So this summer has had more downs than ups in the big-blockbuster movie department. With several movies that weren’t “bad” but weren’t great either. It’s not that Pacific Rim is the best movie ever, it’s just that it’s so much better than any other movie this summer, it really outshines the competition. Put it up against last year’s line up of Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers or the previous summer’s Harry Potter Finale and it’s just “pretty good.” But in the backdrop of this year’s meager offerings it ranks easily as “AWESOME.”
The basic story is that giant Alien monsters have started coming through a portal in the floor of the pacific ocean. The monsters have been attacking major cities and to combat them humanity built giant robots called Jaegers (Yay-grrr, it’s German for hunter.) These giant robots have been mostly effective in fighting the monsters (which are called Kaiju) until the few years leading up to the main course of the plot wherein the monsters coming out of the portal have gotten much larger. It sounds like the plot of a sci-fi B-movie and in some ways it is, but there’s much more to it than that.
Now that I’ve thoroughly undersold it, let me build it up some. Pacific Rim has been often compared to the Transformers movies. But it is different in several key ways. The Transformers movies are about an annoying guy and his way-too-unbelievely-good-looking girlfriend and some robots were fighting too. Not sure which ones were fighting because they basically all look the same and between the camera shake and lens flares they all looked like an auto show in a blender. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the first one for the novelty of seeing a transformers movie. But after that, I was done, because I didn’t care about the characters. Really, comparing Pacific Rim to Transformers is like comparing apples to some fruit that was okay on the first bite, but after a while just got boring and confusing. I hate fruit that’s boring and confusing.
Even though the main character is a British guy with a bad fake American accent, and even though some of the dialogue is cheesy, even though the score sounds like the background music from an episode of Magnum PI, you can push that aside because you actually care about the characters. Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket. He looks a lot like Garrett Hedlund from Tron Legacy, who I assume wasn’t available, because he would’ve done a better job. But Idris Elba does a great job – it helps that he’s speaking in his native accent. Rinko Kikuchi is adorable, Charlie Day and Burn Gorman provide some good comic relief, and Max Martini is his usual kick-butt self.
So you probably just said “I don’t know any of those people.” And that’s because the movie is cast mainly with B-Listers. Ron Perlman shows up for a cameo role, but for the most part you’ve got a movie full of somewhat recognizable faces without too recognizable names. It was a good choice for Del Toro to not spend his money on the actors, but rather on production, which is very solid.
Guillermo Del Toro, the director, isn’t a house hold name either. He’s most known for his Spanish art film, Pan’s Labyrinth, which is probably the best film that I ever hated. In that picture he showed his prowess for introspectively crafting a plot that focuses on a few characters while something larger in scope is taking place around them. And while Pan’s Labyrinth has very little in common with Pacific Rim, you can see that same technique applied, making the scope seem both epic and personal at the same time.
This is accomplished because Pacific Rim is surprisingly original in the details of the plot. The Jaegers are operated by a neural interface so that the machine does what the pilot does. Early in the Jaeger Program they discovered that the neural load was too much; the Jagers were too large to be operated by one person so a two pilot system was implemented. One person is the left hemisphere, the other the right. This means that when the pilots are in the Jaeger they are synced in what they call “The Drift.” Which means that they can see each other’s minds – they’re memories, hopes, and fears are all open to their co-pilot. There are no secrets in the Drift. This is a powerful plot device. As pilots must be “Drift compatible” it becomes difficult for Raleigh to find a new copilot when his brother dies.
Perhaps the biggest way that the movie gets you to care about the characters in by simple editing. You’re constantly being reminded that these big robots are being piloted by humans that are fighting for their survival. And as we watch the pilots perform kung-fu movies in sync with each other, it’s an added bonus that we’re being treated to some cool CGI monster/robots fights. Because who doesn’t like to see an enormous ocean freighter swung like a baseball bat?
As a friend said afterwards “This is what little boys are imagining when they’re playing with their toys.” And it’s the truth. I think most guys will find that this movie awakens the “little boy” in them. With elements of Top Gun, Godzilla, Independence Day, and yes, Transformers, this movie is just nothing but good ‘ol summer fun.
I have to say I went into this film with low expectations, so I don’t want to raise yours unduly, but it definitely exceeded what I had in mind. From the plot, to the characters the entire thing is simply an enjoyable ride. I was expecting tedious, inscrutable fights, but I was surprised at how entertaining the entire thing is. So while this isn’t going to beat out The Avengers, I certainly think that it is worth seeing on the big screen. And in the category of movies about giant robots, this one wins best picture.