smashing sequence, of massive destructive forces expressed in simple, microcosmic physics, typifies his expert approach to the contemporary CGI epic. Like the young, fragile Mako’s meeting with a skyscraper-sized kaiju, this one moment is a reductive snapshot of exactly what makes del Toro’s sense of scale and imaginative leaps in Pacific Rim so exhilirating to the film fan. Del Toro’s is scrupulous is imparting proportions, weight, and age to his blockbuster milieu. It is made abundantly clear how towering the Jaegers are from the early scene where Becket’s Gipsy Danger collapses on a foggy coast in front of a man and a boy searching the beach with a metal detector; the Jaegers and their Hong Kong base are profusely mechanical, high-tech but likewise bursting with pistons, steam, and stressed metals shedding chemical blood as they oxidize. It is not abstract, but terribly concrete.

Like The Colossus, Pacific Rim leaves us in awe not only the impressive sizes of the giants but the tangible panic of smaller figures below, the fragile mortality of those fleeing before its unfathomable power. We are those figures as well, or we hope we never will be. Outsized computer-effects epics have proliferated in recent years, and their grandiose action can feel as remote and detached as a button-mashing video game (a bad game, not a good one, which can feel like great film). But Pacific Rim is not detached but horribly, enchantingly vivid. Guillermo Del Toro has fashioned a notable and often magical career envisioning monsters simultaneously of our collective dreams and of our collective nightmares. Pacific Rim is an irresistible popcorn-flick variation on that resilient theme that expands to mighty proportions while never forgetting that below the grand godlike activity is a small, breakable human, cowering in fear, gazing in awe, and conceiving of methods to master even the seemingly unmasterable. Despite the film’s generic underpinnings, that is what makes it undeniably brilliant.


Categories: Film, Reviews
  1. August 21, 2013 at 5:39 pm

    Character-development may blow, but at least the action is thrilling enough to hold you over. Nice review Ross.

  1. September 1, 2013 at 8:20 pm
  2. May 31, 2014 at 9:37 pm
  3. March 14, 2015 at 11:53 am

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