(This will contain some spoilers but I’ll try to keep them at a minimum. Really no more than I think you’ll get in any other movie review.)
A few weeks ago I talked my partner into seeing Pacific Rim in IMAX 3D for our eight year anniversary. (As a quick explanation of our relationship the copy of When Harry Met Sally is his and Apocalypse Now Redux is mine.) I had read the mainstream reviews which had trashed it, and the nerd reviews which had loved it, and since it was a Guillermo del Toro movie it was on my to watch list. I thought I would have to wait for the Blu-ray since going out now means finding a babysitter.
I am so happy I got to see this.
The most basic look at the plot is easy. A rift to another dimension opens up under the Pacific Ocean. Big ass monsters (Kaiju) come out and start tearing the place up, one monster at a time, over several years. And since the things are damn hard to kill humans build big ass robots (Jaegers) with human pilots to kick monster ass.
If you’ve spent any time watching anime, or certain sections of Japanese cinema, you are probably familiar with the whole kaiju and mecha ideas. Indeed this is a loving homage to those works. If you have seen Neon Genesis Evangelion (at least the first few episodes) parts of the first act will feel familiar. However knowledge of such things is in no way needed to appreciate this film.
One of the key elements of Pacific Rim that differs from other many mecha works is the idea of two pilots per Jaeger, and The Drift. As explained in the backstory narration a single human brain fries out trying to work a Jaeger so two are needed, working in tandem. To accomplish this there is the Drift. A sort of computer triggered mind meld that allows two people to fight and control a Jaeger together. Not everyone can drift and not everyone can drift with everyone else. This means being a street brawler is as good as formal martial arts as long it’s effective and you can Drift.
Our hero Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam from Sons of Anarchy and Queer as Folk (UK)) loses his drift copilot early on and so is out of the Jaeger program. Several years pass. The Kaiju start getting bigger. The Jaeger start losing, and politicians decide to scrap Jaegers and just built a giant wall around all major coast lines (probably built by the lowest bidder).
The head of the Jaeger program, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), scrapes up the last four Jaegers, six months of funding, and a plan to put an end to the Kaiju war. This means he needs pilots and Raleigh Becket needs someone new to drift with.
Now there has already been about a million words of conflicting meta-analysis on Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) and there will be a million more. I’ll let you go find it all yourself. I personally think she’s awesome. I don’t think her show of deference and respect to her commanding officer/father figure is a sign of weakness. Her ‘love story’ with Raleigh isn’t ‘this is the apocalypse, we just met, you’re hot, let’s have sex‘ it’s ‘this is the apocalypse, we just met, I can kick your ass, I want to pilot a giant robot and kick monster ass with you.‘ From Raleigh’s end it’s about the same. ‘It’s the apocalypse, we just met, you can wipe the floor with my ass if I blink at the wrong moment, let’s talk our boss into letting you pilot a giant robot with me so we can be bff’. (Art by Lynx with permission.)
The supporting cast are all good fun. Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, the radioactive king of the weevils) are the mad scientist/mathematician who work out the plan to close the rift. Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) who takes his name from his “favorite historical figure” and his “second-favorite Szechuan restaurant in Brooklyn”, is a dealer in black market Kaiju parts and probably knows more about the creatures than the scientists. There is apparently an hour worth of back story on various supporting characters that got cut and there won’t be a director’s cut. All I can say is there better be at least an hour of deleted scenes on the blu-ray.
The visuals for this film are excellent but since it’s a Guillermo del Toro that’s to be expected. Each Jaeger is as unique as is each Kaiju. The Kaiju obviously come from the same mind that brought us Pan’s Labyrinth, but as they go ripping through the Golden Gate Bridge and the Sydney Opera House they bring to mind the monsters of Ishirō Honda and Ray Harryhausen, both of whom the film is dedicated to. There are times when the battles seem overly long, but they never feel long for the sake of being long. The Kaiju are bloody hard to kill. The first one needed a nuke to take down.
Oddly enough this isn’t a dark film. It could be. It could be a cynical, bleak, end of the world, darkly lit, work of standing despite total hopelessness. It’s not. It’s well lit for one. There is a sliver of hope that everyone is clinging to. There is a sense of ‘if we’re going down we’re going down fighting’! There are moments of humor. Idris Elba gives one of the best if shortest St. Crispin’s Day speeches in the last thirty years of cinema*. There’s a bit with a dog. Everyone loves a bit with a dog.
It’s not a perfect movie by a long shot. There’s that missing hour of backstory. Burn Gorman’s performance is a bit over the top, but it needed to be to stand up to Charlie Day’s frenetic performance. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (though I could write a very lengthy and controversial post on that). Max Martini, for as much as I love him, really could have used a dialog coach to help with the pretty awful Australian accent. And an unexplained bloody nose seems to be the late 20th/early 21st century equivalent of daintily coughing blood into a white hanky.
There are also a lot of unanswered questions, like what happened to New Zealand and other island countries that were practically sitting on top of the rift? Did they get abandoned by the rest of the world who were building giant walls and robots? Did they say screw it and build their own Jaeger? How badly does Drifting with your father or brother mess up your personal life? Why was the rift opened where it was and what’s going to prevent the opening of another? How exactly did Hannibal Chau manage that thing he does at the very end after the credits?** (Art by flatbear with permission.)
What this all boils down to is go see this movie if you haven’t already. If you have seen it go see it again. If you can’t go see it again go pre order the DVD and buy the novelization and comic books and action figures because we want the studios to make more Pacific Rim and (much) less of The Lone Ranger.
* I’m even putting it over William H. Macy’s Egg Salad Sandwich speech from Mystery Men
**There might be someone reading this who hasn’t seen it.