Pacific Rim - King of the Monster Movies?
For more than half a century Godzilla has been King of the Kaiju, even defeating a towering recreation of King Kong in what was one of my favorite childhood movies.
But now director Guilmero Del Toro aims to change all that, not by supplanting Godzilla with a more memorable monster, but by making the monstrous mother-of-all Monster movie homages, Pacific Rim. In this hub I will review the film and analyze it more in-depth with my own thoughts on what worked and didn't work for me.
Let's start with a brief Spoiler Free review before we submerge any farther.
The Spoiler Free Part
Basically Pacific Rim is a homage to monster films and giant mech films, two sub-genres very near and dear to my heart. In the past most giant monster films have used practical effects including guys in rubber monster suits with cheap looking model cities. Despite the typically cheesy effects monster movies have always been among my favorites but now, with modern CGI and budgets for films typically exceeding 100 million there was really no reason to relegate such films to low-budget, but endearing, special effects.
So what we get from Pacific Rim is a special effects spectacle fleshing out the Kaiju (giant monsters) and the Jaegers (giant mechs) in the splendor of ultra-realistic CGI. As someone who loves practical effects to death (John Carpenters The Thing is my favorite horror film of all time) and someone who believes CGI is often overused (see: almost any scene in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, or Green Lantern) I can honestly say that the CGI in this film looks and feels perfect. The mechs, despite being CG, feel like they have weight, and the monsters are towering behemoths. Despite being almost completely computer generated the sense of scale and sheer size is definitely there and the fight scenes are as jaw-dropping as they are adrenaline pumping.
Giant mechs from all over the world defend humanity from the alien Kaiju, creatures coming from beneath the ocean to wreak havoc all over the world. The fights are epic and made the twelve year old child still dwelling inside me very very happy. It's safe to say that if this film had been released when I was twelve it would have changed my life permanently.
As for the story it's cliché even to the point of stupidity at times but it plays even its least clever characters with enough sincerity that it remains charmingly stupid. It's not Transformers variety of stupid, where the stupidity blends with cynicism, unlikeable characters and an open contempt for its own audience. Rather this film understands its target audience perfectly, Godzilla lovers, anime fans, and kids that grew up on Power Rangers will find this movie is a fantasy recreation of elements from all of those genres and creates its own interesting Universe with characters that, while lacking depth, don't lack heart.
All in all Pacific Rim is easily the biggest nerdgasm since The Avengers, in that its the sort of movie I've been waiting for all my life and never thought Hollywood could actually deliver. The sight of giant monsters in mechs in all their FX splendor battling it out through city streets brings me the same kind of child-like nerd pleasure as seeing Captain America break-up a fight between Iron Man and Thor. (PS fellow geeks, Portal's GlaDos voice DOES make the final cut of the film!).
Rim of Fire? Spoilers Ahead!
From here on out we'll be in a spoiler rich zone, so readers beware. Let's start by talking about some of the things I think the movie could have improved upon or done differently both from a story standpoint and, in the wake of its epic flop at the box office, a marketing stand point. We'll start with the title, PACIFIC RIM. Now personally I didn't care about the title, the trailer had sold me from the start that this was a movie I'd been waiting for my entire life. But to mainstream audiences the title says a lot when you're standing in a queue with a bunch of friends trying to decide what movie to see. The guy trying to drag his friends to Pacific Rim has to overcome the dull and uninformative title and when his friends are informed that its about fighting robots their likely going to have Transformers flashbacks.
This title tells you nothing about the film. Hell naming it Gypsy Danger, after the main mech in the film, would have been a better choice and that's not much more informative at all. But than, Cloverfield wasn't a very informative title either was it? Of course this film also didn't have a brilliant viral marketing campaign. That, I think, is another weakness. Rather than focus on bringing in mainstream audiences Pacific Rim seems to have targeted ONLY its own demographic. We monster movie fans were already going to see it. Drop the word Kaiju and I'm there, especially if Del Toro is involved as he's easily one of my favorite directors.
What the film needed to do is bring in the average movie goers as well and blasting the trailer over and over again doesn't always do that. People tend to make judgments about whether or not they are interested in the movie after they've seen the trailer once or twice and then after that they roll their eyes or sneer in disgust every time it plays on TV or before a youtube video and mumble, “Oh not THAT stupid movie again”. The only way to win them to your side is to recut your trailer into something that looks more palatable to the average assholes who rejected you the first time. Yet almost every cut of the Pacific Rim trailer I saw was essentially the same.
