With all due respect to the man, Guillermo Del Toro is all over the place as a filmmaker. Where I enjoyed the character design and humor of the Hellboy movies, I cannot for the life of me remember any plot points of either one. On the other hand, he has a free pass with film fans because of his haunting and beautiful Spanish fairytale Pan’s Labyrinth. Pacific Rim falls squarely between these two examples, exhibiting awesome, visceral design and character effects alongside a deep unapologetic love for a specific genre of film. Del Toro approaches storytelling the same way he approaches the creation of the gorgeous and sometimes deeply disturbing monsters that populate his films. Each he constructs with meticulous research, informing a rich back story in every detail, sometimes to the detriment of approachability. But when he finds the tone he is looking for, as in the case of Pan’s Labyrinth and here, in Pacific Rim, it’s hard to not enjoy the work of someone who so clearly loves what he’s doing. That passion shines through and as long as you don’t take a film about giant robots fighting sea monsters too seriously, the resulting ode to mech anime and the Godzilla films is a great example of why people love movies in the first place: they can be so much damn fun.
My first feeling when I saw the trailer for this movie came close to shock. How has this not been made already? Hollywood, like some kind of coked out group of overpaid, underqualified hacks, has been so desperately casting about for ideas to keep the money train rolling that they spent hundreds of millions of dollars producing a movie based on the board game Battleship just because we, as an audience, are stupid. I wish I could fault the studio system entirely but the sad fact is, not enough people go to films that aren’t about recognizable intellectual properties. Quality and originality take a backseat to accessible nostalgia and given the amount of money these studios throw at the average summer blockbuster I can’t entirely blame them for treating filmmaking as a business. Because to them, that’s what it is and until the next big sea change in special effects makes these movies cheaper to produce, we’re going to keep getting Transformers movies about beautiful vacant people running away from giant billowing clouds of chrome and noise that I am told are supposed to be robots. Which brings me back to my point: how has this genre of film, specifically anime and all its incarnations, not been mined for all it’s worth? And why have we waited this long to see giant robots beating the hell out of things?
If you try to use Transformers as an example that we already have, I have nothing but contempt for you (not really). The one thing that Michael Bay’s cinematic orgy of CGI, abdominal muscles, and jingoism (oh and product placement) fails at is one of the things that Pacific Rim does extremely well and that is imbuing a sense of size. Opticon Prime and Megalux (whatever) are whipping around the screen like kites, doing robot kung fu that, even in slow motion, has no visual fidelity to speak of. At no point is it possible to shake the underlying feeling that you are watching extremely detailed and complex computer generated special effects. On the other hand, when a Kaiju (monster) picks up a Jaeger (robot) and hurls it at a freeway overpass there is a palpable sense of, in that second or two before impact, “Oh holy shit, that’s going to do some damage”. There is a feeling of scale and the effect is thrilling. Even in a more subtle way, when a wounded pilot tumbles out of the head of his crashed mech, the damn thing takes up half the horizon in the background. I want one. I want one so bad.
The combat itself starts to feel a little repetitive after awhile and the combination of low lighting and ubiquitous water effects don’t do the bizarre design of the monsters any credit. Sometimes it’s pretty hard to tell what we’re looking at. But there is a payoff in these battles because they build to something. The Kaijus are not easy to kill, victories are come by hard making them that much more rewarding. In true anime fashion, the Jaegers have more toys at their disposal than they first let on and, not to give anything away, one scene in particular reduced me to a 12 year old boy grinning stupidly at a perfectly framed scene of badassery and kick assitude (minor spoiler, it took place in space and involved a sword, because of course the Jaeger had a sword).
This is the basic message I’m trying to communicate about this movie: it’s just a good time. There is a decent amount of plot in between action sequences and it’s obvious that Del Toro takes the human characters and their stories very seriously. As long as you don’t go in expecting Shakespeare (although Idris Elba could lecture me on the benefits of a gluten-free diet and I would give him a standing ovation) and have a decent familiarity with how melodramatic anime can be, the whole thing makes a kind of perfect insane sense. This is the language of that kind of story. It’s populated by heroes that are somewhat two dimensional who are haunted by one specific traumatic event or another. Multiple nationalities are on display in the form of various stereotypes. I’ve forgotten the anime I saw where the giant fighting mech representing the nation of Mexico wears a sombrero but it’s not offensive because, well, they are at least trying to represent other nations. So the Russian characters are super Russian. The Chinese mech crew are emphatically Chinese. And Charlie Hunnam represents white guys, being the whitest guy of all time.
So obviously I’m going to recommend Pacific Rim, especially now, while it’s still in theaters. Because unless you have a TV that is twenty feet high, you’re going to miss out on that feeling of being 12 years old again, lolling back at the screen while your brain goes ‘nnngaaaaaaaahhhh….‘.