Pacific Rim (2013) ***½
The idea of giant robots pummeling monsters of various sorts has loomed very large in my imaginative life ever since I saw a feature-length cut-down of “Starvengers” (the American import version of “Getta Robo G”) on Showtime at about the age of seven. Over the ensuing years, I watched everything of the type that came my way: similar abridgements of “Gaiking,” “Danguard Ace,” and “Grandizer;” both incarnations of “Voltron;” “Tranzor Z;” “Robotech” (a marginal example, to be sure, but plenty close enough for my purposes at the time). I filled notebooks with drawings of Dr. Demon’s Machine-Beast army, then launched into two or three parallel series of my own derivative designs. Later, when imports of more or less un-Americanized anime started showing up, first at comic book shops and then at regular video stores, I began amassing a collection of not-quite-familiar robot-vs.-monster cartoons from my youth. And even now, I haven’t really shaken the bug; assuming it wasn’t destroyed when a broken pipe flooded the first floor of my house a few years ago, there’s a plot outline around here somewhere for two or three seasons’ worth of a Go Nagai-inspired series about a mad scientist committing international terrorism with giant robots, and a slightly less mad scientist who builds a giant robot of his own to stop him. So basically, what I’m saying is: the target audience for Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim? Yeah, that would be me. In case you were wondering.
Way back in 2013, a huge hole opened up in the fabric of reality. These days, we call it the Breach, but at first there was no reason to call it anything, because it was near the bottom of the Marianas Trench, and nobody knew it existed. Then things started crawling out of that hole, and knowing about it suddenly became rather important. What kind of things? Well, some of them were sort of like lizards or dinosaurs, and others were sort of like sharks, and others were sort of like sea turtles, and still others were sort of like crabs. No two were ever alike, but they all had a few things in common. They invariably stood a couple hundred feet tall at the least, they all seemed to get a kick out of leveling cities, and every increasingly irritating one of them was damn near impossible to kill using ordinary weapons. No in-story reason for calling them “Kaiju”— Japanese for “monster”— is ever given, but fans of Godzilla and Gamera movies will agree at once that no name could be any more fitting. Everywhere with waterfront property on the Pacific Ocean was at risk of Kaiju attack, so here at last was a problem big enough to make the nations of the world put aside their differences and collaborate on finding a solution. It turned out that the best way to fight monsters was with monsters of our own, and so the Jaeger program was born. Jaegers are robots as big as a Kaiju, controlled by direct neural interface. It takes two human nervous systems to handle the electrochemical load of piloting a Jaeger safely, though, so not just anybody can hop into the cockpit and hit the ignition switch. Jaeger pilots have to be personally compatible enough to stand having their thoughts linked up and synched up to each other throughout the mission. Siblings are usually best, and one such team— the Alaska-based Becket brothers, Raleigh (Children of Men’s Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff, from After Earth and Fire Serpent)— became the USA’s top aces at the height of the global counterattack against the Kaiju. The Beckets were also pivotal figures when the tide of the war turned back against humanity. Their Jaeger, Gypsy Danger, was among the first to face the new strain of more powerful Kaiju that are now all too close to overrunning the planet. Gypsy Danger won that fight, but Yancy was killed, and Raleigh has never been the same since. It’s bad enough losing a brother— imagine what it would do to a person to be brain-linked to their brother at the moment of his death!
Anyway, the reinvigorated Kaiju threat has reached the point where the whole Pacific Ocean is basically no man’s land. Kaiju surfacings are a daily occurrence, and the Jaeger Corps is facing extinction through sheer attrition. Emphasis has therefore shifted to a new defensive scheme, a vast wall of fortifications ringing the entire Pacfic Rim, and Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, of Prometheus and The Unborn), supreme Jaeger commander, is bound for early retirement. Then a Kaiju attacks Sydney, Australia, where the wall is theoretically complete, and punches right through the barrier as if it weren’t even there. The city’s survival is due entirely to the quick response of Striker Eureka, the last Jaeger to be commissioned before the program was terminated. The incident doesn’t change the fact that recent loss rates make continued Jaeger production seem untenable, but it does cast serious doubts on the viability of the Great Wall of China approach. That being so, Pentecost decides that his last act before collecting his gold watch will be a truly desperate one. Concentrating all his remaining forces at the Shatterdome base in Hong Kong, he begins training his Jaeger crews for what amounts to a kamikaze mission against the Breach itself.
