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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