The premise of the latest effort by fantasy maestro Guillermo del Toro is so simple, so elemental, that it borders on genius: a $200 million, IMAX 3D slugfest between big robots and even bigger monsters. If only for a moment, all thoughts of cinematic or literary merit fall away, leaving behind the eight year old boy within us all, slack-jawed and bug-eyed in the face of action-movie paradise.
When this moment passes, we are left with a film that is, in fact, quite good – a handsomely mounted, cleanly executed piece of escapist cinema blessed with absorbing action and buoyant levels of big-budget camp. Pacific Rim marks a refreshing turn from the visually chaotic, narratively convoluted fare that typically dominate the summer movie scene. It tells its story straight and true, and makes no attempt to disguise its ultimate purpose of presenting thundering spectacle of the highest caliber.
Case-in-point: the very first five minutes of the film jump us right into a world on the brink of apocalypse. No unnecessary prelude, no extraneous plot nonsense. Via a super condensed montage, we learn of the war between mankind and the Kaiju, a legion of monsters that appeared inexplicably from a portal wedged in a fissure deep beneath the Pacific. When the Jaegers, massive robots manned by two pilots mentally linked by a neural bridge, were created, it looked like a victory for the human race. That is, until the Kaiju return, larger and more evolved, squelching the Jaeger counterattack with devastating efficiency.
It’s here the main plot thread picks up, with civilization once again on the verge of dying out. You’ve heard the rest before. With all hope seemingly lost, the key to mankind’s salvation lies in the hands of a disillusioned, ex-pilot with hunky good looks and an off-the-cuff charm to boot. Throw in a three-act story structure, an assortment of colorful but underdeveloped characters, and a rousing, morale-boosting speech right before the climactic battle and you’ll find that Pacific Rim‘s screenplay is far from inspired. And yet most of it works, because the movie embraces every, lovably cheesy inch of itself. It nobly refuses to be anything other than what it is: a purist’s take on the summer blockbuster formula, a movie that has fun for fun’s sake and rejoices in its own influences.
Really, the problem is not in the clichés themselves but in what the film could have been. Del Toro, a master at conjuring up intricate worlds from his prolific imagination, furnishes Pacific Rim with a wealth of creative details that, if further developed, could have amounted to a truly thrilling sci-fi reality. In particular, there’s the concept of the neural bridge as a confluence of the thoughts and memories of the two Jaeger pilots, as well as a fascinating Kaiju black market where the body parts of the dead monsters are in high demand. The former has intriguing psychological implications, while the latter hints at a society whose very social and cultural infrastructure has been altered by its contact with the Kaiju. Alas, all the movie does is imply and hint, reducing these creative gems to mere genre embellishments in service of a less ambitious, more conventional cinematic vision.
If the film has one great, fully realized idea, it’s an aesthetic one, and it was thought up decades ago in another country. Del Toro has openly declared Pacific Rim to be a loving homage to the mecha (robot) and kaiju (monster) genres prevalent in Japanese pop culture, and it comes through in the movie’s special effects which, though top-notch, have a simplicity of design that reflects an exuberant, un-cynical approach to filming spectacle. The Jaegers, with their sleek exteriors and an assortment of retro sci-fi weaponry ranging from laser cannons to steel broadswords, mirror the anime Gundam and its many derivations. The Kaiju are clear offshoots of Godzilla, shamelessly silly in appearance (though plenty intimidating in context) with long tails, many legs, and dinosaur-like hides that spout goopy, fluorescent blood if punctured. When one of their own squares off with a Jaeger in the streets of Hong Kong, the image pays visual tribute to that landmark monster flick.
And so we arrive at the film’s main attraction: a series of epic battle scenes that, in spite of their large scale, boast an uncommon clarity. We are always aware of the placement of the combatants, and recognize a strategy to their movements. Crucially, the film maintains the illusion of the Jaegers as hulking, complex pieces of machinery that require skill and coordination to maneuver, while constant crosscutting to the Jaeger cockpit reminds us of the vulnerability of the human pilots at work. There is thus an added layer of suspense to the action, one stemming from a sense of precariousness. Each blow a Jaeger lands feels like an accomplishment, the combined result of expert piloting, cutting-edge engineering, and warrior instinct. Once again, it’s the human element that elevates the action movie, infusing it with a sense of purpose and urgency.
So there you have it. A movie about robots vs. monsters has been made, and made well. It succeeds because it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. Pacific Rim is constructed with all the joy of a young boy discovering entire worlds of possibility through his action figures, and with all the technical oomph of a virtuoso filmmaker whose command of the genre remains a force to be reckoned with. It demonstrates a keen awareness of its roots in both American and Japanese media culture and, as a result, overcomes the debilitating power of the cliché, instead using it to celebrate the towering tradition of cinema as an experience. No, the film isn’t perfect. It settles too comfortably into the blockbuster groove, foregoing the lofty heights it could have attained. But in a season replete with the cinematic undead, trudging their way down the same, lackluster path, the full-blooded Pacific Rim is exactly the kind of movie we need.