Retro Review: Pacific Rim

Distributor: Legendary Entertainment     

Director: Guillermo Del Toro

Writer: Guillermo Del Toro and Travis Beacham

Composer: Ramin Djawadi

Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Ron Perlman, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman

Genre: Action/Science Fiction

Rating: PG-13

Guillermo Del Toro is finally going through a much needed period of critical revival as a filmmaker. While he’s continued to be a beloved cult director on the fringe of the Hollywood establishment, his films have very rarely broken outside of sparse one-offs like the critically acclaimed Pan’s Labyrinth. Lest we forget, Hollywood absolutely refused to give him the budget to do a proper third Hellboy film and thus decided to reboot the franchise with David Harbour of Stranger Things fame as the lead. With the unprecedented success of his newest film The Shape of Water however eyes are beginning to turn once again towards the newly Best Picture-winning director. It’s very likely that this success with brings forthcoming news of a new major blockbuster project for Del Toro. In the meantime, however, we have something else rather exciting to look forward to, the long-awaited sequel to Del Toro’s blockbuster Pacific Rim.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Several fights where we see alien monsters gored and killed, the gore, however, is cartoonish and we rarely see organs or anything extreme. Blood is occasionally seen with a character being shown to have implied wounds while another character has a nosebleed.

Language/Crude Humor: Consistent though non-extreme language throughout the film including several instances of S***, A**, D***, and taking the Lord’s name in vain.

Sexual Content: Several male characters appear shirtless.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Characters imply that the Kaiju bones are ground up into drugs with sexual uses.

Spiritual Content: Several characters are mentioned being part of a cult that worships the Kaiju.

Other Negative Themes: None.

Positive Content: Strong themes of unity, teamwork, and problem-solving.

Review

It’s hard to believe that it’s been half a decade since the premiere of what would become my favorite film of 2013. There were a ton of movies that I was excited for and/or would come to love that came out in the vicinity of Pacific Rim. From awesome superhero films like Iron Man 3 and The Wolverine, grand auteur works like The World’s End, The Wolf of Wallstreet, The Wind Rises, 12 Years a Slave, and Inside Llewyn Davis, flawed but much discussed blockbusters like Man of Steel and the second Hobbit film and even to the beloved and overexposed Frozen there were no shortage of interesting films to discuss by the end of that year. For good measure 2013 was the year I first posted a movie review, starting naturally with the all but totally forgotten Jason Statham movie Homefront.

Of everything I saw that year, however, there was nothing I went into more blind and open-minded than with Pacific Rim. I’d never seen a Guillermo Del Toro movie before this and hadn’t even seen a proper trailer for this film aside from maybe accidentally viewing one early in the year without paying it much attention. My actual screening of the film wasn’t on opening weekend and was picked randomly when a group of friends and I on a double date wanted to pick a movie at a theater that wasn’t showing much that week. What didn’t expect was to walk away from the movie so totally invested in this story and world as I did. Several screenings in the theaters later I bought the DVD and proceeded to make a big deal of it to the majority of my friends and ended up calling it my favorite film of the year.

I’ve had upwards of five years to think about the film I once called the best film of 2013 now and looking back that’s a title I’ve had challenged quite a fair bit. I recall sitting down with my uncle on New Years Day and trying to fully explain why I loved it with and receiving a rather swift dismissal of the film. He’s of course entitled to his opinion but the “it’s stupid” takedown was something that I’ve come to recognize as a common criticism from its critics. This may very well come with the territory. Pacific Rim is a monster movie that draws heavily from other Asian-inspired art forms like anime and kaiju films like Godzilla and it’s largely functioning on a wavelength that expects some fondness with the genre. This shouldn’t be an excuse of course. No film should only work based on its audience’s familiarity with the subject matter. Thus I won’t defend it on such terms.

I didn’t become a fan of monster movies until the following year’s craze around the American Godzilla reboot got me interested in the original movies of that franchise along with other monsters like King Kong, Gamera, and Mothra. My interest in Pacific Rim was totally from an outsider’s perspective. I think the key to understanding my interest has always come from where my heart is in regards to movies. I’ve always had a soft spot for sincerity and craft in my blockbuster films and those are two things that Pacific Rim absolutely exudes.

Let’s start with the latter. Pacific Rim is easily one of the best visually designed blockbusters of the last decade. It’s shot composition, color grading, pacing, production design, sound design, and CGI animation are all amongst the best that we’ve seen from a major big-budget blockbuster. Guillermo Del Toro’s use of actual sets for much of the film means that the majority of what we see on-screen outside of the giant robot vs monster fights is actually being rendered in camera which adds a great deal of grit to the visuals. In the fights themselves, we’re treated to a vision of a near future ultra-technological Hong Kong drenched both in neon colors and grainy visuals.

