I have been sitting here a long time trying to figure out the best way to open this review, and the conclusion I keep coming back to is that a long series of exclamation points and spirited interjections – something like OH MY GOD! !!!!!!!!!! HOLY – !!! WOW!!!!! !!! HOW DID THEY – !!!!!! OH MY GOD !!!!!!!!!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE IT !!!!!!!!!! WOW!!!!!!!!! !!!! – is probably the purest and most honest summation of how I feel about Guillermo del Toro’s spectacular Pacific Rim.
Or, to convey those raw emotions in a slightly more coherent and cogent fashion, simply imagine me grinning like an idiot and giggling incessantly while I write this review. Because Pacific Rim made me smile like few other movies have ever made me smile, tapping into my inner child, long since buried under countless layers of pessimism and doubt, as purely as any film ever has. Any critic who dismisses Pacific Rim and the countless wonders it has to offer is an empty, soulless shell of a human being, incapable of feeling joy and intent on thrusting their inner pain onto others, because del Toro’s #1 goal here is to make the viewer giddy with happiness and excitement, and those who are unable to process such pure cinematic ecstasy must be very sad people indeed. Pacific Rim is del Toro’s love letter not only to monster movies, of both the Japanese daikaiju and Western varieties, but to cinema’s most basic capacities for imagination and spectacle. Del Toro is nothing if not one of the most passionate filmmakers working today, and Pacific Rim, a work devoid of cynicism and bursting at the seams with earnest exuberance, is as clear and celebratory an expression of that passion as he – or most directors, for that matter – has yet to create.
I happen to share a love for much of what inspired del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham here – albeit one not nearly as ardent or encyclopedic as theirs – but those who would not deem themselves familiar with daikaiju, Japanese ‘mech’ robot stories, or other assorted movie monsters should A) obtain and view as many canonical monster movies as they can, just to expand on one’s entertainment horizons (with King Kong, Godzilla, and King Kong vs. Godzilla being the obvious starting points) and B) not be at all worried about ‘getting’ Pacific Rim. This is in no way the sort of passion project that requires any knowledge of the genres, styles, and influences at hand, because while del Toro and Beacham are clearly working with ideas and elements they love, they have created a story, mythology, and world-vision that is entirely their own, utterly singular and extremely inviting to every member of the audience. It is as effective and intoxicating an introduction to the wide, wonderful world of giant movie monsters (or more accurately, giant movie monsters beating the living hell out of one another) as exists, and I imagine a whole generation of children are about to have their minds blown, their senses rewired, and the paths of their lives – or, at least, their tastes in entertainment – changed forever.
Pacific Rim is absolutely capable of being one of those mythical, defining movie moments in the cinematic life of a child – mine was The Lord of the Rings, for many it was Star Wars, and to this day King Kong constantly enters that conversation – and the film is equally adept at recapturing that feeling of elation and discovery for adults, if only one is willing to give themselves over to the earnest, joyful atmosphere on display. I fear the film may unfortunately be arriving at the wrong time for audience members conditioned only to expect the Christopher Nolan style of grit, cynicism, and ‘real-world’ angst from their modern pulp blockbusters. Pacific Rim is the polar opposite of the current genre vogue, a film in which spectacle can simply exist as spectacle, fun is something to be celebrated rather than ashamed of, and characters can be fleshed out, compelling, and endearing without being tortured and brooding.
Our main character, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), is precisely the sort of uncomplicated, archetypal protagonist we almost never see today, sharing more in common with Luke Skywalker than the majority of modern movie heroes. He is our entry point into the story, as after laying out the film’s basic mythology – monsters, called Kaiju, have emerged from a dimensional tear beneath the pacific ocean, and compelled humanity to create giant brawling robots, or Jaegers, to fight back (God, I love being able to type this sentence) – we see Raleigh and his brother Yancy, co-pilots of the ‘Gypsy Danger’ Jaeger, engage one of the Kaiju in combat. Raleigh is overly cocky, however, and the mission quickly goes south, with Yancy killed and Gypsy Danger left in disrepair. Five years later, Raleigh has left the Jaeger program and is still scarred by the trauma, but not in the way Bruce Wayne, for example, is touched by his. As I said, this is an archetypal, Joseph Campbell sort of hero, one whose grief and pain does not overrun the story, but instead offers an idealistic motivation to constantly work harder and better himself in preparation for the next challenge. I like a good, dark exploration of the human psyche as much as anyone, but there is a time and a place for everything, and Pacific Rim’s simpler but no less involving approach to characterization is proof that this classical, more childlike style absolutely has a place in modern fiction.