Now you might ask why nobody ever tried to close the Breach before, but that isn’t the problem. People have tried, but apparently the door opens only one way. Unless a Kaiju is actually in the process of emerging, it’s impossible to drop, say, a hydrogen bomb down the hole toward whatever’s on the other side. Fortunately, one of Marshal Pentecost’s scientific advisors, Dr. Herman Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) has become adept at predicting when the next monster will come through. With his mathematical models, it should be possible to have a force of Jaegers in place at the bottom of the trench to intercept— one robot to nuke the Breach, and the rest to keep the monster off the bombardier’s ass. It sounds like a good plan, but the odds of success start looking a little longer when you consider that Pentecost has only four Jaegers at his disposal, one of which doesn’t even have a crew. In addition to the aforementioned Striker Eureka, piloted by the father-son team of Hercules (Max Martini, from Contact and Mandrake) and Chuck (Robert Kazinsky) Hansen, the Shatterdome is now home to an antiquated Russian-built monstrosity called Cherno Alpha and the more modern, Chinese Crimson Typhoon. Cherno Alpha is driven by Aleksei Kadanovsky (Robert Maillet, of Immortals and Monster Brawl) and his wife, Sasha (Heather Doerksen, from The Day the Earth Stood Still and In the Name of the King: Two Worlds), while Crimson Typhoon is an unusual three-man model designed to exploit the unique talents of the Wei Tang triplets (Charlie, Lance, and Mark Luu). As for Pentecost’s fourth, pilot-less Jaeger, it’s our old pal, Gypsy Danger— rebuilt, refurbished, rearmed, and as thoroughly modernized as the original chassis and power system would allow.
And that, as you’ve probably gathered, is how Raleigh Becket reenters the story. Marshal Pentecost finds him up on the Alaskan section of the Pacific Wall, welding girders. Raleigh isn’t crazy about the idea of getting back into a Jaeger, but he’s seen the footage from Sydney on the TV news, and he knows the human race is fucked unless somebody manages to solve the Kaiju problem once and for all. Most of his lingering reluctance fades when he learns that he’ll be driving his trusty old machine again, and the rest vanishes when he meets the perfect partner on Pentecost’s staff. Her name is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, from Assault Girls and School for Ghosts F), and she’s the marshal’s adjutant. She’s quick, she’s brave, she’s athletic, she can handle herself in a fight like nobody’s business, and most of all, she and Raleigh just click as soon as they get to talking. If anybody could take Yancy’s place beside him in the cockpit, she’s the one. Pentecost, however, is adamant that Mori will do no such thing; his objections are both personal and pragmatic. On the touchy-feely side, Mako is also Pentecost’s foster daughter, ever since he found her orphaned in Tokyo after destroying one of the first Kaiju to hit that city. His practical beef with her piloting a Jaeger stems from that incident, too— Mako is driven by a need for revenge, and noisy emotions like hate interfere with the giant robots’ control interface. Just how much they interfere is demonstrated during a test run after Pentecost bows to Becket’s “either she’s in, or I’m out” line. Mori gets trapped in her memories of the Tokyo attack, and in her fear and fury, she comes within an ace of vaporizing the Shatterdome command center with Gypsy Danger’s plasma cannon. Normally that would be the end of that, but when an unprecedented double Kaiju strike on Hong Kong puts all three of the frontline Jaegers at least temporarily out of action, there’s nothing else for it but to give the Raleigh-Mako team a second chance.
Meanwhile, Gottlieb’s partner and rival in the science division, Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charles Day, of Campfire Stories), thinks there’s more going on with the Kaiju invasion than anybody suspects, and he has a bold— indeed, possibly crazy— plan to find out exactly what. Among the biological specimens in Geiszler’s lab is a fragment of Kaiju brain that he’s managed to keep alive in a vat full of who-knows-what. Using the same neural link technology that drives the Jaegers, Newton hopes to make contact with that piece of brain, so as to eavesdrop on any memories that might be stored within it. Everyone tells him it’s suicide— if driving a Jaeger is too much for one human brain, then surely the feedback from the monster’s mind would kill a man instantly— but Geiszler goes ahead anyway, and learns some fascinating things while almost giving himself about 50 simultaneous strokes. The reason the Kaiju are each anatomically unique despite being as similar genetically as a pair of cloned mice? It’s because they’re not a naturally occurring species or set of species at all, but the product of some kind of Moreauvian manufacturing program that begins with a sort of genetically engineered generic organism. The Kaiju are living weapons created by a hyper-advanced civilization in their home dimension, for the purpose of conquering useful worlds by wiping out whatever creatures already inhabit them. There was much more, too, but the brain was too incomplete for Geiszler to understand what any of it meant. One thing is obvious, though. Pentecost’s plan is based on dangerously inadequate intelligence. Since nuking the Breach is something the marshal and his team can’t try but once, it clearly behooves them to hold off if at all possible until they know enough to get it right. That’ll mean linking with a more complete Kaiju brain, so Pentecost sends Geiszler into the city to find the one man alive who might have such a thing. His name is Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman, from Outlander and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Seige Tale), and he’s a dealer in Kaiju body parts, which are all the rage in traditional Chinese medicine these days. What Geiszler fails to realize is that it wasn’t just the dead monster’s brain he was connected to back in the lab. The Kaiju have a neural link of their own with their creators, and the reason those two behemoths that have the Jaegers so busy right now came straight to Hong Kong is because the would-be conquerors of Earth don’t like being spied on.
