This weekend, Guillermo del Toro‘s “Pacific Rim,” a monster mash about giant creatures that come through an inter-dimensional portal on the ocean floor and the giant robots constructed to fight them, was neither an outright dud nor a smash. Beaten to number one by “Despicable Me 2,” we can’t imagine a third place finish was what Warner Bros. had in mind for their $200 million summer movie. Was it too much of a fan letter to nerds and comic book stores for the general public to care? Did the marketing campaign stumble? Did it need an A-list star? We’re sure conference rooms at WB today are having meetings asking those exact same questions, but there’s also the simple question of whether or not the movie actually delivered.
While a certain segment embraced the approach that riffed on old-school Saturday matinee double-features, anime, manga and trumped-up videogames, others found those elements couldn’t hit the derivative story, one-dimensional characters and a movie that offered a lot of hollow explosions and special effects (here’s our original review). In fact at The Playlist, it has spurred its own numerous discussions in the lobby and we’ve carried it over to this feature in which we run down the good, the bad, and the just plain weird about “Pacific Rim” (and even some of these points were hotly debated within our ranks). Spoilers roughly the size and shape of a giant robot, follow.
Seeing as this is a Guillermo del Toro film, everything in “Pacific Rim” is meticulously detailed and gorgeously designed. The production design was handled by both Carol Spier, a longtime Cronenberg collaborator who has also worked with del Toro in the past, and Andrew Neskoromny, a veteran of influential sci-fi series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” The two work in concert with one another beautifully. The sets are almost universally stunning, though the borrowed “Blade Runner” look in the Tokyo slums is admittedly played out (let’s call for moratorium there). From the bones of fallen kaiju to the lair of black market organ harvester Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), every location design is beautiful and fully realized. Then there are, of course, the robots and monsters, which del Toro personally oversaw with a small army of artists (the designs were brought to life by the magicians at Industrial Light & Magic). Each cuts an imposing silhouette, like the three-armed jaeger Crimson Typhoon or the “category 5” monster seen at the end of the movie, one that combines del Toro’s love for “Godzilla“-esque man-in-suit designs with his clear fascination with all things Lovecraft. You get the impression, from the design work, that del Toro didn’t set out to simply make a monsters versus robots movie, it set out to make the monsters versus robots movie.
Feels Both Cutting Edge And Nostalgic
Rare is the movie that can make you feel like you’re experiencing something you’ve never felt before while at the same time warming your heart in the way that only the nostalgia of something truly familiar can produce. That’s the magic of “Pacific Rim.” It’s a nearly $200 million, cutting-edge spectacle that uses every high tech tool in the cinematic arsenal but can often times feel as wide-eyed and wondrous as sitting cross-legged on the living room carpet, watching Saturday morning cartoons. It’s sense of striking awe is something few of the summertime juggernauts possess— they might be able to turn the destruction levels up to a deafening degree, but there’s little in the way of real marvel. Del Toro, with his geeky obsessions and attention to detail, knows how to create this kind of response in the viewer. And it really does take someone like del Toro to produce such an honest and immersive effect, mostly because he’s an actual nerd, instead of who is usually behind these movies—a committee of suits and creative cynically types trying to speculate what nerds want.
Jaegers. Kaiju. The Drift. The Breach. The Shatter Dome. Hell, there’s even tangential plot threads about the toxicity of kaiju blood, which is given the nickname “Kaiju blue.” A lot of this stuff is deal breaker nonsense to normal civilians, but if you can hang with it, it’s great world-building texture. These are all terms cooked up by del Toro and his co-screenwriter Travis Beacham, and they are all phrases that pop up, again and again, in “Pacific Rim.” While it does act as marble-mouthed sci-fi gobbledegook to some (okay, many and non-nerds don’t care about the different names of each Jaeger robot), if you can get past it, it actually serves to deepen and enhance the bizarro, perfectly calibrated “Pacific Rim” world. It’s a testament to del Toro and Beacham, too, that you know exactly what each of these things is and that they can be spoken about with effortlessness within the movie. Rarely is a world this authentically established, where every facet of the science fiction concept is, if not examined deeply, then at least given a passing mention (including, of course, kaiju crap). You can tell that the filmmakers are in love with this universe, and if you are one of those who can suspend their disbelief, you can’t help but be similarly entranced.
