Note: This review contains spoilers.
I’m a fan of director Guillermo del Toro. I didn’t really follow his movies attentively until after I saw Hellboy, which was my first exposure to the character and launched several years of intense Hellboy obsession. But before Hellboy, I’d seen two other del Toro films in the theater – Mimic and Blade II. Mimic was a surprisingly entertaining horror film about giant bug-men and earned a lasting place in my memory for a scene in which a pair of annoying kids are ruthlessly butchered by the monsters. Blade II was just a fun horror/superhero film with an interesting design aesthetic.
After Hellboy, I went back and watched del Toro’s smaller, more critically acclaimed films, Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone (side note – I hadn’t seen that cool Mignola cover for the Devil’s Backbone Blu-ray. Neat). Both are atmospheric, creepy films, though the latter film is the first one in which del Toro reveals some of his political and historical interests, which would play an even larger role in his masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth.
After Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro returned to the blockbuster arena with Hellboy II. After that, he spent some time working on The Hobbit, which he eventually left. While I would have been interested to see del Toro’s Hobbit, I must admit I’m also a little wary of it; I’m really not sure where he would have gone with it. I worry it would have been a bit too dark and possibly gruesome for what’s essentially a children’s story (as it is I think Peter Jackson has gone too dark with it as well, never mind made the whole thing at least six hours longer than it needs to be).
And then there’s del Toro’s long-suffering effort to adapt H.P. Lovecraft’s novella At the Mountains of Madness. I have strong doubts that story can be made into a film without changes that would most likely break the spirit of the work – for example, anything resembling a “hero” is fundamentally un-Lovecraftian – but I’m intensely curious to see what del Toro comes up with. Lovecraft’s work is so bloodless and lacking in anything resembling character and feeling, I just can’t see how a faithful film adaptation could be at all entertaining.
Del Toro’s name was also attached to a potential Halo film around this time, which I remember finding odd because del Toro’s films always seemed to lean more toward fantasy and the supernatural, not science fiction. But evidently science fiction was on del Toro’s mind, because his next project was Pacific Rim.
When I first heard the description of this movie, I was immediately on board. A Guillermo del Toro movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters? Hell yes. Even then, though, I suspected the movie would be a difficult sell to general audiences. Cloverfield was relatively successful but almost ashamedly hid behind an arty found-footage style. Audiences have gotten used to giant robots through the Transformers films, but giant monsters remain the realm of B-movies and a small cadre of fans who have kept the flame alive.
While critics love del Toro, he’s never been a tentpole blockbuster director. His larger-scale films (Mimic, Blade II, the Hellboy movies) occupy a sort of second-tier blockbuster level, movies that are critical but not stratospheric financial hits. That seems to be exactly what’s happened with Pacific Rim. The entertainment press has written a lot about Pacific Rim‘s $180 million budget, but del Toro actually brought the film in under budget. My hunch is the film will make its money back through international box office, home video sales and merchandising, and may even build up enough cult steam to warrant a sequel, but only time will tell.
But enough preamble – what did I think of the movie? Since I didn’t go in expecting anything more than a fun movie constructed around a few set pieces of giant robots fighting giant monsters, I had a great time. This is unabashedly a film for your inner adolescent. If you’ve lost touch with that part of yourself, or if that part of you was just never really into giant robots or giant monsters – and hey, not everyone was into everything, I never liked G.I. Joe – then Pacific Rim probably isn’t your thing.
The film could almost be its own sequel. The first twenty minutes are a prelude, not unlike the beginning of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, that describes the arrival of the kaiju from an interdimensional “Breach” in the Pacific ocean and humanity’s efforts to stop them, which gives rise to the Jaeger program – giant robots that can fight the giant monsters on their own turf. For a while, humanity starts winning – and then the monsters get bigger and more frequent, and the tide begins to turn. As the movie opens, things are looking quite grim, and the world’s governments have dropped the Jaeger program in favor of building a giant wall. This seems like little more than busywork for the proles why the wealthy classes try to figure out a way to survive the coming apocalypse.
And so Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the out-of-favor head of the Jaeger program, concocts a plan to make one last-ditch effort to close the Breach. But first he needs more Jaeger pilots, so he recruits Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who lost his brother in battle with a kaiju five years earlier and hasn’t piloted a Jaeger since. Controlling the robots requires two people, linked through a powerful neural connection, and Raleigh actually felt his brother’s own sensations when he died.
Raleigh reluctantly returns to the Jaeger fold. There he meets Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), a Japanese woman with a natural talent for piloting Jaegers but whose candidacy has been repeatedly deep-sixed by Pentecost. It turns out Kikuchi also has a very personal reason for wanting to destroy kaiju: her family were killed in an attack in Japan, and she nearly died herself before she was rescued by Pentecost’s Jaeger.
The cast is filled out by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s Charlie Day as the Louis Tully-like Newt Geizler, a scientist who’s trying to find a way to mind-link with a kaiju brain the way Jaeger pilots link with each other; Burn Gorman as his colleague Gottlieb, a German scientist obsessed with figuring out the kaiju’s attack schedule; Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky as a father-and-son team of Jaeger pilots; and Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a dealer in black-market kaiju parts who took his name from “his favorite historical character and his second-favorite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn.” The acting, admittedly, isn’t the best I’ve seen in a del Toro film; as you’d expect, Elba is the brightest spot in that regard.
I saw this movie with friend and Poester Sped, and I do agree with him that the monsters were all a bit too similar to one another. This is somewhat explained in the film by the fact that they’re clones, but still, all that gray skin and blue glowing bits was a little monotonous. Why couldn’t we get some other colors? The most distinctive monsters were Knifehead, Leatherback and Otachi; the rest were mostly interchangeable to my eyes, which is especially problematic in the case of Slattern, since he’s supposed to be the Big Bad. (I think Karloff should have been used in the movie – he’s more distinctive than many of the ones who made it in).
One thing that impressed me was the way the film sold me on Gipsy Danger, who I had thought was the least-interesting Jaeger. The robot develops a sense of character during the film, and I found myself wishing they would introduce a subplot about the concept of Jaegers developing a bit of a “mind of their own,” somehow. Maybe if there’s a sequel.
Look, this isn’t Shakespeare. Of course, as a fan of kaiju eiga, some of the movies I hold near and dear to my heart make this one look like Chinatown. I think it’s a matter of perspective. Pacific Rim is a fun movie I would have gone absolutely batshit for when I was twelve years old, and two decades later I still had a great time.
One last thing. The movie is only one part of what I love about Pacific Rim. As I mentioned in my reviews of the figures, this is a new franchise, one I hope becomes beloved by geeks like Terminator, Aliens, Predator, and so forth. It’s way too early to know if that will happen, but for now, I’m excited to have this new world to explore. I’ve got the art book, the toys, and the prequel graphic novel, and I hope we get more – more toys, more books, and I can only hope, more movies.
In the meantime, on to Gareth Edwards’s Godzilla…