I came in to Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim with high expectations. I like a lot of mecha anime and love Del Toro’s previous films (Pan’s Labyrinth might be my favorite of all time), so I was sold on it the minute I heard about it. It doesn’t seem everyone else is quite as sold; anime’s niche and Guillermo Del Toro’s not a household name, so a lot of people seem to have written off the movie as a Transformers wannabe from the marketing. Well, it turns out my expectations were met. Pacific Rim is the most fun I’ve had with a new release this year and if people give it a chance, I’d guess many of them will come out of the theater impressed, and if some of those viewers are between the ages of, say, 8 and 14, this might even be their Star Wars. So, what makes this movie so great?
It looks great.
If you’ve seen any of Del Toro’s other work, you knew this was going to be the case. The guy’s got a brilliant sense of art direction and here he’s designed a world that’s both futuristic and gritty, flashy and lived-in. The different countries’ Jaeger robots each have their own distinct flavor, and the Kaiju monsters are creative and believable in their anatomical detail. The big difference between the battles in Pacific Rim and the battles in Transformers (other than all their big plot differences) is that in Pacific Rim, you can actually see what’s going on. Some people worried from all the night-set scenes in the trailers that they’d be too dark to make out, but thanks to careful editing and a striking neon palate, the fights are always easily decipherable amidst all the clanging of metal and whooshing of waves. It works even under the dimming effect of 3D glasses (the 3D in this movie is also very well-done).
It sounds great.
You know how Game of Thrones has the most epic opening theme music of any TV show, like, ever? Yeah, the Thrones composer, Ramin Djawadi, also did the music for this movie, teaming up with Tom Morello on the main theme. It’s epic, it’s rocking, and it easily gets you pumped up for some robot-on-monster showdowns.
It’s badass while being unabashedly silly.
Mecha anime generally comes in three flavors: cheesy action-adventure shows powered by coolness over logic, more serious war dramas with dealing with political issues, and darker psychologically-driven mindscrews. Pacific Rim most easily fits into the first category, and does so with such sincerity and joy that it’s easy to get swept away by it and feel like a kid again. Rocket fists? Chest cannons? Battles flying into outer space? Why not?
It deals with the people behind and inside the machines.
Pacific Rim isn’t just about being cheesy-cool. In its spirit of international teamwork and environmentalist message, it does have a minor political bent, and it also has some interesting psychological elements as well. The big sci-fi idea that puts the psychological element into place is The Drift, a shared mindspace between Jaeger pilots. In a gripping opening action sequence, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is forced to feel his co-pilot and brother’s pain. The scariest and most emotional scene in the movie has Becket intruding on a childhood memory of his new partner Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Mako’s story ties her to Idris Elba’s awesomely-named commander Stacker Pentacost, a tough but fatherly figure with his own secrets. Elba’s the best actor in the movie, and that “We are canceling the apocalypse!” speech from all the trailers is even more powerful knowing what Stacker’s been going through.
Between Dr. Newt Geiszler in Pacific Rim and Art in Monster’s University, Charlie Day’s having a good summer being the comic relief in big movies. Here his character’s a scientist and a Kaiju fanatic, a possible stand-in for Del Toro’s own monster-obsessed self. He’s part of an odd-couple pairing with the Strangelove-ian Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), and in a subplot that introduces a bunch of elements that could make a perfectly fun movie on its own, he goes to the kaiju parts black market run by the pimp-suited, gold-shoed Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman). Unlike the other ridiculous names in the movie, there’s an explanation for Hannibal Chau’s name, which I shall not spoil for you. Be sure to stick through the credits for one last laugh!
It’s good for kids.
Compared to the other PG-13 blockbusters this summer, Pacific Rim is something most parents could feel comfortable watching with their kids. There’s no neck-snappings, no heart-eatings. The heroes are actually heroic, getting civilians out of harm’s way, so the city-stomping is guilt-free fun rather than disturbing 9/11-exploitation. Very little foul language, and the only sexual content comes in the form of comic innuendos (there’s also a scene where Kaiju genitalia is visible, but it’s a non-sexual context that makes sense for the plot). With so many doom-and-gloom apocalypses on movie screens, this apocalypse cancellation is unusually upbeat and optimistic. It’s scary and sad in parts, but scary and sad can be good for kids; if you think your kids can handle the intensity, they’re gonna love it.
It’s a new mythology.
This is where the Star Wars comparisons come in. Like George Lucas’ 1977 classic, this is a movie that pulls together various elements of popular culture into something new and not quite like anything you’ve seen before. There’s so much to explore here; the introductory montage alone has enough material that could be expanded into several prequels (there is already a graphic novel written by the screenwriter Travis Beacham exploring some of this material). Not being a sequel or a prequel or an adaptation or a reboot or anything itself, Pacific Rim deserves to be rewarded for taking a risk on creating something new. If it’s successful, I hope to see more of this universe: more Kaiju, more Jaegers, more Drift drama, more of the black market, more of the post-Kaiju culture (the temple built on one’s skull was a particularly interesting detail), and absolutely more of the Lovecraftian horrors teased in that creepy and stunningly beautiful climax. But if it fails to catch on by some chance, the movie’s a perfectly self-contained story in and of itself, and a perfect launching pad for many a young geek’s imagination.