The Visual Effects
Simply put, the visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic, are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. Yes, there have been both giant monsters and giant robots in major motion pictures before, and a lot of them have been brought to life by ILM. But the level of detail, complexity, and creativity on display in “Pacific Rim” is unparalleled. You can feel every reptilian scale, watch every gear move underneath the giant armor plates. What’s even more is that most of these battles take place in insane atmospheric conditions—in snow, in rain, underwater (though it should be said, many have criticized those settings for obscuring the fight scenes, we’ll get to that). All of that has to be visualized too and it’s impressive to say the least. On a pure visual level, “Pacific Rim” is overwhelming and overstuffed, to the point that only on second or third viewings will you be able to pick up on all the little flourishes and embellishments. There’s so much of it that it’s easy to ignore or take for granted, but visual effects movies as lovingly crafted, with this much attention to detail, come around far too seldom. Most movies are interested in the most bang for your buck, while del Toro and his collaborators are interested in something more, a real sense of visual splendor and opulence.
One of the major criticisms levied at “Pacific Rim” is the lack of characterization and background story as motivation. And while this is certainly true for some, the one character who receives due diligence in this realm is Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori, a Japanese jaeger fighting expert whom Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is determined to keep out of the pilot’s seat… err… elliptical machine. Her shaky mental state is hinted at (“vengeance”) but we don’t know exactly why he’s keeping her from taking the reins until the test run with Raleigh in Gipsy Danger. During her first neural drift, she ends up falling down the rabbit hole of her own memory of her encounter with a Kaiju as a young girl. The amount of drama and stakes contained within this one flashback is more than the entire film really manages to carry out. Mako, as a young girl, runs down her city street with a kaiju chewing concrete city blocks just behind her. She carries her red shoe, wailing uncontrollably, and darts down an alley where Raleigh, with her in her drift, implores her to come back mentally. In this state, she manages to fire up the jaeger’s cannon firing device, almost obliterating the crowd in the Shatter Dome, before Clifton Collins Jr.’s tech ops character pulls the (comically oversized) plug. This sequence is emotionally searing, beautifully shot and highly effective. It’s also teased earlier and revisited later to reveal more about her character and is a fine piece of emotional and revealing filmmaking, that doesn’t overdo it or skimp on the details, and it’s clearly the mark of del Toro within this massive mash-em-up.
Murky and repetitive fight scenes that are hard to follow.
At first, the different kaiju types and jaegers are pretty thrilling, and exciting, in their size, power and unique capabilities. Then, del Toro throws them all in the ocean, at night (is it ever daytime? or not raining?) by the handful. The behemoths gnash and clash, and while there are a few notable moments, such as the much-trailered barge bat maneuver, it’s mostly a crashy mashup of gray and black against gray and black. At least Crimson Typhoon had three arms, and was, uh, crimson. But in the mid-film pile up of Crimson Typhoon, the Russian jaeger, and and the other kaiju, it was nigh impossible to discern which kaiju was doing what to whom, which jaeger was being drowned or blown up. Even when the fight made its way to land it just seemed repetitive and stretched on too long. Whatever goodwill and excitement was built up in anticipation of these clashes is quickly worn out in the smashy-smashy that just looks all the same.
Charlie Day and the Other Nerd/Everyone’s Accents
There were at least two points in the movie where we leaned over to our seatmate and said, “What accent is that?” with Idris Elba and Charlie Hunnam, both Brits, two of the worst offenders. Elba, a master of accented disguise in “The Wire” seemed to be using his British accent, which is slightly Americanized, whilst Hunnam was definitely doing an American accent but unfortunately with a British lilt. Then the Aussies showed up, egads (Max Martini, do not pass go, do not collect $200 and proceed directly to Australian accent school again), which resulted in Rinko Kikuchi being the only actor with a believable accent (though she’s not the easiest low-talking actor to understand either). With this collection of wonky accents, rapid fire delivery and nonsense future science jargon, we understood about one-third of the dialogue (but maybe that’s for the best). Then we have Charlie Day. While Day doesn’t have any accent problems and he pulls off an annoyingly shrill mad scientist/Rick Moranis in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” his lightning speed patter is nearly impossible to discern and his shrieking persona is so obnoxious you want to club him to death. And don’t even get us started on Burn Gorman as the mathematician counterpart to Day’s scientist, sporting a parody bowl cut and limp and doing his best Crispin Glover. Maybe every other sentence out of their mouths is intelligible, and because they’re either talking about kaiju math or Vulcan mind-melding with a seafaring alien dinosaur at a high pitched, panicky squeal, it only complicates matters. As our seatmate said, “that might as well have been in French.”
