If you’ve been looking at the summer marketing and thinking, “Good lord, that looks head-slappingly stupid,” you are correct. Likewise, if you’ve been watching the commercials and thinking, “Ho-lee crap, this looks mess-my-pants awesome,” you are also correct.
And if your assessment, sight unseen, of Pacific Rim is that it’s just a summer popcorn flick about giant frakkin’ robots and giant frakkin’ monsters beating the stuffing out of each other, then you are dead on. Gloriously, mindlessly, entertainingly so.
The film’s story is simple: Giant monsters are popping out of a Lovecraftian inter-dimensional rift, located deep within a Pacific Ocean trench. Or to rearrange Nietzsche for the occasion, “When you gaze long into the abyss, you’re gonna end up fighting giant monsters.” So we humans make equally gargantuan robot-mech guys that are controlled by a pair of humans strapped into elliptical machines in the robots’ noggins. (It’s like going to the gym, only in a giant robot.) Then the creatures and the robots meet up and punch each other lots.
(I’m guessing at some point this week an inspired defense contractor sat across a desk at the Pentagon and told a general, “Can we really afford not to build a fleet of giant billion-dollar robot-mechs?”)
Pacific Rim arrives on big screens (the bigger, the better) so impressively, cinematically self-actualized that, like the gargantuan robots and monsters traipsing throughout it, the film exudes a sense of undeniabilty. It feels as if you can no more argue over its artistic and aesthetic merits than you could debate the motives and methods of a 25-story-tall lizard-beast stomping toward you across a burning cityscape.
Throughout his 20-year career making feature films, the Mexican auteur has written and directed art-house horror-fantasy films like Chronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth—films that are acclaimed and awarded for their subtle and nuanced allegorical approaches. He’s also romped his way through pure, unabashed Creature Feature delights like Mimic, Blade II, and Hellboy I & II. (In his spare time, Del Toro produces dark little genre love letters like The Orphanage, Splice, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and this year’s better-than-it-seems ghost tale Mama.)
So when Del Toro (who over the the past five years has seen two massive dream projects slip away: his long-pursued adaption of Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness and his directing of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films) turns his attention to the Giant Monster movies he loved as a child, not only do the Kaiju geeks trust that he knows what he’s doing, but he’s handed a “Get Out of Popcorn-Movie Jail Free” pass from many foreign-film connoisseurs who assume that, given the film maker’s art-house cred, Pacific Rim must be deeper and more aesthetically interesting than it seems on the surface.
These days I often find myself bemoaning the lost of emotional verisimilitude and cinematic impact in big CGI-centric special-effects fests, but if there’s one genre that’s benefited from the ever-advancing ability to create new screen images with digital pixels, it’d be Giant Monster flicks. Whatever the overall strengths and failings of movies like Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla remake, Cloverfield, and now Pacific Rim, their over-sized CGI beasties look fantastic as they destroy our cities.
Del Toro is especially loving in this respect. Though careful to always show them at night, underwater, or against rainy, gray storm skies (masking any oily digital shimmer), the director camera-bangs the hell out of his towering subjects, wheeling in and out and around them to give them not just impressive size, but scale and weight up on the screen. More than just visually spectacular, things on the screen feel big, as if you really were a fly on the wall looking down at the ginormous beings below. Or in this case, a helicopter buzzing dangerously close to an other-dimensional beastie.
(Pacific Rim‘s monster designs themselves aren’t anything terribly new. Unlike Cloverfield, which went out of its way to try and come up with a weirdly unique being, the creatures here are mostly homages to the greats: not just Godzilla, but Gamera and Rodan as well.)
The “heel” monsters may still grabble and slug it out with the good-guy “face” robots like WWE wrasslers on radioactive ‘roids, but there’s rarely a moment of “man in suit” or “bad videogame” fakery on display. And while Pacific Rim is easily his biggest film (not just in terms of his subjects, but also budget and mainstream hype), the heavily stylized director still fills the corners of his sets with the sort of retro-industrial pulp flair and steampunk bordello designs that infuse his smaller films.
Between the raging monsters, stalwart robots, and sumptuously “worn-in” decor, there’s a lot for your right-hemisphere brain to drool over in Pacific Rim. Which is good, because the film’s plot, characters, and dialog from Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham will leave your left-hemisphere brain bleeding out your ear. (It’s genuinely hard to tell if the clenched-teeth clichés passed off as dialog are intended as cheese-ball genre homages, or if Del Toro and Beacham are just that Top Gun tone deaf.)
