PACIFIC RIM Movie Review: Saving The World, Saving The Summer

It's kaiju versus mech in a movie that epitomizes what blockbuster cinema can be.

We remember being prey. Somewhere in some deep part of our brain is the collective racial memory of being a small mammal, cornered by something much bigger and toothier than us. Today we’re top of the food chain, but that small mammal is still there, and it makes us fascinated with the idea of our place in the current natural order being upset. It makes itself known not only in our interest in stories of humans becoming fodder for predators - Timothy Treadwell and his bears, the occasional media frenzy over shark attacks - but in our interest in stories of natural catastrophes, of earthquakes and enormous tornadoes, of elements of nature that dwarf us and remind us that, for all of our technology and smarts, we’re no match for a wind that’s blowing fast enough.

Giant monsters - kaiju - are where those two elements meet in our fiction. We are to them in the food chain as ants are to us - a nuisance at the picnic. And like natural disasters they are an unstoppable force, engines of destruction that can only be survived. But all the best kaiju stories are the ones where, in the end, people figure out how to do more than survive. They figure out how to take the fight to the hurricane, and they figure out how to win.

Pacific Rim is the story of what happens when the winning stops.

In the near future giant monsters begin emerging from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. They rampage in our coastal cities; conventional weapons take literally days to defeat the beasts. Cities disappear into rubble before the kaiju can be stopped. As the situation appears to be more desperate - as the kaiju begin coming more frequently - a new technological initiative is created. It’s the Jaeger program, and these giant mechs have the strength and firepower to go toe-to-toe with the kaiju, and to win.

That becomes the new status quo - the world is now a place where sometimes monsters rise from the waters and brave pilots in metal suits hundreds of feet tall punch them into submission. And for a while it works. It looks like humanity is winning. Then the tide begins to turn. The kaiju come more often, their frequency and size escalating. The Jaeger program suffers crippling defeats, and the monsters come faster than humanity can build new mechs.

This is the world where Pacific Rim, after a prologue, begins. It’s a world on the verge of losing the greatest battle in human history. It’s a world where people have begun to give up; rather than fight the monsters they’ve decided to sink all their effort into massive coastal walls that - theoretically - can keep the monsters away from populated areas. Rather than stand up and take back the planet, humans have resigned themselves to being shut away in walled nations, ceding parts of the Earth to the beasts.

Raleigh Becket represents the state of humanity. Once a hotshot Jaeger pilot, he’s been down and out for five years after a huge battle that all but destroyed his mech, Gipsy Danger, and killed his co-pilot - his brother, Yancy. The twist in Jaeger tech is that the machine is too big to be controlled by one pilot. Two pilots must mind-meld in what is known as The Drift, each operating one half of the robot, working in perfect unison to execute the moves and attacks that stop the kaiju from destroying our cities. But that means when Raleigh’s brother is killed in a battle off the coast of Alaska he feels it all - Yancy’s fear, pain and eventual disappearance. Burnt out, Raleigh now takes dangerous, menial jobs on the coastal wall, climbing thousands of feet and risking his life for a ration card.

But you know how this story goes. The Kaiju War isn’t done with Raleigh. One day his old boss, Marshal Stacker Pentecost, shows up at Raleigh’s worksite. They need him back for one last mission. The big mission: this time they’re taking the fight to the Rift, the undersea dimensional portal from which kaiju are spewed. They’re shutting it down, and Stacker needs Raleigh back, piloting the rebuilt Gipsy Danger.

Of course it isn’t that simple. Humanity has tried destroying the Breach before, but it’s never worked. Pentecost is desperate now, as funding for the Jaeger program has been rescinded and what was once an operation with dozens of giant bots is now down to four mechs. This is the last chance to close that hole - if they can just figure out how to get it done.

That’s the first fifteen minutes or so of Pacific Rim. What follows is a profoundly epic story that also manages to stay profoundly human, as the remaining pilots and support staff of the Jaeger program overcome their differences and their issues to stand up and save the world. It’s a square-jawed, straight arrow sort of story where even the hot-headed young Aussie pilot who tussles with Raleigh - he sees the older pilot as the sort of wash-out who has doomed the program - is, at heart, a hero.

Guillermo del Toro has achieved a feat of world building unseen on movie screens since Star Wars. This is a rich, full, detailed universe that lives at the very corner of the frame. Pacific Rim is set in the kind of fully realized world where you believe if the camera went down a different corridor or street, you would find a rich story populated with fascinating characters. There are sequences in Pacific Rim that have the same depth of construction as the Mos Eisley cantina scene in Star Wars, that have the sense of a place that existed before the camera turned on and will continue existing after our heroes have moved along.

If that was all Pacific Rim offered it would stand as a Star Wars for a new generation. But it has more than that. It’s the rare modern blockbuster that does big scale action correctly. Every punch has momentum, every impact has weight, every step of the Jaegers and the kaiju is felt. The action, while often taking place at night, is clear and understandable. The stakes are always palpable and high, and the action is constantly thrilling. There are a number of enormous set pieces with one - a kaiju attack on Hong Kong - being one of the greatest action sequences of this century, not only in terms of visceral thrill but also storytelling quality. During my second viewing of the movie I sat behind a boy who looked to be about eight or nine, and he was involuntarily fist pumping during the entire scene.