Homage and Cliche - The Star Wars Connection
Many of the critics of this film have pointed out the cliché plot details and character developments, the stereotypical characters and the fact that the foreign accents are pretty bad (Australians beware especially). However I would like to draw, in defense of the film, a comparison with the original 1977 Star Wars film.
There is no question that Star Wars is a great film. Not only is beloved the world over as one of the great works of science fiction but it is also equal parts fantasy (leading to symantec debates on the definition of Sci-Fi and Sci-Fantasy, and Space Opera for that matter). One thing Star Wars is not, however, is original and yet, despite this, its is original. Let me explain. The plot, characters and scenarios in Star Wars are almost all cliché or archetypal and yet these common elements are combined to form an original Universe that has expanded for decades with all signs that it will only keep expanding (under Disney now).
Think about it. We have a young warrior who wants to prove himself befriending a wise old Wizard and teaming up with an outlaw seeking to get rich. Together they storm a fortress where a beautiful Princess is being held captive by an evil black knight. The film has elements of Arthurian legend, World War 2 dog-fights, Kurosawa, and the Western genre and yet combines these into what one might call a near perfect balance.
Pacific Rim has equally cliched things going on in its own plot and just like with Star Wars we can see plot points coming from a mile away. Does anyone really believe Han Solo is going to abandon them after the time they've spent fighting and almost dying together? Again we can see the same thing in Pacific Rim. Does anyone really not see the two stereotypical scientists working together to solve the problem they failed to solve individually? Or that Gypsy Danger's recent Nuclear upgrade would come into play?
Now what I will admit is that some lines of the script are almost word for word stripped from Independence Day. Now Rolland Emmerich's film is itself a homage to alien invasion films right down to the War of the Worlds ending but at the very least Del Toro and his fellow screenwriter Travis Beachem could have changed the language a bit more. Instead we have several lines, and a scene, in the movie that mirrors Bill Pullman's telepathic contact with the autopsied alien in Independence Day pretty much exactly. (Probably the best parody of that scene since Muppets from Space.)
The ending of the film is also Independence Day-esque though it equally mirrors the ending to the Avengers. So if you're going to accuse Del Toro of stealing I suppose you have to include Joss Whedon as well.
Your First Steps into a Larger World
It truly is disappointing that this film did so poorly at the box office because, despite ending with the Kaiju portal being closed, the film could have spun off into a television program or any number of sequels/prequels/comic books/video games/anything. The film takes place at the tail end of an ongoing war against the Kaiju spanning years and years. We see only glimpses of the early days of the attacks and the early days of the Jaeger program are confined to some expository dialogue, a few images that flash before us and Mako's fragmented memory in the drift.
There's so much material that could be done here. There's no shortage of badass mechs that could be designed and no shortage of badass monsters either. Also, despite being well over two hours long the fight scenes are not excessive. To their credit Del Toro and company have avoided turning this movie into disaster-porn. Other than a very brief newsreel style shot of the Golden Gate Bridge being torn apart by a Kaiju the movie tends to avoid recognizable landmarks (at least recognizable to those of us in the US). The main action-sequence in the film, when two Kaiju attack at once, takes place not in New York or even Tokyo but in Hong Kong.
Del Toro and company do a great job of world building in the movie but only show us fleeting glimpses of what life is like during the Kaiju war. A news story about cowardly congressman out East wanting to put up a “Wall of Life” is interplayed with footage of the self-same wall getting broken through by a Kaiju with ease. In Hong Kong a dead Kaiju's bones have just become part of the cityscape and a black market trade of Kaiju parts has grown up. The point? LIFE GOES ON even when the shit hits the fan where so many other films would have pretended the world was a post-apocalypse of lawlessness.
There is plenty here to be used and admired. It is a larger world than what we are shown in the movie and a much longer war than what we get to see, like we are watching the highlight reel. This allows the fights to be meaningful and mind-bending without outstaying their welcome or becoming tiresome. And we don't have to worry about some dumbass human characters scurrying about under our protagonist's feet because unlike a Transformers film our heroes are in the robots. And unlike a Transformers film our heroes our likeable even if their characters lack the depth of real people. It's hard not to root for them as they head out bravely into battle. The film has positive things to say about humanity, the characters that change tend to change for the better, setting aside differences to get the job done.
There's so much more that could be mined from all this but thanks to under-performing at the box office Pacific Rim will likely pass into obscurity. Kinda reminds me of another excellent Del Toro film that got creamed at the box office.
For now though, box office bomb or not, Pacific Rim sits atop my throne as King of all giant monster movies... for now...