I love the works of Guillermo del Toro. Ever since I saw Cronos so many years ago, I find that his sensibilities and tastes hit in a way few other directors do today. Even other, more successful directors of genre material like James Cameron or Peter Jackson have their movies that I am not a fan of – The Lovely Bones, Avatar. But not “El Gordo”. Whether it’s his genre material in America (Blade 2, Hellboy, Hellboy 2) or his more pensive, fantasy-based work in his native Spanish (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth), del Toro’s works all manage to find a way into my consciousness. The dude is good, no doubts about it.
Even so the idea of bringing the classic “kaiju vs mecha” works to modern audiences had to seem a bit farfetched. On top of which, making it an original story and not an adaptation of one of the more classic franchises, like Mobile Suit Gundam, Robotech, Voltron or Neon Genesis Evangelion meant that this project couldn’t draw on decades of fanboys and fangirls rooting for it. Instead it had to fight the “this is just an Evangelion rip-off” charge from the get go. Then fight the “this is Transformers meets Godzilla” dismissals. And that was just amongst the geek audience that should be interested in a project like this. But how is it?
The story tells of a near future where a dimensional portal opens between tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean. Out of it comes out gigantic monsters that people call “kaiju”. These kaiju are massive in size, powerful and apparently without any thought beyond destruction. They proceed to take aim at cities all around the Pacific Ocean – San Francisco, Manila, Tokyo, Cabo San Lucas – and are only stopped after massive levels of devastation have befallen these cities. In response to the kaiju attacks, the world’s governments come up with a response: the Jaeger Program. Large, skyscraper-sized robots, armed to the teeth with all sorts of weaponry and capable of going toe-to-toe with the kaiju before they reach their intended targets.
Each nation of the world provides a Jaeger and a team of pilots for it. And it takes a team to pilot each jaeger, because, the mental load to pilot one of them proves too much for just one. But it cannot be just any two pilots, as the program to pilot each Jaeger is so complex that it needs people with a strong mental and emotional bond – husbands and wives, fathers and sons or siblings – who are willing to share every aspect of each other’s memories, thoughts and ideas. It is here that we find brothers Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy Beckett (Diego Klattenhoff). They pilot the US-made Jaeger, Gypsy Danger. Under the command of Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the Beckett brothers form the line of defense for Alaska – until one day it goes wrong.
This is a difficult movie to review because it is written in big, bold letters. It wears its gigantic, nuclear-powered heart on its massive, steel-plated sleeves. The monsters are huge and gnarly-looking and each one is different from the next. The jaegers are just as unique and different – each one has its own personality. The characters have names like Hercules Hansen, Hannibal Chau, Newton Geiszler and Stacker Pentecost. They speak in ways that would be far more at home in a classic Hollywood epic like Captain Blood or Jason and the Argonauts. They’re less flesh and blood, real-life people and more like what we’d depict classic heroes to be. As such, some of what this movie is doing either sails over many peoples’ heads or lands with a thud.
Some do better with this over-the-top requirement than other. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman play the scientists, Dr. Newt and Dr. Gottlieb and their bickering and arguing provide a lot of the humor in this. They have a R2-D2/C-3PO vibe going Del Toro-favorite Ron Perlman chews every minute of screen time he is on as black-market kaiju-parts dealer Hannibal Chau. He’s flamboyant, colorful and his entrance and exit are causes for lots and lots of laughter. Idris Elba can’t help but be good as Marshall Stacker Pentecost, the commander of what’s left of the Jaeger program. The role doesn’t require him to do much, I’ll grant you that. He’s supposed to be the stoic and assured military leader, who is certain of his and everyone else’s roles as the end of the world approaches.
Less effective are Robert Kazinsky and Max Martini as Chuck Hansen and his father, Hercules. They are the pilots of Australia’s Jaeger, Striker Eureka. While Martini’s Hercules gets to look grim and confused, Kazinsky grates as the very childish Chuck. I get that they were going for a Maverick-Iceman relationship between Chuck and Raleigh, but instead, it comes off more as Slater versus Zack from “Saved By the Bell.” It’s very infantile, immature and unexplained, which is worst of all. But they at least get speaking roles. The other Jaeger pilot crews never rise above stock background characters. The Chinese triplets of Crimson Typhoon like basketball. The bleach blonde Russian pilots of Chemo Alpha like their hair blonde and short. That’s it.
As for the leads, Charlie Hunnam is at times boyish and at times serious. It’s something he’s comfortable in doing in “Sons of Anarchy”. However, here, he’s a bit more stilted. You can tell he’s going for a Luke Skywalker/Maverick from Top Gun thing, but it doesn’t come quite off. He’s not bad. It’s just that he’s more comfortable being the wide-eyed smiling Raleigh at the start than the pensive and troubled guy that’s required for most of the movie. Rinko Kikuchi fares better as Mako Mori, but that’s only because her role requires her to be less vocal. She is called on to be the emotional center of the movie – encapsulating the horror and loss suffered at the hands of the kaiju attacks as well as the resolve of humanity to fight back these invaders. It’s her character’s relationship to Elba’s Pentecost that serves as the heart of this tale. Not surprisingly, this relationship feels far more honest than the teenage crush between her and Hunnam’s Raleigh.
And still, the movie works because it is so much damn fun! The Jaegers are impressive and the fights between them and the Kaijus are awesome. Each fight has its own beat and its own rhythm and it helps that no two Kaijus are ever the same. Of particular note, though, is the epic Hong Kong sequence which starts in the ocean and ends in the skies above the city. To say it’s breathtaking is doing it a disservice. I don’t think any movie this summer has an action sequence as impressive, as well done and as memorable as the Jaegers fighting to defend Hong Kong from two Kaijus. From the music of Ramin Djawadi to the cinematography of Guillermo Navarro to the designs by Elinor Galbraith, Peter Neskoromny and their crews to the impressive CGI work by Industrial Light & Magic, the fight between Gypsy Danger and the other Jaegers versus the monstrous Kaijus is just awesome. It’s worth the price of the IMAX 3D admission by itself.
In a way, it acts to the film’s detriment that this fight is so awesome. Because it robs the climax of its place. Not that it’s bad, it’s just that there’s no way it can reach the heights of craziness that Hong Kong brings. Furthermore, the action is just so much damned fun that, every moment not seeing Kaijus fighting Jaegers feels slower and less important. This, again, is by design. There’s no way that any movie could keep the manic energy of those fight sequences for an entire movie. In any case, they are the reason you come to see this movie and they don’t disappoint.
See, I get why people have issues with Pacific Rim. I get their criticisms quite well. The acting is mixed. The story is stock. The concept, if you want to be honest, is childish. All of these critiques are founded in some merit. However, just as “Back In Black” is just three guitar chords, it’s all in the execution. That’s what matters.
And the execution is marvelous. Pacific Rim fills your eyes with moment after moment of manic destruction and organized chaos. It’s sound rumbles through your seat and into your bones. The moments when action is taking place is chockfull of all kinds of images, both big and small. In fact, every scene of this movie is crammed to the gills with things to look at and marvel. A second viewing might be necessary to just process all you’re seeing. And like I said, if you’re going to see this movie, you should invest in an IMAX 3D showing. Not every movie is worth it, but this one is.
I’ve no doubt that there are better movies out there in 2013 for us to enjoy. There will be movies with deeper stories, more fleshed-out and complex characters and more meaningful messages. Other movies will earn nominations for awards. But I doubt I’ll have more fun at a movie than I had at Pacific Rim. The grin comes in the moment we get the first moments of the Gypsy Danger pilots and doesn’t let off till the end. Not for one second are you bored or feel like the movie is dragging. And those action sequences beat every other action movie this year. If you love action, science-fiction or have a slew of 10-year old kids who you want to excite, then bring them to Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro is peddling visual pixie sticks and everyone should get a taste!