Most of the bad script lines are either bark-bellowed by the otherwise great Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost, the leader of the robot squad, or grunted by the usually decent Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket, the one-time hot-shot robot jockey driven into exile by past tragedy.
Elba gets to keep his British accent for a change, but Hunnam’s also British, and while he’s been working in Hollywood for a decade, again it’s hard to determine if his performance is meant to be tongue in square jaw or if he thinks all hard-bitten American heroes should talk as if Clint Eastwood was gargling with Warren Oates. (It doesn’t help that the once Bowie-lithe Hunnam is now all Sons-of-Anarchy beefed up, making his face look like Jason Segal decided to go as Val Kilmer for Halloween.)
And yes, keeping with its pulpy spirit, nearly everyone in the film has monikers along the lines of Stacker Pentecost, Raleigh Becket, Hannibal Chau, Newton Geiszler, Herc Hansen, and Mako Mori. You keep waiting for folks named Stroker Passover, Cromwell Tudor, Achilles Einstein, and Shark Puncher Gelato to show up and help tussle with the critters.
As is often the case in these bigger-than-life event movies, a lot of the best performances are given around the edges, here by a solid supporting cast that includes Del Toro regular, geek fave, and Hunnam’s Sons of Anarchy pop Ron Perlman (one of the rare actors who can mug without moving his face) and Always Sunny in Philadephia’s jittery Charlie Day (channeling his inner Bobcat Goldthwait as a spazzy scientist off-setting the hunky robot jocks).
Also on hand is Babel’s endearing Rinko Kikuchi as Becket’s co-pilot and (naturally) love interest, as Del Toro and Beacham cram the non-monstrous parts of the movie with a little too much interpersonal melodrama and cheese-ball pilot conflict. (The various robot pilots seem to have been handed their “will he/she overcome this in time to save the day?” personal issues from the same corner Genre Store where they got their names.)
Pacific Rim is also somewhat weakened by a common ailment among big summer action movies: a finale that falls short of all the buildup. Del Toro lays out so much earth-shaking monster-slugging awesomeness throughout the film that by the time he hits his climactic set piece (with the obligatory races against the clock and heroic self-sacrifices) a certain sameness has settled in—the big finish feels more like a plateau than a peak. Otherwise, the film delivers almost exactly what it promises; that is to say, it’s the Giant Robots Fighting movie we all hoped for from Michael Bay’s Transformers flicks, back before the Transformers franchise made us all more than a little sick of Giant Robots Fighting movies.
One of the most interesting things about Pacific Rim and audience response to it is that, in its entertaining success, it feels like the Ultimate Geek Nostalgia Movie. Despite the fact it’s one of the few big summer movies that doesn’t officially remake/reboot/reimagine an existing franchise, comic book, or toy line, there’s no doubt the film is Del Toro’s heart-felt ode to Godzilla and the other Giant Monster movies he and so many other geeks (myself included) loved as kids. (The film is dedicated to the late, beloved creature-makers Ray Harryhausen and Godzilla godfather Ishirō Honda.)
Not to take anything away from Del Toro, who’s done a pretty bang-up job here, but amid the recent Star Trek and Lone Ranger redos and upcoming return to a galaxy far, far away (and dozens of other examples we could all name from the past decade), it does beg the question: What does it say about our pop culture imagination that so much of our big-tentpole fantasy filmmaking these days feels both created by and marketed to geeks’ inner 12-year-olds?
Over the past 40 years, we’ve all been raised in the post Free to be You and Me age to actively seek out and embrace and feed our inner children, but with the Internet-fueled rise of Geek Culture over the past decade or so (“I can now easily find people who share my once-embarrassing love of nerdy stuff!”) and marketing campaigns now laser-targeted for the Comic-Con crowd, what was once considered a delicious, decadent indulgence now feels like a Geek Imperative.
(For example: in the post-Harry Knowles/Ain’t it Cool News film world, nearly every personal reaction to a film has to start with a lengthy dig back into your childhood toy chest. I’m no different—I grew up on Godzilla and Ultra Man giant monsters and robot movies. Mostly because I was too chicken to watch “really scary” movies on the Friday night Creature Features or at Saturday afternoon matinees. And yes, I giggled with glee when one of the Pacific Rim kaiju stomps on a railroad car… just like in the old Man in Suit days.)
But as much as I enjoyed Pacific Rim and respect Del Toro’s obvious genre dedication and mastery, the film and the joyous fan-boy and -girl reaction to it has me wondering if over the past decade we haven’t overfed our childhood geek selves to the point they now tower over us and the cinematic and pop-cultural landscape like mutated monsters, threatening to crush everything in their path.