Guillermo del Toro is a strange director – he’s capable of clever and disturbing arthouse films (Pan’s Labyrinth) and brainless mainstream blockbusters (see Blade II and Hellboy). In his interviews he comes across as absorbed by his work – he sees no distinction between mass-market films for the box office, and artsy films for himself – they’re all for himself. I think of him as someone possessed by a powerful artistic vision that sometimes comes out delicately, and sometimes clumsily – but it’s all the same in his fever-dream creativity.
Pacific Rim is a fascinating demonstration of del Toro’s indiscriminate attitude: he expresses his love for a typically silly, low-budget genre, and with his passion creates a film that looks like an action blockbuster, but is a serious artistic attempt. Despite the lineage and name/brand-recognition potential, del Toro deliberately eschews existing franchises – there’s no Godzilla or Gamera or Mothra lookalikes here – it’s all original material, original designs. Del Toro uses the obscure foreign term “kaijuu” and designed all the creatures to be compatible with being played by a man in a rubber suit (don’t worry, that’s not how they’re presented). He’s careful to evacuate the cities before battles in order to allow guilt-free monster versus robot pummeling. There’s a pile of backstory (most of a war, ammonia-silicon biology, neural link technology, the pollution of the planet, faltering political support, the slapdash use of nuclear technology) summarised to highlights in order to frame this story. I was surprised by how engaged I was by a serious attempt to develop an original world – not a comic book superhero, not an 80s television series, not a reboot of a decade-old movie.
The movie spotlights the epic kaijuu versus mecha battle-scenes, but there’s a surprising amount of human drama that surrounds it. The closest comparison for me is Real Steel – light, positive, and straightforward, but heartfelt enough to contextualise the spectacle and give it emotional weight. The standout performances for me were Idris Elba as the base Marshall, and Ashida Mana as the young Mako Mori). While I liked Kikuchi Rinko (and her peeking at the main character provoked many laughs), seeing such an innocent character in American media felt a bit out-of-place – though I appreciated the low-key romance. The wacky nerd duo provided some laughs, and I liked the background presence of the many support personnel necessary to maintain and repair the giant robots. Ron Perlman has a hilarious scene-stealing role as a larger-than-life “charlatan” black marketeer, and the voice of GLaDOS is the mecha AI.
The mecha, the kaijuu and the battles are spectacular – del Toro ably wields cinematic techniques (low angle shots, framing scenery, contrasts, detailed textures) to create a powerful sense of scale, and make the physicality tangible. Until other action movies that were over-CGI’d and had a floating, disconnected, unreal feel, Pacific Rim continually roots the action to make it comprehensible. There are some scenes (in the middle of a hurricane, in the deep sea) that lose that context and suffer for it, but del Toro’s insistence on physical sets (eg the 4-storey hydraulically manipulated cockpit sets for each of the mecha) over green-screens where possible, and playful attention to relative sizes (in one scene a punch goes into an office building, and is tracked from inside the building until it sets off an ornamental desktop Newton’s Cradle) shows his care of the issue.
Each robot and kaijuu is lovingly designed and has its own personality, though a few of them have an unfortunately short screentime. The battle tactics are varied and interesting, and with the high incidence of good guys getting hammered, I felt a sense of tension. However the 3D effects got in the way of following a couple of the scenes – despite never wanting to rewatch any movie, I’m sorely tempted to see Pacific Rim again in 2D. My theatre was packed to the brim, and there were cheers every time a robot cut apart a kaijuu.
I was impressed with del Toro’s intense vision of Hong Kong even without the robots and monsters – I got a really strong sense of the (fictionalised) city, in its rain-drenched, bustling, grimy, neon glory. Having characters running around in that setting while under attack was a great contrast.
Another thing to mention are the minor homages – the samurai poses, the rocket punch (in this case the slightly more realistic “elbow rocket”), the flurries of missiles, the glowing robot power source, and the light cautions on pollution.
So all up, I recommend Pacific Rim with the same feeling I recommend Real Steel – it’s a good-natured, enjoyable, spectacular action-movie with heart, love for the genre, and a desire to create original stories. As an adult I love it, and cannot imagine how awesome an 11-year-old would find it. (By the way, it’s nice to write a timely review for once… I have notes on several movies I watched months ago yet to be reviewed.)