The Fundamental Premise Doesn’t Make Much Sense
We live in probably the most advanced military age imaginable. A guy sitting at a desk in front of a computer screen can send an unmanned drone plane around the world to drop a bomb on a target; all manner of computerized imagery gives personnel unprecedented information about geography, topography and enemy troop movements; weapons are being made smaller but even more deadly. So when a monster rises from the bowels of the Earth in the future, the best plan of action are big, clunky robots that require a neural bridge to operate them? (Side note: it’s never quite clear what the advantage is in using a neural bridge, particularly when the pilots wind up shouting commands to each other anyway). In the crazy near-future of “Pacific Rim,” can we not simply send drones boasting devastating payloads to deal with these guys? Surface-to-air missiles? While there is a certain my-gun-is-bigger-than-your-gun logic to humanity building equally sized robots to deal with these monsters, the all-or-nothing, go-Jaeger-or-go-home-and-build-some-big-walls-that-won’t-work framework of the movie doesn’t make much sense. Is it a dealbreaker? Probably not, and this kind of movie requires at least some suspension of disbelief, but throughout the movie, as the jaegars fall, get blasted by plasma and/or rendered useless and ripped apart, you do wonder if this is the best plan that humans can come up with.
Movie Breaks Its Own Rules
“Pacific Rim” presents us with a bad boy jaegar pilot (Hunnam), who doesn’t follow the rules, but still is one of the best out there… until he follows orders exactly to save the day (what happened to his rule-breaking creativity to defeat the Kaiju?). The jaegers are outdated relics that can’t possibly defeat the increasingly huge and constantly-adapting Kaiju rising the depths of the ocean… until the “analog” old-timey version manages to miraculously survive a vicious beating at the bottom of the ocean, jump into a dimensional portal, and return both pilots alive. Oh no, Gipsy Danger is being flown (what?) into outer space (HUH?), but no worries, bro, it had a hidden sword the whole time! Oh no, it looks like our heros are going to run out of oxygen and die somewhere between our universe and another galaxy, but it’s cool, the jaegars (who inner geography expands and shrinks as necessary) have some high-tech escape pods (that none of the other killed pilots used). Also, it turns out that in the future, the military has some bitchin’ wifi that allows them to communicate with people at hundreds of miles at the bottom of the ocean, and even further in the Earth’s core, from even more hundreds of miles away. In short “Pacific Rim” never really has many dramatic stakes, because right around the corner, there is an 11th minute deus ex machina device introduced so our heroes can escape danger. The movie doesn’t really have a playbook… it writes it as it goes along.
Bland Characters With Little Characterization
While Mako and Raleigh are given a bit of backstory, no one else is really given anything or any motivation beyond just a hint (Pentecost is protective of Mako, the father and son are… father and son), and this is glaringly obvious with the Chinese and Russian pilots of the jaegers in Hong Kong. The Chinese triplets who pilot Crimson Typhoon are shown playing basketball and then always holding a basketball, so apparently… they like basketball. It’s too bad they don’t have any lines! The Russian pilots are even more badass, a male-female duo who sport cheesy platinum dye-jobs and look intimidating, sexy, and weird. Apparently the extreme hair and affinity for basketball are supposed to make us like them, because they play a rather crucial role in the 4 on 2 jaeger v. kaiju battle in which Gipsy Danger, Raleigh and Mako prove themselves. But, we know nothing about them, so when a kaiju smushes them into the ocean to drown, it’s fairly anti-climactic. “D2: Mighty Ducks 2” has better characterizations of its supporting characters and villains. Then there’s the main characters themselves. Raleigh is simply a blander version of Tom Cruise‘s Maverick character in “Top Gun” and all the other leads are mostly one-note characters. Idris Elba delivers throaty speech after speech, Mako is the ace-in-the-hole fighter with a heart of gold or whatever, Ron Perlman plays the eccentric Ron Perlman character (who ultimately has zero bearing on the plot and could have been removed entirely), Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are insufferable Twiddle Dee dummies, etc. etc. And of course, there’s the Australian pilot who plays the Iceman character and rips off the “Top Gun” internecine pilot conflict once again (Beacham apparently loves that movie). None of these characters mean much to the movie. They’re all silo archetypes to fulfil the movie’s various plot needs, which obviously put monsters and robots before human beings.