That kid is the avowed target audience of Pacific Rim. We live in a world where comic book characters created for ten year olds are now the sole province of thirty year old misanthropes. Guillermo del Toro is looking to take action fantasy back to its original, and best, crowd. This is a movie designed frame by frame to make kids explode with excitement and imagination, and it’s a movie that will reactivate that purity in even old fogies. Pacific Rim makes you feel like a kid, not because it’s stupid (it isn’t) or because it’s silly (it can be, but in the right way) but because it will fill you with the sort of awe and joy you had when you first saw Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons fight or Godzilla first trample Tokyo or the Millenium Falcon show up out of nowhere at the Death Star. While humanity is in dire straits in Pacific Rim this isn’t some sort of Nolan-esque meditation on the futility of heroism or the failings of men - it’s a movie about triumph and hope and overcoming all odds. And for the ten year olds, it’s about how little people can stand up to even the biggest monsters.

Del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham have populated the dense world of Pacific Rim with a bunch of great characters. I’m not normally one for Charlie Day, but his scientist character Newt Geizler is one of the highlights of the movie. He has a number of scenes with Ron Perlman’s black market kaiju parts dealer Hannibal Chau (I won’t spoil the origin of his name) that are at once hilarious and also deeply, powerfully world-building. In another movie this stuff would be comic relief; in Pacific Rim it’s the sort of stuff that could spin off into its own TV series or role playing game.

The pilots and crews of the Jaeger program have walked directly out of an anime. Head technician Tenso Choi (Clifton Collins Jr) has one of those rockabilly bouffants popular in certain Japanese animation. The Russian pilots, with their platinum hair, are as stylized as cartoons. The Australian pilots have a cute bulldog sidekick (don’t worry, he’s no Chim Chim).  Each of these characters are a color in the larger spectrum of the human story of Pacific Rim, and they’re each applied with broad brushstokes. Again I come to the Star Wars comparison - in a just world we’re looking at a future where there’s an anthology of short stories that delves into each of these characters and their histories. Pacific Rim is a movie that leaves you wanting more; it’s the rare modern movie that will send you looking for supplemental material so you can experience more of the world.

Those are the side characters. At the center of the story is Raleigh, played by Charlie Hunnam. I’ve never been a Hunnam guy - his American accent remains unconvincing, even after many years on Sons of Anarchy - but he has the chops to play the sort of straight-backed hero this movie needs. Some will complain about a lack of complexity in Raleigh, but I found his basic decency and heroism refreshing. In a movie landscape where the heroes refuse the call every single time, where they need a personal revenge motivator to become heroes, where they have feet of clay and are constantly unsure of themselves, Raleigh is the rare hero doing it because it has to be done. His personal history with the kaiju doesn’t motivate him to seek revenge - it’s the block that he must overcome to do his job right.

Hunnam has a tendency to get overwhelmed by the characters around him. To me he’s the equivalent of Keith from Voltron - was that ever anyone’s favorite character? While Raleigh is the main character of Pacific Rim I would argue that it’s Stacker Pentecost who is the central character. Played with ultimate badass ferocity by Idris Elba, Pentecost is the driving force that keeps the Jaeger program together, is the tough leader who keeps the multinational pilot crew moving forward and is the driven tactician behind the last ditch effort to save the world. His character is filled with complexity, from his strange personal vulnerability to his relationship with Mako Mori, his assistant who is also the perfect companion to Drift with Raleigh in Gipsy Danger. Elba brings many shades to Pentecost, some of which he gets across with only a look while alone in an elevator.

Rinko Kikuchi is Mori, whose childhood experience in kaiju-devastated Tokyo presents the movie’s single most jaw-dropping sequence. Guillermo del Toro understands the scale with which he’s working and this sequence, where young Mori is chased down city streets by a twenty-story tall monster, smacks you with that scale. It’s also an emotionally shattering bit of filmmaking, the moment where you most understand the human toll of the wanton destruction wreaked by the kaiju. It’s Pacific Rim in a nutshell: beautiful, sobering, thrilling.

Kikuchi is fine; like Hunnam her character gets slightly overwhelmed by the movie’s plethora of colorful side characters. My biggest positive critique of Pacific Rim is that I wanted more of everything - more of the characters, more of the world, more of the monsters and more of the Jaegers - while my biggest negative critique is that these two central characters never quite take command of the movie. The Drift presents a great device to allow the two to get to know each other, but the movie ends up having them sitting over lunch having a long talk about their feelings. It’s one of Pacific Rim’s few wrong notes - the opportunity to show rather than tell is there (and is used to some extent; Raleigh experiences Mori’s Tokyo trauma through the Drift), so why tell?

Still, that’s a minor complaint. Luke and Leia were never my favorite Star Wars characters either. And even if these aren’t the most gripping leads, the characters remain strong and interesting. I never wanted the movie to get away from Mori and Raleigh. I was in love with Pentecost and Geizler and Chau and Choi and the others, but I was happy to stay with the story of these two leads.

What makes Pacific Rim work isn’t one character or Jaeger or kaiju (although I think we’ll all have our favorites for sure), it’s the way del Toro and Beacham bring them all together. This is a movie about teamwork, about sacrifice and about getting past the bullshit to do something important and difficult. It’s a rousing movie about the way human beings can set their mind to something and accomplish it. Yeah, we’ve fucked up. Yeah, we’ve made mistakes. But we’ve also done incredible things, performed impossible feats and tamed some of the very forces of nature. When we’re at our worst we can be destructive, divisive and horrible. When we’re at our best we can change the course of the world with our will.

Pacific Rim is a movie about that is, thrillingly, upliftingly about that. And it also has giant mechs punching the shit out of giant monsters. This is what blockbuster movies should be.