“Be afraid. For here there be monsters”
Guillermo Del Toro’s first finished project since his stalled attempts at The Hobbit and At the Mountains of Madness is almost too much of a good thing for one standalone film.
Ever since Mr Del Toro stood out to this reviewer with his criminally undervalued sequel to Blade, Guillermo Del Toro has systematically been gathering what can only be quantitatively described as Geek cred.
In many a commentary track and podcast, Guillermo comes across as highly intelligent and well versed, not only as a designer and conceptualiser of the visual arts, but also as a student and fan of all things fantastical and otherworldly.
Guillermo has an almost unquenchable passion for all things animated and visceral. Eschewing almost always the digital medium in lieu of practical effects, Guillermo delights in the same in-camera techniques that fellow beardy man and creature fan Peter Jackson squeals in.
They’re at their most impressive when referencing the work of Ray Harryhausen and older school techniques that have since taken a back seat to digital animation styles. And there does seem to be something in the technique that lends a bit more heft in the colossal scenes of cross town destruction between creature and mech, which lends a stylistic difference from other films of similar wanton destruction.
*cough* Snyder *cough*
There is certainly an emotional homage to the trails blazed by Harryhausen all those years ago, and in terms of visual scope, Pacific Rim absolutely holds its own against other presentations of leviathan-sized visual nasties going to violent scraps of cross town mayhem.
Those in the know would have had Pacific Rim on their radar since last year.
Del Toro has steadily increased his director and producer profile in his prep work for two big creature-specific projects which ultimately did not pan out. By all accounts a prolific character behind the scenes, Legendary pictures gave Del Toro time and a modest budget to do what he wanted to do with as little corporate interloping as possible.
The result is for all intents and purposes, a medium budget (for a summer release) film with the heart of an indie movie.
From the get go, what is plainly evident in Pacific Rim is the ambition of what they try to present in one film. The films of this type usually become stretched out and monetized to the limit as a trilogy or a further franchise instalment of sequels.
Pacific Rim bucks that trend. It is a whole meal in and of itself.
There is a lot going on in Pacific Rim. It seems to be pulled in two different directions simultaneously throughout the two hours plus of its running time. In fact it is completely Meta to say Pacific Rim is completely about duality and the push and pull of two different forces and the flux of such binary dynamics.
There is the plot. In which Earth is on the cusp of a colonisation process by otherworldly creatures called Kaiju, gargantuan beasts that have been steadily increasing their rate of attacks on the major cities of the world. To combat this menace, an international cooperative of countries have launched the Jaeger program, grand mechanized combat units that are driven by two humans in tandem, linked together by a metal synaptic bridge known as the drift.
Based on empirical evidence that states the time between Kaiju attacks are being increasingly frequent and destructive, desperate political elements have phased out the Jaeger program, electing instead for building a colossal continental wall to block out the invaders. As such the former program is given a time out on the bench, rendered secondary to the new priorities set by the powers that be.
The remnant Jaeger group, now gone rogue are launching a different offensive program, before the projected “Zero Hour” approaches, believing that the wall solution ridiculous. The clock edges ever closer to exodus point, when the rest of the alien spawn will cross over, from the portal they have created in the bowels of the Pacific Ocean.
Pacific Rim is at once, funny, messy, a lot of fun, very imaginative and impressively as well, poignant at the rare moment.
The concept of duality or the yin and yang-ness of this film is also mirrored in the two protagonists of the film, Raleigh, and Mori, played by Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam and Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi.
Mr Hunnam really doesn’t stretch much acting muscles past what he usually does in SOA. He is brash, cocky and wouldn’t look out of character in this role sporting a leather biker’s jacket. He’s for lack of a better term, sufficient for the needs to the role.
It is with Rinko that the movie comes to life. The character of Mori is essentially the heart of this film. If you believe her character, you believe the struggle in the film. If you don’t then Pacific Rim disintegrates into a hunk of Michael Bay sized melted concrete, steel and cheese. Rinko puts a pulse into the narrative, and for good or bad, whether you empathize with her character or not affects how invested you are in the stakes involved in the film’s narrative.
There is some really nice casting that helps transition Pacific Rim to the narrative needs of the film to switch styles from comedy, drama, action, and suspense.
The always solid Idris Elba is immense in his role as the hardnosed but understanding commander of the Jaeger program. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman play a bunch of bickering trans-Atlantic scientists, whose cross discipline rivalry adds somewhat banal but needed lightness to a plot that can get bogged down in farfetched exposition and story setting.
Pacific Rim sets about with a very pluralistic argument as the dominant agenda. There is a deliberate step to move away from the “America saves everyone” rhetoric of other films. It also tries as much as it can to stay away from the hero’s journey mode of storytelling. Raleigh is not the one big saviour. He is but one cog in a machine of many moving parts, which all come together to contribute to the human challenge against the alien invasion, Australia, Japan, China, Russia, etc.
It is to Guillermo’s credit that the melding of different cultures as a concept seems to bleed into all the facets of the movie from plot and narrative, to its more macro level dynamics like cast, production and scope.
That being said, and as much as Pacific Rim can be a completely satisfying experience, it is also not without some concerns.
As much as Pacific Rim delivers on a spectacle perspective, with epic battles that are breath taking and completely wrought from the imagination of people who enjoyed the anime and kaiju-centric creature stories from other media in the past, it is the pluralistic nature of Pacific Rim’s shifts in mood that somehow do undermine its emotional tones and somewhat diminish the gravitas of what its characters go through.
A scene that’s laden with emotional subtext and pathos can suddenly be undone by a completely comedic and farcical turn seconds later. A scene with a weeping protagonist can suddenly be undermined by a bumbling scientist indulging in a little gross out humour.
The progressive shifts will bother those who can’t switch gears and roll with the movie, But for those more attuned to the emotional shifts wrought from an anime manga sensibility as shifting from panel to panel , they will get exactly what Guillermo is going for.
All in all however, for those of us in Geek Culture, we can see the forest for the trees. A film like Pacific Rim, looking the way it does, packing the punch it does, in major rotation on the cinema circuit, would not have been even possible a decade ago given how expensive a venture like this can be on the production perspective.
The fact that Guillermo Del Toro has presented a rather commercially accessible film given how niche and reductive its source inspiration and material can be, is a remarkable achievement in itself.
For a summer hamburger film, Pacific Rim definitely comes from a place of love and imagination, and given the cinematic landscape of pointless remakes and market driven sludge, is more than a welcome departure from the norm into the hearts of us who remember what it once felt like to come from a simpler place of dreams, nightmares, giant monsters and robots fighting over grand cities to save all our souls.