Weird & (So-So) Kaiju
Post-credits sequence is exactly the same as the climax of Sharknado. Nuff said.
So we didn’t watch “Sharknado,” the viral SyFy hit on Thursday night, but we did read a recap right before we went to see “Pacific Rim” and wouldn’t you know it, but someone is copying someone else’s paper. In the climax of “Sharknado,” one of the great whites gobbles up the lady friend of Ian Ziering’s character, Fin (yup, that’s his name). What else is Steve Sanders to do but launch himself, chainsaw first, into said shark and cut out his lady love Nova (yup, her name)? So, it seems a little fishy that, SPOILER ALERT, in the post-credits sequence, Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau character cuts himself out of the baby kaiju that gobbled him up earlier, grumbling about his shoe (what’s with the shoes?). Of course, this has sort of been a trope since Biblical times, but it at least seems telling that one low-budget, so-bad-it’s-good, made for SyFy shark movie would use the same gag as one of the contenders to the summer blockbuster throne. Let’s try to aim higher than that next time, shall we?
The Multiple Ethnicities
One of the more refreshing aspects of “Pacific Rim” is that it isn’t, like most big movies of this ilk, a case of America (fuck yeah!) saving the world from the threat of giant hulking beasts. “The other sort of big summer movies often feel to me like it’s about one race, one credo and one country saving the world, and I wanted to make it about the world saving the world, no matter what skin color you have, what race you have, what belief you have – everybody in the movie saves the world,” Del Toro told Salon, and it’s absolutely true. Del Toro’s cast has more multi-culti diversity than the crew of the starship Enterprise, but it never feels phony or forced. The world comes together to fight the monsters and it adds texture and flavor to what could have another boring Caucasians saving the world effort. The only problem with this is: see above. Diversity is great, but it’s not so fun to see Asians, Australians, Russians that are poorly drawn, one-dimensional characters.
Weird Alternate Dimension (It’s Mercifully Kept Short)
During the climactic battle, the Jaegers intend to head to the underwater breach where the kaiju are keeping the clone army (or something). Striker, piloted by Idris Elba and the bad, mean Aussie son do some sort of suicide thingy. Then, because Hunnam and Kikuchi’s jaeger is a nuclear warhead, they drag a kaiju carcass to the breach in order to access it (BECAUSE DNA!) and then fall into Kaiju alt-dimension, which doesn’t make much sense because are they in the center of the earth or space? Electric purple labial folds open up and envelope the jaeger into their midst, where some kind of crazy, bug-eyed kaiju overlords ready their armies. It’s all very confusing, bad, dumb-looking, and dangerously close to the pyschic alien mummies of “Indiana Jones 4.” Thankfully, it is blessedly short and the jaeger ejaculates its two escape pods before blowing up all the kaiju. (But what happens when you set off a nuclear bomb at the center of the earth?? Nothing good, I imagine). This sequence looks very dumb, makes little sense, and they are smart to keep it as short as possible.
There’s a lot more to discuss with a world as rich and wonky as “Pacific Rim,” including the names (Stacker Pentecost? Hercules Hanson? We want to see the futureworld’s version of a baby-naming book.), the way that the movie was always referencing whatever is in del Tor’s fabled mancave, and “Game of Thrones” composer Ramin Djawadi‘s admittedly boss score. Also the debate rages on as to whether “Pacific Rim” is riddled with tired cliches or if it was just hitting all the right beats, exceptionally well. Please, by all means, continue the discussion below. We can’t wait to drift with you. – Katie Walsh, Kevin Jagernauth, Drew Taylor