Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim is a love letter to the monster movies of the 60’s and 70’s, but with all the wonders of modern special effects at its disposal. But like reading another person’s love letter, your enjoyment can depend on your knowledge of the relationship at hand.
That’s not to say that Pacific Rim is impenetrable to those who do not have a healthy knowledge of Godzilla and his brethren. This movie is meant to be a spectacle, with an emphasis on special effects, cool creature designs, and lots of bashing, smashing, and crashing.
The setup is simple: giant monsters from another dimension (Kaijus) have been invading Earth for the past decade through an interdimensional rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and the world’s nations have banded together to fight them with giant human-piloted robots (Jaegers). After some setup exposition voice-over and an opening scene that introduces us to our protagonist Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), we cut to a point in the war in which humanity is on the ropes with Kaijus more powerful than ever and the nations losing hope in the Jaegers as a viable option.
The core of Pacific Rim is fairly standard. A ragtag group of warriors must defend humanity against all odds with a last ditch plan as our only hope of survival. While it’s not necessarily something that’s exactly been done before, that general plot can be seen in countless apocalyptic movies. This familiarity ends up rearing its head most noticeably in characterization and dialogue, where most people fit into stereotypical roles and dialogue is exposition and setup heavy, rather than relational.
In the end, these are a means to an end. But what an end!
Pacific Rim’s goal is to show you the craziest, most humongous fights you’ve ever seen on film. And it frequently delivers. Glowing, drooling, 25-story tall Kaiju burst from the ocean and topple buildings with a swing of the arm as equally enormous Jaegers use missiles, rocket-powered fists, and giant gleaming swords to smash and shoot their increasingly dangerous foes. Every Kaiju and Jaeger is a unique idea that also wears its inspirations proudly on its sleeve. Thankfully, the battles between them wisely change in pace and style so that not every encounter seems the same as the last.
Families be warned, though. The sheer destruction on screen, high stakes at hand, and often brutal deaths that factor into the fights make Pacific Rim too intense for children. It’s unfortunate, as the imagination and sheer spectacle on display is enough to make a little boy’s jaw drop. All those battles a child has imagined over the years as he smashes his toys together are finally made into a reality on screen. But most kids probably didn’t think of their heroes drowning, exploding, and being ripped apart in the battles they created. It makes sense in the context of the movie, and it isn’t done explicitly, but the results of the battles are obvious.
The fights are well shot, putting you right in the action and amidst the destruction. However, it often sacrifices the innate style of Del Toro’s films. It’s easily the least unique-shot of his movies, as the need to display the power of the battles overcomes the ability to shoot scenes in an original style. There are some instances of signature Del Toroness, including a character’s encounter with a glowing, flower-like monster tongue that is both beautiful and menacing.
Only a few of the characters are original enough to seem like they belong in one of the director’s films. Kaiju fan and scientist Newton Geizler (Charlie Day) and blackmarket Kaiju part dealer Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) quickly pop on screen, standing out from the crowd despite their limited number of scenes. I could have easily seen a version of the movie with these two front and center.
Compared to other Del Toro films, Pacific Rim is one of the best looking, but definitely not one of the most emotionally resonant. The thrill of battle and destruction is gripping, but won’t stick with viewers like his other movies. Pan’s Labyrinth showed a haunting and mystical world intertwined with a child’s trauma and struggle in post-World War II Spain. Hellboy II took viewers into an even deeper fairy tale world in which our unconventional hero is struggling to find his place as both human and demon. In Pacific Rim, we only have robots and monsters fighting.
It’ll be hard for future movies like Avengers 2 and next year’s Godzilla remake to put together bigger battles, but it won’t be hard to tell a deeper and more affecting story.