Pacific Rim (2013): Written by Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Robert Kazinsky, Max Martini, and Ron Perlman. Running Time: 132 minutes.
Pacific Rim might be the loudest experience I’ve ever had in a movie theater. This is the sort of sound design that’s perfectly suited for its subject matter- the fights are explosive, the soundtrack bombastic, and the dialogue high-flying, but it’s all very well-balanced, and one rarely drowns out the others (although there are some moments where it does do just that). In fact, pretty much every aspect of this film- the overblown monster/robot designs, the simple (but still engaging) characters, the basic story, the massive, set-piece fights, etc.- are tailor-made for the purpose of delivering two-hours of pure sensory-overload. And it succeeds. Oh boy, does it succeed.
In the near-future, humanity suddenly finds itself under attack from massive, Godzilla-like demons called Kaiju, all originating from an inter-dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean. The attacks seem scattered and random at first, but slowly start to occur more frequently, until a frightening pattern emerges. When conventional weapons prove inadequate to taking down the beasts, the nations of the world unite to create the Jaeger program (“Jaeger” is German for “hunter”), a series of massive, Gundam Wing/Neon Genesis-style robotic suits big enough to battle the Kaiju one-on-one. Although successful at first, the Kaiju continue to come, and (say it with me) “in greater numbers,” to the point that the Jaegers are slowly whittled down to a handful of veteran crews, and the leaders of the world contemplate abandoning the program altogether and simply hunkering down behind ever-larger walls. Message? Oh yes.
Our main character is Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), an ex-Jaeger pilot who left the program after losing his brother in an earlier fight with a Kaiju. The Jaegers, we learn, have to be piloted by two people simultaneously, since the mental strain is too great for one person (the Kaiju seem to operate on a similar principle- we later learn that they themselves have two brains). Because of this, those fighting in Jaeger suits have to be as physically and mentally in sync as possible, otherwise the suit can’t be fully utilized. After his brother died, Raleigh was convinced that he would never again find someone else he could fight with. He agrees to rejoin the program only after he receives a visit from his old commander, another ex-pilot named Stacker (Idris Elba), who now heads all Jaeger operations. With the Jaeger program about to be shut down, he is planning a final assault on the portal itself that, according to his quirky, off-beat scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), should be able to seal it permanently.
The only person who proves able to match him in combat is a young woman named Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), a girl who survived an earlier Kaiju attack stopped by Stacker himself, who then raised her as his own. While the argument could be made that her relationship with Raleigh is a romantic one, I would counter that their dynamic is more of the girl-with-crush meets scarred-and-grizzled-mentor variety. And even if it was meant to be romantic, it’s thankfully never a distraction from the business of beating giant monsters into big, bluish pulp. The rest of the cast is filled out with the aforementioned commander and his research team, as well as another of the remaining Jaeger crews- a father-and-son duo, the younger of whom may as well walk around in a shirt saying, “I HAVE DADDY ISSUES.”
Honestly, even though Pacific Rim bills itself (and has been viewed by most) as nothing more than another loud, superficial, CGI-laden maelstrom with the emotional depth of a teaspoon, I walked out with a lot to mull over. My initially favorable opinions of Ironman 3, Into Darkness, and Man of Steel all crumbled distressingly fast the moment they ended and I started to really think about them (and no, I won’t just “turn my brain off” for a movie- I rather enjoy being alive, thank you very much). Pacific Rim is the first action movie of the year to actually appreciate in my mind the more I ponder everything in it. Yes, the story is simple, and at times clichéd. Yes, the characters are also pretty simple people, with straightforward arcs and actions. And no, that is not a bad thing. No, that does not make the movie superficial. And no, it does NOT make the movie stupid.
Beneath all its grandiose bluster, this is a movie about relationships, about people with differences who either fix them or learn to leave them be in order to work together to solve a common problem, to defeat a common enemy. Each of the major duos in the movie have their particular issues- Raleigh and Stacker, Raleigh and Mako, Raleigh and the hotshot young Aussie, the hotshot young Aussie and his father, the two scientists with each other, and so on and so forth. Each one is resolved in its own way in a fairly short time frame. None of the conflicts are drawn out unnecessarily. They flare up, maybe a few punches get thrown, a few plans go awry, the people fix them or agree to let it be, and they get on with the war. And, as basic as all the conflicts and resolutions are, it’s the coolness and the maturity with which they are handled that makes this scattered and odd cast feel more real and interesting than most others I’ve seen this year. No one has a big, dramatic scene or monologue, and there are no unexpected twists, but you know what? This cast sticks out in my mind despite that. I remember each named character vividly. Not every story has to have the brilliant, unexpected depth of In Bruges to be interesting and, dare I say it, fun. Not every character has to be as layered as Daniel Plainview or as complex as Maestro Salieri. As long as they feel real, and genuine, we will feel invested in finding out what happens to them. And, regardless of its flaws, when a movie makes us want to know what happens, it’s doing at least a few things right.
Pacific Rim may not be the best movie of the year, but it is the easily the best of this year’s batch of summer blockbusters, and a rare- a very, very, very rare- example of 200 million dollars well-spent. Ironman 3, Man of Steel, and Into Darkness all threw themselves at us with aims just as lofty and budgets just as bloated, but none of them ever managed to make me cheer out loud in the middle of the theater. They all sought to dazzle us, but only Pacific Rim tried to make us wonder. It brings a horde of big ideas and bigger set pieces into play and spends two hours simply playing with them, like a child with its Lego set. It does not try to force overt religious or political symbolism down our throats. Because it’s not a remake, reboot, sequel, or adaptation, there are no previous incarnations to trod upon, no diehard fanbases to offend. Pacific Rim is, first and foremost, an immensely fun and exciting time at the movies, like any good, loud, effects-driven blockbuster should be.