That is especially true considering that Raleigh is, in all honesty, my least favorite character in the entire film – and I say that finding him a perfectly pleasant central presence, with Hunnam doing very good, understated work in the role. But across the board, every single character, no matter how prominent or inconspicuous, pops, because while they are each painted in broad strokes, they are also realized with vast amounts of honesty, creativity, and passion. Idris Elba’s character, Marshall Stacker, is foundationally identical to many stern-but-kindhearted fictional military leaders, but the specifics of Stacker’s personal history and his connections to other characters, combined with Elba’s warm and versatile performance, makes for a uniquely, wholly satisfying figure. Similarly, Charlie Day and Bern Gorman constantly threaten to steal the show as two brilliant but zany scientists, characters who are gleefully rooted in some of my favorite pulp archetypes but have identities all their own, and are, like every other character, absolutely integral to the plot.
I could wax poetic about this ensemble for days – and I find it thrilling that the film features a genuinely transnational cast, one comprised of many different, equally prominent nationalities and ethnicities – but the best and most important character, for me, is Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako, a young, aspiring Jaeger pilot partnered with Raleigh. One of the film’s most creative and provocative ideas is that of ‘the drift,’ the mechanism that allows humans to directly control the Jaeger robots. One mind is insufficient to power a being of that size, so a Jaeger requires two pilots, their minds linked so they may work in complete tandem. Not only is that a terrific plot mechanic – one that grounds and contextualizes much of the film’s pseudo-science even as it adds a welcome extra layer of inventive suspense to the action – but more importantly, it is a legitimately inspired path for character development, and no where is that more apparent than in Mako’s arc. Of the all the main characters, the Kaiju have cost her the most, and that trauma makes it difficult for her to ‘drift’ with another human being. Marshall Striker is protective of her because of this, while Raleigh immediately senses a connection between the two of them – not just any two people can have their minds linked.
It is a fascinating way to build relationships, flesh out character, and progress the film’s central themes of teamwork and togetherness. The drift concept benefits every single character it touches, but none more so than Mako, who is an endlessly compelling creation not just as part of the group, but as the real heart and soul of the entire film. Kikuchi is simply spectacular in the part, employing the same penchant for speaking volumes without words she showcased in Babel, and relishing Mako’s biggest moments – the best ones in the entire film – for all they are worth. Mako may be my single favorite character to appear in any 2013 film to date, for reasons I cannot quite put into words. Like everybody else in the film, she is rooted in basic narrative concepts and archetypes, but perhaps because she is situated so squarely at the intersection of all the film’s most creative ideas, she feels a little unlike any other character I can name, and I love her for it.
But no matter who your favorite character is – and there are plenty of acceptable answers (how have I not mentioned the great Ron Pearlman yet?) – the real star here is the ensemble as a whole, and the way each character operates as one part of the larger arc. Pacific Rim is a highly focused movie, one that is expertly paced and has not an ounce of fat on its bones, and everything it does, from the loud, percussive action to the small, quiet character moments, works in service of a very simple but no less poignant theme about how we are better together than apart, and how crucial teamwork is to humanity’s capacity for progress and endurance. There are individual character arcs here, but focusing on them is reductive, for the film is about how these many disparate figures come together to form something so much greater then themselves, and the chief emotional joy in watching the film lies in seeing these people become whole by interacting with each other. The film’s ideological core is profoundly optimistic and hopeful, untouched by even a trace of cinema’s modern, pervading cynicism. It is a tonal and thematic atmosphere that will absolutely inspire and benefit all young viewers, and has the capacity to return adults to a mindset of real, meaningful innocence.
