I went into Pacific Rim very much in two minds, much as I’ve remained in two minds about Guillermo del Toro’s output to date. As feted as the Mexican director has become for his popularist whirlpools of dark genre fiction, I’ve never particularly connected with any of his films. Even the universally adored Pan’s Labyrinth leaves me feeling cold, at a remove from it all. Pacific Rim hardly seemed like the movie to change all that.
Generally speaking I tend to avoid this sort of thing like the plague. Hollywood’s ultra-budgeted CGI destruction derbies tend to leave me yawning and rolling my eyes. Michael Bay can quite comprehensively fuck off. After 9/11 I thought that Tinseltown’s love affair with skyscrapers toppling like dominoes would be over. Nothing has turned out to be further from the truth, and this summer in particular you haven’t been able to take a seat in a multiplex without witnessing one city or another being torn to shreds by… whatever.
However, look beyond the frenetic editing and you’ll note that Pacific Rim owes more of a debt to the cinema of the East than the West. Asian monster movies of yesteryear – as well as a healthy serving of eye-and-mind-fucking anime – are the touchstones here. Accordingly, Pacific Rim is so wantonly batty as to completely disarm even the most cynical viewer. This is not a typical Hollywood summer blockbuster. In fact, Pacific Rim feels far too bonkers for the safe studios. It is here that you feel Del Toro’s clout coming into play. This is a labor of love for him. Like Quentin Tarantino, Del Toro is a cinephile who has found himself fortunate enough to spearhead pretty much whatever he pleases on reputation alone. You get the impression Pacific Rim got made just to see what would happen.
So what’s it all about then? Well. A clunky yet economical voice-over at the top of the picture drops us right up to our necks in Pacific Rim‘s quixotic waters. A rip in the space-time continuum (or some such thing) has formed between two tectonic plates deep in the Pacific, out of which – at an increasingly frequent rate – a procession of Statue Of Liberty-sized nasties from another dimension have been crawling, threatening coastal cities with their roaring mouths of day-glo acid vomit. The world has united against these otherworldly foes and pooled its technological resources into building ‘Jaegers’ – giant robots piloted by two humans who have to interface with one another and work as a single entity to drive the gargantuan machines.
The dual-piloting idea turns out to be rather neat. Blood relations work best, but it also provides an irresistible set-up for a blossoming attraction between two of our heroes; square-jawed American bland-boy Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam – a budget Garrett Hedlund) and gifted Jaeger newcomer Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi – a sort of Japanese Mary Elizabeth Winstead (yay!)). Interfacing with one another means confronting personal demons… and coming to know each other better than they know themselves.
Throw in Idris Elba as Jaeger squad leader/worst-motivational-speaker-ever Stacker Pentecost (yes, really) and you’ve got yourself a ball game. Monsters rise up from the sea. Good guys with minor complexes in robot suits smack them down. Devour your popcorn accordingly.
In lesser hands this could all have been totally insufferable. Remember Battleship? However, against all odds – and in part because of its strange multi-million dollar underdog mentality – Pacific Rim kinda works. The characters are trite, the dialogue is awful, and yet… and yet… this movie is so committed to being exactly what it is, that it pretty much gets away with it. I wasn’t enamoured at first. The 15 minute pre-title sequence felt so generic as to induce early boredom, despite all the crashing and thrashing. But give Pacific Rim a little time and you might just start enjoying it. The dumb sincerity becomes infectious.
It helps that Del Toro and fellow scribe Travis Beacham pepper the film with memorable supporting characters. Best amongst these are a hapless duo of exposition-spewing boffins who act like this movie’s Thomson and Thompson. Burn Gorman’s awfully British mathematician Gottlieb may be ludicrous, but he’s the straight man to Charlie Day’s Dr. Newton Geiszler. Day plays the eccentric Geiszler in a fashion that brings to mind Rick Moranis and Reece Shearsmith being impacted together by the Large Hadron Collider.
In fact the particular strain of daft added by these two is exactly the lens through which to view the whole film. Pacific Rim becomes a celebration of indulgence. Speaking of which, you can see every dollar of the estimated $180 million budget whenever the action takes over from the fresh-faced cast. In particular a mid-film showdown in Hong Kong sees the city torn to ribbons in rainbow neon. It’s the prettiest cataclysm I can recall seeing, rather like watching Godzilla fight a Transformer in a Skittles factory.
If only the film’s other over-sized fight sequences took place with such gripping clarity. The downside of locating your battles at sea is that, well, the action tends to get washed away in a deluge of crashing waves or billowing underwater bubbles. Also, whenever a ruckus involves more than just one robot vs one machine, it can get a little disorienting. The robots look rather similar, as do the giant dinosaur creatures. Exactly whose jumbo arm just got ripped off again?
I liked Pacific Rim more than I expected to. Of the leads I found Kikuchi’s Mako Mori far more likeable and emotionally engaging than Hunnam’s paint-by-numbers Becket, and felt a little disappointed as her character got lost in the chaotic shuffle of the film’s second half, whilst any attempt to apply common sense or logic to this movie is about as futile as a marshmallow rocket launcher. But despite everything, this movie is… fun. And for production design and in tech terms, its pure pornography.
Don’t worry about massive plot holes. You might as well nitpick an episode of Teletubbies. Scientific inaccuracies become meaningless in the face of a massive multi-dimensional monster getting battered by a giant robot wielding a cargo freighter like a baseball bat. Pacific Rim is pure popcorn escapism. You’ll probably need two buckets. As for Del Toro? I imagine he’s shamelessly proud of this one. Against all odds, I like him a little more for it.