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“PACIFIC RIM” (Movie Review)

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In this era when big summer FX spectacles seem to be produced by accountants as often as filmmakers, the news that Guillermo del Toro, who has brought more soul to genre cinema than anyone else in the 2000s, was tackling a monsters-vs.-robots epic was cause for celebration. And now that PACIFIC RIM has arrived, it puts del Toro in the odd position of having outdone everyone but himself.

PACIFIC RIM represents del Toro cracking open a $200-million toybox and spilling his love for giant-monster movies all over 131 minutes of breathlessly paced running time. This is what Roland Emmerich’s clueless GODZILLA remake and Michael Bay’s mind-numbing TRANSFORMERS movies wanted to be—a go-for-broke spectacle applying the very latest in digital FX technology to the old-fashioned city-smashing thrills of the Toho favorites from the ’50s-’70s. It even adopts the Japanese term “Kaiju” for its creatures, which begin to emerge from a rift on the floor of the Pacific Ocean sometime in the mid-2010s and trash coastal cities. When conventional weaponry, in time-honored tradition, proves ineffective, the nations of the world put aside their differences and join forces to create the ultimate counterattack: 25-story, human-driven robots called Jaegers, named after the German word for “hunters” (though their pilots, sadly, are not known as Jaegermeisters).

Furthering the movie’s theme of teamwork, each Jaeger must be guided by two people, whose left and right brains combine to control the robots’ actions. Thus it helps if the duo are related, like brothers Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff), hotshots who, in their Jaeger known as “Gipsy Danger,” take on one of the monsters off the Alaskan coast in an early sequence that sets the tone for the titanic, no-holds-barred battles to come. (Also wet; practically every fight is staged either in rain or above or below the surface of the ocean.) Del Toro and his large team of designers have gone nuts conceiving the mammoth adversaries; rather than the recognizably reptilian/insectoid beasts comprising most of Toho’s rogue’s gallery, these Kaiju seem more inspired by the wacked-out critters from Daiei’s Gamera films. One early terror, known as Knifehead, seems directly influenced by the giant turtle’s foe Guiron.

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The beasts keep evolving to the point where they prove a match or more for the Jaegers, and the bulk of PACIFIC RIM is set several years into their invasion, when the remaining members of the Pan Pacific Defense Force are gearing up for one last major offensive against the Kaiju. Leading the charge is commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who has been serving as mentor to Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a young woman who’s clearly got the chops to be a Jaeger pilot but whom Pentecost is protectively holding back. Also on the team are Australian father and son Herc (Max Martini) and Chuck Hansen (Rob Kazinsky), the latter of whom takes an instant dislike to Raleigh when Pentecost brings Raleigh back into the PPDF fold after a long period out of service. Needless to say, our protagonists are going to have to learn to trust, depend on and perhaps even make sacrifices for each other if humanity is to prevail.

If it sounds like the script by Travis Beacham and del Toro is cut from the same cloth as a hundred other military sagas—well, that’s pretty much the case. The human drama travels along a route that’s easy to predict once the basics are established, and PACIFIC RIM lacks the poetry and deep humanity that has suffused del Toro’s previous work, not just in the personal stuff like PAN’S LABYRINTH and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE but in his HELLBOY epics as well. The entire cast attack their roles with conviction, with Hunnam a solid lead and Elba providing some stirring moments, though one wishes along the way for a little more surprise or shading to the characters—especially Chuck, whose succinct onscreen description as “an obnoxious jerk with a daddy complex” is pretty much all there is to him. The more interesting folks are in the margins: Drs. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, who resembles the love child of Crispin Glover and Lee Evans), squabbling scientists working on different solutions to the Kaiju crisis, and Hannibal Chau (del Toro fave Ron Perlman), a black-market trader in monster organs operating out of a hidden Hong Kong HQ.

That den is one of the many eye-popping settings del Toro takes us to in the course of PACIFIC RIM, and the production design by Andrew Neskoromny and frequent David Cronenberg collaborator Carol Spier is one of its very best assets. Even at their most fanciful, the sets all ring with reality; everything looks convincingly worn, fully functional, aesthetically right. No doubt many of them were augmented with CGI, but that doesn’t enter the mind while watching since the digital FX, supervised by John Knoll, James E. Price and Hal Hickel, are seamless—utterly convincing whether a workman is sliding down the skeleton of a building under construction or the Jaegers and Kaiju are using each other as punching bags. And while del Toro-regular DP Guillermo Navarro suffuses much of the action in dramatic shadows and darkness, the 3D is as crisp and immersive as any seen in live-action features in the last several years—definitely worth the price of a ticket upcharge.

Indeed, this is one summer megapicture where every penny is up on the screen, and the ambition to deliver a kick-ass spectacle has been fully realized. It’s just that for those who have loved and admired del Toro’s work over the past couple of decades, the lack of an emotional investment to equal the shock and awe is a tad disappointing. (The most moving passage occurs not during the main story, but during a flashback revealing Mako’s tragic past.) But perhaps that’s just grading on a curve formed by huge expectations. Certainly, the director’s eye for evocative, sometimes playful detail—seabirds flying from a dock or a Newton’s Cradle being knocked into action during the battles royale, for example—is still very much in evidence, and if PACIFIC RIM doesn’t represent the pinnacle of del Toro’s art, it’s a rousing demonstration of his craft.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor, the position he holds to this day while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews.
  • Stew Miller

    Is it a Giant Monster versus a Giant Robot movie? Then who cares about the human condition and all that emotional B.S. I’ve been waiting for a flick like this since I pitted my Shogun Warriors against my Godzilla toys way back when. And it sounds like it delivers. Awesome.

  • KeithK

    I thought that was the downfall of the US Godzilla remake. I wasn’t invested in any of the human characters and wasn’t cheering along with them when they took Godzilla down. For me, where the Japanese films usually succeed, the human characters are typically evolved well enough to get you emotionally invested in what happens to them.

  • MovieDude

    Sorry, I wanted to like this, I tried to, but it’s just more of the same crap that’s now beginning to give studio executives and the accountants ulcers. Non-stop CRASH! BOOM! ROAR! (And why do the monsters all sound the damn same in these movies?) Lots of jerkycam and smash editing, as constantly sh*t blows up or crashes down, while paper thin characters poorly acted by shiny people who look they should be sealed in boxes on toy store shelves recite the kind of dialog the likes of which I haven’t heard since Clutch Cargo. These movies give people migraines and tinnitus but with no payoff. There’s no tension or suspense or sly humor of the kind that packs James Cameron’s Aliens. When characters are in peril, it’s hard to care. Watching Pacific Rim is like being in an insanely sports bar at happy hour, one in which the giant TVs are showing non-stop boxing matches fought between people you’ve never heard of and couldn’t care less about. They win or lose but nobody even notices.

    • Dave Brown

      MovieDude, it’s funny that you reference Cameron’s Aliens, because the negative criticisms of that sequel back when it came out sounds about the same as what you’re saying about Pacific Rim. The most famous one being that of Pauline Kael. One could easily say that Aliens is no plot, pretty people(playing Marines no less) walking around and hiding until SUDDENLY-crash-boom- a monster jumps out of some place and people shoot and run from it for about an hour.
      Just another stunted person pretending to be enlightened because somehow the things new that are exactly the same as the things they liked when they were kids(read old things) are made differently(read ‘me hate CGI’). Sorry, if you dig films like ANY of the oldschool Godzilla films, Gorgo or any of the Harryhausen epics then this is right up your alley. It has a more developed world and big budget detail that only a master like Del Toro would fully take adavantage of. I would love to learn more about this technology and future if there ever ends up being a sequel.
      The reviewer is correct. The main flaw is the people are a little too straight forward sometimes….and in a Del Toro film that is a let down. At the same token for this style of movie I don’t think over-complex characters would have fit. Maybe so….Don’t know, but they thought they would stick to the traditional path.
      Best movie of the summer. Very creative. Good use of the visuals. Some neat new ideas piled on the old tropes of the gian monster movie. Worth seeing….If you can get over taking yourself too seriously or you can get over your childhood and maybe evolve your tastes.

  • wakeuptime

    I’ve been waiting for somebody to make this movie, since I was 12 years old. It’s a terrific movie. All this talk of weak plot…PLOT?!! It’s got giant robots and monsters. Who needs plot?. Go see this in the theater. Toro handled the special effects superbly. And if you set you’re ‘science fact’ expectations low, then you wont be disappointed. THink “Independence Day” with much cooler FX. And Robots.

  • Bat-Dan76

    Spoiler……….there was no Jaegermeister but there was a Jaegerbomb ;-)

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