It is an important mindset to be in, and one del Toro invests time conditioning us for, because I do not think the action and set pieces would have the proper effect on someone viewing with a jaded attitude. Watching giant robots fight giant monsters is, after all, an inherently happy, joyful act, one that, when executed properly, should absolutely awaken one’s inner child. This is what Pacific Rim achieves in its set pieces. I could go on and on about the technical merits and mind-boggling choreography of the Jaeger/Kaiju fights, and will do a little of that in a bit, but the most important thing to convey here is how completely, utterly elated I felt watching these fights. At their best, they affected me physically; when Raleigh and Mako take Gypsy Danger into battle with two massive Kaiju in Hong Kong, I literally moved to the edge of my seat and my jaw physically dropped before contorting into the biggest, goofiest, most uncontrollable grin I think I have ever worn in a movie theatre. I truly felt like a child watching that fight, as though I was seeing a movie for the first time, and experiencing with a fresh conscious what imaginative sights cinema at its best has to offer. It reminds me of when I first saw King Kong fight the Tyrannosaurus, or Luke Skywalker make the climactic run on the death star – major, inventive movie moments that helped impress upon me a love for this medium.
And part of what makes these fights so unbelievably thrilling, as with other classic moments mentioned above, is that they are rooted in progressing character and story. The first hour of Pacific Rim is almost entirely free of set pieces, concerned instead with establishing character and setting up conflict; the second hour is where things get crazy, but because that foundation exists, we have a constant connection to the madness. It is a testament to how beautifully these characters are drawn that the action in the second half delivers such sheer, mind-boggling impact, because the moments that dropped my jaw the furthest in the major set pieces are uniformly rooted in character and relationship resolution or fulfillment.
But as noted above, the technical merits are awe-inspiring, and deserving of discussion. Pacific Rim operates on a similar scale as Michael Bay’s Transformers movies – and anecdotally, I have seen audiences have trouble distinguishing between the two from the trailers – but execution is everything, and Pacific Rim succeeds completely where Transformers failed utterly. Del Toro scales his camera to the level of the monsters, not to the eye-line of human beings, meaning that where the action of Transformers was crowded, cramped, and oddly claustrophobic, Pacific Rim allows us to actually see and soak up (somewhat literally, given the amount of water splashed about) the mayhem, from the same scale as the beings duking it out. It is not like this is a novel concept – you don’t see Godzilla and Mechagodzilla fighting with a shaking camera zoomed in on their midriffs – just one that Hollywood has seemingly forgotten, and del Toro remembers and embraces.
The special effects and cinematography are absolute works of art – one should also note del Toro’s use of the taller 1.85:1 aspect ratio, instead of Bay inexplicable employment of the wider, less vertically spacious anamorphic frame – and I would even, in a rare move, recommend the 3D conversion, which is incredibly deep and immersive, and allows one to better explore and appreciate the tremendous production design. Not only are the Kaiju and Jaegers impressive pieces of monster and robot design, but the entire film is a masterpiece of world-building, where every set feels weathered, functional, and lived-in, and every single detail of the culture and technology seems fully thought through and thoroughly imagined.
Special mention must also be made of Ramin Djawadi’s incredible musical score. Djawadi is quickly revealing himself to be one of the best and most underrated composers in the industry – his work on Game of Thrones is second-only in modern American television to Michael Giacchino’s score for Lost, and the Iron Man series is weaker as a whole for his absence past the first film – and this is easily his best score to date, a work that, like the film itself, is bursting with enthusiasm, energy, and passion. It is a great daikaiju score in its own right, but also something very unique and instantly iconic, perfectly complementing the film’s bombastic and emotional sides alike.
Last week, I rewatched the original King Kong for the first time in years, and was immediately reminded of that film’s enduring power to awaken every person’s inner child, and access that special taste for adventure we all have within ourselves. The highest praise I can give Pacific Rim is that it absolutely captures the spirit of that sort of monster movie masterpiece; if it is not the equal to King Kong or some of the other films it owes creative debt to, it at least taps into that same special place in the heart of the viewer, which is no easy feat to achieve. This is the sort of movie that can ignite the imagination of a child so completely that they would immediately be hooked on movies for the rest of their lives, and can remind a jaded, cynical adult why they started going to the theatre in the first place. Pacific Rim has this – and so much more – to offer audiences, and for that, it is miraculous.