It seems like every time I review something of Guillermo Del Toro’s, I end up harping on the inferiority of his English-language movies to the ones he makes for the Spanish-speaking market. Well, not this time. With Pacific Rim, Del Toro demonstrates that he’s finally learned how to make a Hollywood movie that fires on all cylinders. Let us be clear, though, about what that means. Despite the little girl who witnesses terrible things (kid Mako), the big, weird bugs (the Cloverfield-like Kaiju parasites), the gross things in jars (Geiszler’s lab and Hannibal Chau’s shop), and the presence of Ron Perlman (Chau himself), Pacific Rim is very much a Hollywood film instead of a Del Toro film. It’s structured according to the same Mad Libs-like screenwriting formula that would-be blockbusters have been obsessively beholden to since everyone in Los Angeles apparently read Blake Snyder’s script-writing guide, Save the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, in 2005, although Del Toro’s personal quirks enable him to disguise that better than most directors do. The interpersonal drama is focused on the relatively conventional Raleigh-Mako pairing (and on the thuddingly obvious Raleigh-Chuck Hansen rivalry), when it really ought to revolve around Mako and Pentecost instead. And the whole thing feels overstuffed and breathless, like it’s working too hard to be BIG enough to justify all the money spent on it.
But while Pacific Rim may not transcend the limitations of the 21st-century summer blockbuster, Del Toro surely does make the most of what those limitations will allow. At two hours and eleven minutes (fifteen minutes of which might be absorbed by the seemingly endless closing credits), it’s remarkably lean for a modern sci-fi action movie, and has as much story packed into it as quite a few recent films that ran nearly an hour longer. With the Hansens on one side and Mako and Pentecost on the other, it deploys the tired and usually tiresome daddy-issues trope in a way that actually means something. Idris Elba sells the shit out of the marshal’s inevitable big, corny speech before the climactic battle, even the obvious Instant Catchphrase line, “Today we are cancelling the apocalypse!” The designs for both Jaegers and Kaiju are effective, imaginative, and individually distinctive, so that we always know who’s fighting whom (and who currently seems to be winning) despite the somewhat irritating staging of all the battle scenes under conditions of low visibility— at night, in the rain, at the bottom of the sea, on a television screen. And best of all, considering the genre we’re dealing with here, that impaired visibility is the only complaint I can bring against the monster fights, as monster fights. (It’s possible to quibble with how they’re employed as story elements, but that’s a separate issue.) The choreography is well thought-out, and the camera usually stands far enough back from the action to let us appreciate that. There are some inspired moments of badassery, like when Gypsy Danger, having expended all its ammunition earlier in the fight, picks up a beached freighter, and beats a Kaiju silly with it. Best of all, none of the action looks even a little bit like a video game, at least on the big screen. Last year, John Carter, Prometheus, and The Avengers collectively convinced me that the major Hollywood effects houses have finally learned how to do CGI consistently right, and Pacific Rim shows no backsliding on that front. Robots, monsters, and scenery alike appear solid and substantial, behaving according to a predictable and persuasive (if not strictly realistic) physics.
Pacific Rim does show a bit of the familiar Del Toro touch on the human scale, however. Little details like a Kaiju skull converted into a religious shrine or the casual brutality of life among the builders of the Pacific Wall hint subtly at social and political developments that we don’t get to see directly, creating nearly as specific a sense of time and place as can be found among Del Toro’s Spanish-language movies. Hannibal Chau brings with him the theme of secret strangeness beneath the surface of the ordinary world that is so central to the rest of the director’s work, even if that theme is reduced to a sideline here. An extremely well-chosen cast breathes a surprising amount of life into some very thinly-written characters, to the point that it becomes disappointing when we never really get to know the Russian and Chinese Jaeger crews. Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi, meanwhile, do legitimately great things with the most fleshed-out and individualized parts in the film. Again, their relationship exists in the shadow of the main plot, but it gives real heft to what might otherwise be some wearyingly routine action-movie business during the final attack on the Breach. Sacrifice in Pacific Rim has meaning beyond the mawkish clichés still hanging around from 1940’s war films, even if Del Toro justifiably does not attempt to create here anything like the vast Mexican melancholy of Cronos or Pan’s Labyrinth. There are charming touches of dark humor, too, most of them involving either Chau or the marshal’s pet mad scientists, and the movie has the best gag death scene since probably Deep Blue Sea. And finally, we get some subtle winks at the specialist fans, whereby Del Toro outs himself as one of them: Striker Eureka’s “scads of tiny, short-range missiles” attack; a monster bisected lengthwise by Gypsy Danger’s sword; Gypsy Danger having a sword in the first place; Kaiju that bear a faint but noticeable resemblance to Gamera, Gyaos, and Zigra. It may be just because I am so much Pacific Rim’s target audience, but I would love for this to become the project that earns Del Toro his blank check to make whatever the fuck movie he wants to in the future.