The great Jean-Luc Goddard once argued that the most effective way to criticize one film is to make another. If his words resonate with Guillermo del Toro, then it’s not far-fetched to see “Pacific Rim” as a subtle commentary on the failures of “Godzilla” and the “Transformer” franchise. Here we have a union of all the qualities that are noticeably lacking in mainstream Hollywood blockbusters, fueled by an ambition that channels enthusiasm for characters and narrative details above the high-octane action, and driven by visual effects that are a compliment to those traits rather than a distraction. This is not exactly surprising for a director’s whose credits list reads like a history of boundary-breaking genre pieces, but it is nonetheless pleasant in a climate of mainstream screenplays that read like a checklist of bland necessities required of the box office formula.
The plot pulls stimulating nuances out of the narrative blueprint. Following the initial invasion of the first wave of monsters – many of which look like reptilian children of Godzilla – world governments band together in order to fund the creation and building of weapons that can match the overwhelming power of the giant monsters. These machines – dubbed the “Jaegers” – look like the Transformers but are operated by humans, who are suspended in a virtual reality-like space within the helmets and manipulate their movements based on gestures and motion. Successful piloting, however, requires two people rather than one; anything less causes brain overloads that are nearly fatal. And if the two are to successfully execute the mechanics of these robots, the system requires them to be bonded to one another in what is referred to as a “mental handshake,” in which they share memories and seem to create a collective consciousness for the purpose of seamless integration into the Jaeger’s movements. Somehow, in context with the story, all of this makes sense.
The conflict isn’t nearly as straightforward as it sounds, though. The severity and power of the monsters progress with each new appearance, much like natural disasters (the movie even ranks them on a category scale similar to hurricanes). At the opening of the picture, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is piloting one such machine with his brother when the creature they are targeting recoils from a fight and then ambushes them with devastating results. Becket’s brother dies during the attack, and the machine is virtually destroyed. Years following the tragic turn of events, the “Mach” program, which built dozens of these machines, is asked by high ranking nations to disband the program entirely on the basis of its recent failures. This decision is met with immediate dismay from Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who has been a fixture of the program since its inception and sees the world’s latest attempt at subverting creature attacks – the creation of a giant wall surrounding the Pacific Ocean – as foolish and narrow-sighted.
By means of resistance, the program endures. After a five year absence from duty, Pentecost calls on Raleigh to rejoin the fight because of his skill in piloting an outdated model of the machines. Amidst the new assemblage of pilots is Mako (Rinko Kilkuchi), a potential co-pilot for Raleigh who seems to be dealing with her own tragedies at the hands of the Kaiju, and Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky), whose recent successes on a new model of the machine in Australia have given him the misplaced arrogance to question the skill of all around him, including Raleigh. Their assembling comes at the tipping point of the invasion, when scientists Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and Newton (Charlie Day) are predicting that the frequency to which the creatures come through the fissure will increase to a point that is beyond manageable for military operation. The solution: detonate a nuclear reactor in the neck of this portal in hopes that it will kill off the connection between both words, and the remainder of humanity can be spared from certain extermination.
All of this arrives with an array of skill and passion fueling the film’s direction. The Jaeger machines are each unique models that seem inspired by the cultural origins of their pilots (the Russians, for instance, operate a machine that looks distinctly medieval and, well, Russian-esque). The fight sequences are staged to effective measure, and the movie’s ability to maintain the rules of gravity in the presence of such massive scale devices is refreshing. The scientist characters are not necessary to the payoff of the picture, but are pleasant additions; the way they play off one another over absurd quirks and mannerisms is enlivening, and their banter is completely in synch with how such personalities might react in such a grave situation. The presence of a subplot involving a black market for Kaiju remains, meanwhile, is downright hilarious in the way it emphasizes society’s desire to exploit tragedy for financial gain (the mastermind of this operation, played by Ron Perlman, is so funny that I will resist even describing him in order to preserve the surprise).
The only drawback in all of this is del Toro’s inability to create satisfying main characters, many of whom are essentially required to be submissive for the sake of a plot going from one point to the next with minimal fuss. That makes it easier for the movie to arrive at a point of climax, but it doesn’t make the journey nearly as satisfying as it could be. Example: the Mako character, who is so clearly suffering from some inner turmoil as a result of this worldwide conflict, is given one scene in which the audience is offered a perspective into her past, but it is executed in such a brief passage that it barely scrapes the surface of what is possible. At least she actually gets a note of emphasis, I guess – unlike the Raleigh character, who is never even given a scene to grieve for his deceased brother, or the Marshall, who may be suffering from an illness that fuels his drive but reduces the explanation to a single sentence in the final act that is more insolent than it is revealing.
The movie is the first of del Toro’s since 2008’s “Hellboy 2,” which was in itself an abrasive bend in the standard of graphic novel adaptations. Prior, his credits included the imaginative but adult fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth,” the wonderful “Blade II” (a sequel that far surpassed its original), and “The Devil’s Backbone,” one of the most psychologically perplexing movies I had ever seen. With “Pacific Rim,” he arrives, finally, at the center of a trek that is reserved for only the most ambitious of visual directors, and it proves to be the ideal ground to experiment with something more insightful in between the inevitable display of loud and explosive action required of the blockbuster namesake. Audiences might be amazed at how dedicated they become in following the story progression, or pleased by the idea that they can recall characters by name rather than basic descriptors. In a club that consists of Michael Bay, Jerry Bruckheimer and the Emmerich brothers, del Toro’s approach suggests a unique enthusiasm for pictures seeped in technical wizardry and scale, and he exploits it to such thorough effect that the audience receives precisely what it hopes for: sheer and unflinching entertainment value. Think for a moment about when you last saw all of that out of the big Hollywood names, and you might be surprised.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Action/Sci-Fi (US); 2013; Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief language; Running Time: 131 Minutes
Charlie Hunnam: Raleigh Becket
Idris Elba: Marshall Stacker Pentecost
Rinko Kikuchi: Mako Mori
Charlie Day: Dr. Newton Geiszler
Burn Gorman: Gottlieb
Max Martini: Herc Hansen
Robert Kazinsky: Chuck Hansen
Ron Perlman: Hannibal Chau
Produced by Callum Greene, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent, Jillian Share Zaks and Thomas Tull; Directed by Guillermo del Toro; Written by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro