Pacific Rim (2013)

I did not realize how badly I needed this.

I’ve been looking forward to Pacific Rim ever since it was first announced. An American take on Japanese kaiju movies and mecha sci-fi directed by monster lover Guillermo del Toro? I was sold three times over before a single piece of advertising was released. So I knew I would enjoy it. I knew I wanted to see it. But I didn’t know just how much I needed to see it.

Summer movies have become increasingly hard to enjoy of late, for the simple reason that they’ve begun taking themselves far too seriously. They’ve developed the mindset of a sulky teen who’s mistaken pessimism for realism*. They’ve developed ambitions of something far different than mere entertainment, to the point that they seem to think entertainment is beneath them somehow.

[*That’s a line from Flex Mentallo. Look it up, it’s awesome.]

Pretentiously long running times, twist-filled scripts trying to be far too clever for their own good, modern cinematography’s unhealthy preoccupation with grit and realism, etc. It’s as if the industry has forgotten that the whole point of the summer movie season was to have fun.

Guillermo del Toro has not forgotten.

And that’s not meant to imply that Pacific Rim is so-called “dumb fun”, like the recent surprise hit Sharknado. The whole problem with this era of summer moviemaking is the failure to recognize that fun and intelligence are not irreconcilable opposites. Pacific Rim is old school storytelling in the finest tradition of action/adventure films, going all the way back to the genesis of the blockbuster in Star Wars.

The story is both vital and unassuming, and a solid foundation that makes the film function on an emotional level while calling very little attention to itself. There’s none of that J.J. Abrams nonsense of cobbling together a needlessly convoluted plot that adds nothing to the experience, except allowing the writer to show off.

The central conceit of the film is brilliantly simple, yet provides great opportunities for character interaction. Giant war machines known as “Jaegers”, necessary tools in the human race’s war against an inter-dimensional invasion of colossal creatures called “Kaiju”, are controlled through directly interfacing with the brains of their human pilots. But the strain is too much for any one man to handle, thus necessitating two people to literally join minds in order to control their Jaeger. Naturally, such an intimate connection requires two people who are exceptionally close and emotionally in sync with each other. Our first protagonist, Raleigh Beckett, once piloted a Jaeger with his brother, who was killed in combat with the Kaiju.

As you’d expect, he’s reluctant to return to the cockpit, but he changes his mind when he feels a strong connection to a rookie pilot named Mako Mori. It not hard to see where things are going, since we’re all familiar with the tried and true “mismatched duo must learn to work together” arc. But in a pleasant surprise, they manage to do this without making both of them act like assholes.

Too often with stories like this, the central conflict doesn’t come from character differences, but from both parties simply hating each other and bickering the whole movie. By the end, they’re usually still bickering, but since they had that one kinda personal moment in one scene, now we’re meant to believe that they’ve somehow formed some twisted version of friendship. But Raleigh and Mako connect immediately, and form an actual friendship that carries them through the film and feels genuine**. The only real character conflict comes from the untested Mako, one of the best female protagonists I’ve seen in recent sci-fi, who must prove her worthiness more to herself than anyone else.

[**Bonus points for not turning Raleigh and Mako into a romantic couple just to have a superfluous love story.]

The film is well cast, and the actors embody their characters beautifully. Charlie Hunnam manages to give Raleigh a tough edge without turning him into the stereotypically prickish image of “badass”. Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako is vulnerable but courageous. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman have surprisingly good chemistry as the comic relief duo. And of course, Ron Perlman’s small role as black marketeer Hannibal Chau is a scene-stealer. But the MVP who really runs away with the movie is Idris Elba as Raleigh, and Mako’s commanding officer Stacker Pentecost. Without saying a word, he conveys with every move, every expression, and every gesture the intense pressure his character is under as a leader. You can literally feel the weight of the world on his shoulders. His screen presence is potently commanding, and unlike other authority figures in fiction, he’s neither a close-minded obstacle for the heroes to defy, nor an all-knowing Mary Sue/exposition machine. His actions are perfectly formed around a character that feels like a real human being: flawed but noble, and the very definition of a hero.

In fact, that’s another rare thing this film has to offer: heroes. In an year so cynical that not even Superman, Captain Kirk, or the Lone Ranger can offer unambiguously admirable heroism anymore, Pacific Rim gives us an infectiously childlike sense of optimism that’s badly needed. This film has the simple but uplifting theme of humanity being at its best in the face of destruction, and the indomitable power of the human spirit. Gone is the petty nationalism of many American action films, replaced with a tone of global cooperation and unity. The Jaeger pilots come from all over the world; they’re a virtual Rainbow Coalition of colorful characters joining together for a common cause. Even the obligatory “jerk” character is ultimately noble and heroic.

And though it should go without saying, the action set pieces are astounding. The grandiose scale of the Jaeger vs. Kaiju fights is utterly rapturous. In stark contrast to the grime and grit aesthetic of the typical modern action movie, Pacific Rim’s imagery is full of color and clarity. The often overused shakey-cam technique is used only inside the Jaeger cockpits, where it makes sense as far as increasing the feeling of immersion. The Jaegers themselves are crystal clear, and del Toro creatively maintains the immense sense of scale without becoming overly reliant on low-angle shots.

I cannot emphasize enough what a breath of fresh air Pacific Rim was. The film is so entertaining on such a basic human level that I simply can’t imagine anyone not enjoying it. Don’t be fooled; this is not just some niche film for the Power Rangers generation, Godzilla fans, or otakus. This is by far the best film of the summer, and one of the greatest quintessential blockbusters of all time. If you have kids, you owe it to them to take them to see this movie. Tell others to do the same, and if they don’t have kids, tell them to go anyway. There are only a handful of films out there than can tap into your inner child like Pacific Rim. Don’t pass it up.

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  • edharris1178

    Good review, Josh. I dug the hell out of the movie, it’s just plain fun.

    • starofjustice

      That’s what I thought. It’s not thought-provoking or surprising at all, but it’s two and a half hours of good, clean, monster-punching fun.

      And that’s something I think we sometimes forget, that movies are supposed to be fun.

  • Zorha

    Perfect? No. But its still the best daikaiju film to see widespread release in recent memory, and definitely THE best Hollywood summer flick so far.

    It’s like Del Toro took the best parts of Robot Jox and merged it with the fun parts of the Yonggary remake. I’m going to run out and get me a Knifehead collectible TODAY!

  • W.C. Wit

    The best scene in the film was Mako’s flashback in the drift, in that one sequence everything that makes Pacific Rim special was laid out, the sense of humanity and heroism at its core.

    • Thomas Hayes

      You’re very, very right. I wasn’t quite sold on the film in my first viewing until this scene. I watched it in IMAX 3D the first time and this actually rendered a fair bit of the action hard to follow – BUT it made this scene absolutely amazing. Easily the film’s best scene, and I was fully on board after that.

  • Muthsarah

    SPOLERS, BUT NOTHING BIG

    “The only real character conflict comes from the untested Mako, one of the best female protagonists I’ve seen in recent sci-fi, who must prove her worthiness more to herself than anyone else.”

    Given that you review movies for a living, I’m gonna assume the “best female protagonist” bar’s been set even lower than I thought it was. Her character did nothing. She got the job as the Jaeger pilot because Raleigh-or-whatever insisted on it, not because of anything we see her do (stick fighting doesn’t count, as I cannot accept such a thing as a meaningful qualification for the one-handed slo-mo fights we actually see with the kaiju). And then she gets the position, something happens, and she’s out because, deep down inside, she’s still a scared little girl and she can’t handle it. My friggin’ God, what century is this? You have one (ONE!) female character in your movie, and you make not only her entire motivation tied in with a scene where she’s a scared little girl, you have her backstory as a scared little girl be the entire reason she’s even in the Jaeger corps to begin with. And it’s fine if a traumatic childhood is PART of her character, since vulnerability isn’t something you run away from, but here, it’s ALL of her character. That’s it. There’s nothing else to her.

    She’s not a good character. She’s not even a protagonist. She’s defined and depicted entirely by her relationships with the two male leads, and she does nothing in the whole second half of the movie, even though she’s fighting the same battles as her partner, in the same giant robot suit. She doesn’t lead, she is lead. She doesn’t grow as a character, she inspires growth. She doesn’t save the day, she’s rescued by her partner. She doesn’t even talk during the battle scenes to suggest she’s doing anything other than holding onto the other half of Raleigh’s brain while he’s actually using it. She’s an ancillary character. An accessory. The Chick. Sad to say, she’s still closer to a 1950s B-movie “heroine” than she is to a Ripley. Far closer.

    That said, the whole movie wallows in this tired-and-true* character elements. “Homage”, I get it. But “homage” doesn’t mean “can’t do anything original”. Both leads and Idris Elba’s characters were absolute stock characters, as would the other pilots have been had they any personalities. No, the character don’t any have unnecessary elements that need unnecessary subplots to unnecessarily resolve them and bog down the story before they get around to the action scenes the fans actually paid to see. They don’t have any depth to them at all.

    * – I know it’s bad to point it out, but this is not a typo.

    The subplot worked so much better for me. Charlie Day and Ron Perlman were great. I wish the 1998 Godzilla had been more about the military fighting a giant lizard and this one been more about the nerdy, eccentric scientist.

    • She shares the role of central protagonist with Raleigh, but she’s definitely a protagonist, perhaps more so than Raleigh. She’s the one with the arc, she’s the one who grows and changes and carries a lot of the movie doing so, Raleigh’s already got the whole drift thing figured out by the time the movie starts. He’s Agent K, she’s Agent J, basically. And honestly the fear of female characters coming across as “scared little girls” is the reason for the prominence of bland action heroines like Selene, Alice, Trinity, etc. Her traumatic childhood is the main obstacle for her to overcome, but it does not define her. The very fact that she refuses to let it defy her any longer is what makes her crowning moment of awesome (slicing Otachi in half with the Jaeger sword) such a great payoff. She grows more than any other character, and the only growth she “inspires” is in Stacker, most of which already took place before the movie started. She’s nobody’s token love interest and actually serves a vital role in the story, playing the rookie in a buddy cop film.

      And yes, Raleigh is probably the least interesting character overall, and yes, Staker’s depth comes much more from the performance than the script. But their perfectly serviceable and are portrayed as engaging enough to provide the action with emotional resonance. You could make the same observation about Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or just about any classic adventure movie. Simple does not mean bad, in fact it takes a lot more skill to make old stories resonate with an audience, which this movie did.

      • Alexa

        I think we can all see Mako, or practically all the the characters in this film, as better just by comparing them to those from Transformers. Yeah they’re pretty much saints in comparison.

    • Cristiona

      You’re missing the point of the stick-fighting. It wasn’t to be a proxy actually fighting in the robot. It was a compatibility test.

      • Muthsarah

        Very late reply, but I only just noticed it. Because I did a search. Because….I just did.

        OK, yeah, I remember something about “compatibility” now. About the word being dropped and not really explained or whatever. I don’t see how the movie set up that stick-fighting was in any way a good indicator of personal compatibility. From what I recall, the boredom with the film didn’t set in until the final 2/3rds, and I think this scene was before then. Did I drift off earlier than I thought, or was the compatibility and whatever stick-fighting has to do with that set up, or was it just glossed over? From what I recall (which is, probably, most of the movie) I don’t recall it making much of an impression. Just seemed like a rushed way to set the two of them up because….they were the leads, and that’s what you do.

        Needless to say, if Charlie Day or Ron Perlman weren’t in a scene, and there wasn’t fighting, I wasn’t exactly “into it”. But I’m open-minded, I tried to give the movie a chance (I went in very enthusiastic), and I will give it another one in a bit. Do you, as a, I’m assuming, fan think that the stick-fighting/compatibility thing was well-established? I’ll give it another look when it hits video/streaming. I just now realize this…may…have been something I glossed over. Like a lot of the rest of the movie, perhaps. I hope. There’s gotta be something to it. I can’t think of the last movie I went in pumped to see and which ended up boring me. Maybe it was a bad day. I’d like to think that’s all it was. I do still want to love the film.

        • Cristiona

          I’ve only seen the film once, and I picked up on that while it was happening. It’s not an unheard of metaphor, either. The… second(?) Matrix movie used it too.

          • Muthsarah

            Another late reply, I’m so sorry. The comment thingee tends to overlook a lot of comments, so unless you keep checking….as I occasionally do, OC-like….

            I can’t comment re: Matrix Reloaded, as I never saw it. Didn’t like the first even. Sorry, I just can’t relate to that point; I have nothing to attach it to.

            I do recall the compatibility thing being brought up during that scene, but I still swear it felt glossed over and not explained well. I feel like the Raleigh+Mako thing felt both rushed AND forced. Not that I thought it was a big deal, I felt I understood what they were doing, glossed it over, and I didn’t object at that, since films sometimes feel skipping details is better for the overall storytellingness. Whatever, get the heroes together and keep the plot going, this isn’t Shakespeare or Ibsen or anything. I don’t expect such details to be covered by these kindsa movies, though I always love it (dearly, passionately, probably excessively) when they are. I just felt like the audience was supposed to accept that Raleigh felt Mako was a good fit for him….based on very, very little (or nothing), but because the plot had to move on. Fine. Only in retrospect, when I was making the first post, aeons ago, did I think it was glossed over in a BAD way, and not just in a this-is-not-a-miniseries way.

            I want to stress. I WANT TO LOVE THIS MOVIE. HELP ME TO LOVE IT! Which is why I put up spoiler warnings and say that others should see it, even as I generally bitch about it. I just didn’t enjoy it much, the first time. I’ve been tempted to see it again, which is highly unusual for me (there are only two movies I’ve re-seen in theatres over the last ten years, one because 3D, one because it was other people’s idea). I love the idea of Pacific Rim, I love Guillermo’s films, I so wanted to love the movie. It just felt so shallow, and I’m still, today, trying to grasp at exactly why it didn’t work for me. Maybe I’ll see it again tomorrow (it’s still playing nearby). It’s not like there’s much else playing (the mehish Elysium and………….absolutely nothing else). I dunno, is there anything that can be said about wanting to love a movie, but not enjoying it much, but still wanting to love it all the same? Any personal experiences? Any advice? Anything? This is clearly, easily the movie of the year for me, and I’d love to be able to sort out how I feel about it before year’s end. I just don’t know how.

            Cristiona, going by your comments in this vid’s comment section alone, it seems you liked the movie, but you don’t specifically say why, how, or how much. It’s possible that, before I check this section again, I may just have already seen PR again (I’m instantly impulsive), but in case not, I am curious, how much did you love the film? You’re sticking up for it against my half-assed criticisms. Do you think it’s a wonderful film, or do you just feel I’m unfairly maligning it?

  • Thomas Stockel

    Just got home from seeing it, and I loved every second of it. Great review, Josh!

  • Cristiona

    And Grown Ups 2 beat it at the box office.
    America, you got some ‘splaining to do!

    • chu

      Of course it did. Most americans don’t care about giant robots fighting monsters.

  • Endorenna

    I’ve wanted to see this movie since I saw a trailer for it and heard GLaDOS’s voice was in it. Otherwise, I thought it might be sorta like Transformers–big action, dumb fun, turn off your brain.
    I’m glad to hear it’s actually good! Going home from summer school in a couple weeks, and my friend and I will go see it then. :)

  • James Elfers

    Saw it this afternoon. It is an entertaining salute to its Japanese inspired forbears. This is a good review

    but the movie is far more simplistic than you infer. It really is full of stereotypes. Black commanding military officer, comic scientists one with an accent, all American hero with an emotional wound, nerdy Japanese girl who is skilled at martial arts, adversaries who speak with an accent. It really is in many ways a movie you have to turn your brain off for. Despite that I enjoyed it because hey giant monsters and robots wrecking stuff!

    • I’m sorry, I just cannot get behind this sentiment of “It uses old archetypes, therefore it is bad and I have to not think about it in order to enjoy it.” Familiar does not equal bad. They are archetypes, but they are uses well with the utmost sincerity. Star Wars relied just as heavily on old archetypes. I’m really not sure what more you could ask of a summer blockbuster.

      • James Elfers

        No familiar does NOT necessarily mean bad but in Pacific Rim I could predict the story arc of EVERY character. There were literally NO surprises. I fully understand that the Japanese originals relied on stock tropes and archetypal characters, I recognized many of the originals that Del Toro is paying tribute to. HOWEVER in virtually EVERY one of the kaiju and anime that Del Toro was paying tribute to there was at least ONE wild card character who is a deviation from the standard archetype. Star Wars, which is quoted in Pacific Rim, had some originality to it. Star Wars was based on Japanese films as well but at least had a patina of depth. When you left Star Wars you were contemplating not just how much fun the film was but also about things like the Force. I left Pacific Rim grateful that I had only paid matinee prices to see it. It is as forgettable as yesterday’s headlines.