One of Del Toro’s great bits of clever visual camouflage comes from his use of setting as we’re introduced to the city as being constantly rainy and dark. During the day the sky is covered in clouds and at night the sky is deeply dark. This harsher contrast and the constant presence of rain in the image ends up serving two purposes: it hides the seams in the CGI animation under a layer of color and dust and it creates a fantastic color contrast that makes every visual pop while still looking gritty within the context of its environment.

In regards to the former, the world that Pacific Rim sets up is a surprisingly nuanced and well-sculpted one. Though we see the full breadth of this universe in the film’s introduction the actual content of the story itself takes place entirely at the end of the war’s conflict. As we’re introduced to it, enormous alien creatures referred to as Kaiju have been appearing from a space portal at the bottom of the Pacific ocean for the last several years and recent major losses in the battles between the human created anti-Kaiju robots known as Jaegers have forced world governments to reconsider the program in favor of a simpler defense strategy.

This shift, unfortunately, occurs at the moment that the Kaiju’s attacks had begun to rapidly intensify and the losses start mounting as the calculation suggests that the humans may be in the imminent danger of being overrun while their supply of Jaegars is running dangerously low. The setup for the film wasn’t something I expected when I first saw it and it’s largely why so much of the film does actually work and stay suspenseful. There’s a very real danger inherent in the action scenes of this film that if these characters make a bad move they’re going to permanently cripple humanity’s ability to survive that tinges every fight scene with suspense.

The actual content of the film that exists between the extended fight scenes has much more to do with the characters themselves. As we come to understand them, none of these characters are terribly complex people but they’re exactly what they all need to be for the story. The primary story involves Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, and Idris Elba in a story that’s centered around heavily damaged characters learning to overcome their various emotional problems and traumatic pasts fighting the Kaiju long enough to work together and mutually pilot the Jaegers which require multiple pilots at the helm. This mini-drama ends up being a bit of a microcosm of the film’s themes of teamwork and unity as the movie constantly alludes in the storytelling details to the world’s mutual attempts to fight back against the Kaiju invasion through cooperation and mutual agreement and we quietly see the political situation in the world slowly degenerate as the turmoil and conflicts that our characters face bubble up and threaten to throw the situation into utter chaos.

The secondary story delves into the antithesis of this unity and teamwork and offers us probably the most fun character in the movie. Longtime Del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman shows up as Hannibal Chow, a culturally appropriating gangster who functions as the closest thing to an individual antagonist the film actually has. He’s functionally the opposite of what the film is trying to explore within the main story as he’s a man who literally wears the cultures of other people on his shoulders and only exists to individually profit from the Kaiju outside of the system everyone else has to live in. While Ron Perlman’s scene-chewing performance easily ranks as the most outlandish of the film the MVP naturally goes to Rinko Kikuchi whose career-defining performance as the main character Mako Mori ends up serving as the film’s truest embodiment of everything good about teamwork and overcoming your problems.

If there is any major problem with the movie it’s that the movie’s content at times seems to outweigh the importance of the film’s substance. There isn’t a lot of character development happening during the film’s pivotal action scene in Hong Kong and while what we end up watching is enjoyable and easily the best part of the film it’s not hard to imagine that this slightly more vapid moment is ultimately what people are here to see more than the melodramatic characters and themes. At the end of the day, this is a story that is contrived around a premise to logically get us to the point where we can enjoy watching giant monsters duke it out with robots. This isn’t largely the case with Del Toro’s other movies as they tend to wear the genre tropes more sincerely and fully embrace all the weirdness and thematic depth that comes with it.

Pacific Rim is most definitely a cult movie but it’s one that I sincerely wish got more of the attention it rightly deserves for its clever approaches to world building and excellent visual craft. It obviously did well enough on the international market to warrant a sequel but with the rapid approach of Pacific Rim Uprising it’s not hard to fathom a world where the promise of what this film offered could’ve been much more swiftly and adamantly delivered upon than what we ultimately are receiving.

In the years after this film’s moderate success, there were rumors of everything from a Guillermo Del Toro directed immediate sequel, an animated series based on the movie, and even a crossover movie with Godzilla. Since then Del Toro has moved on to other projects like Crimson Peak and The Shape of Water, the cartoon never came to pass and the Godzilla crossover most definitely isn’t happening. The sequel is instead being directed by TV producer Steven S. DeKnight (Netflix’s Daredevil). While the trailers we have seen have offered some potentially fun content such as Jaeger vs Jaeger fights as well as lead performances from John Boyega and Scott Eastwood it’s very likely that the sequel won’t fully live up to the original. Regardless, we’ll always have the original.

 

 

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

Leave a Reply