Pacific Rim is one of the very few original screenplay based big blockbusters this summer. Naturally this means it’s not actually a particularly original film, drawing heavily from old Japanese giant monster movies and ‘mecha’ anime, but it’s committed to putting a new world on screen and that’s something to be admired.
So while Pacific Rim is not an adaptation or a sequel, it almost positions itself as such, and that’s greatly to the film’s benefit. So many established properties making it to the big screen feel they have to begin with the origin story, meaning that we’re either going to have to wait until halfway through to get where we know we’re heading or even worse, wait for a sequel. It’s not a fundamentally flawed concept – see Batman Begins for evidence to the contrary – but if you spend the whole first film setting up for a payoff that will come in a later instalment, and then financial failure scraps that possibility, the original film will be left feeling like a bit of a waste. I’m not so sure even Batman Begins would be held in such high regard now had there been no follow ups.
Pacific Rim on the other hand, feels almost as if it could be the final chapter in a trilogy. The film’s being sold entirely on the spectacle of giant monsters battling giant robots, we all know that’s coming. A more conventional narrative would probably setup the characters for a while then about 20 minutes in have the first ever monster appear and chronicle everyone’s reactions to it. Pacific Rim gives us this first monster within 30 seconds of opening. Its prologue perfectly establishes the world in which it takes place, portraying the destruction the monsters (“Kaiju”) cause, the ultimate attempt to fight back by building giant robotic craft with duel pilots (“Jaegers”), the subsequent events and consequences leading up to the present day, 6 years after the first attack. You can call opening voice-over a lazy screenwriting device all you want but it’s surely effective here. Like I said, it’s a good two movies worth of set-up compressed into a brief vignette. Hollywood – take note.
I’ve never felt Guillermo Del Toro was fully deserving of the golden reputation he now holds, which seemed to be based entirely on one of his films (the sublime Pan’s Labyrinth) rather than his whole oeuvre, which includes nonsense like Mimic. He’s clearly a man with vision and talent though, the kind of filmmaker who should be entrusted with a massive budget. But don’t be confused, this is not an art film. It’s deeply silly, the characters are clichéd and the dialogue frequently poor. It’s primarily built around action set-pieces, but in that department, it does pay off.
Del Toro really makes you feel the scale involved here, these things are all gigantic. Transformers might have put everyone off the idea of giant robot battles but Del Toro shows what can be done when they’re handled better.
A more apt comparison point for Pacific Rim would be Independence Day, a film I really enjoyed as a kid. They share a number of strengths – effects, alien invasion, spectacle, scale, some plot points I won’t go into, but also weaknesses – the aforementioned silliness and dialogue etc. Where Pacific Rim has it beat though (along with many other disaster films) is that it’s international. Here, ‘the world’ does not mean ‘The USA’. There are jaeger pilots from many different countries; destruction is witnessed in numerous non-US locations and indeed, the primary setting for the film in Hong Kong. I may have tired of large-scale city destruction recently but it is nice to see it take place somewhere that isn’t (or at least doesn’t resemble) New York.
The film does try and extend some of this international representation to its casting too, with major roles given to Idris Elba – using his natural London accent, and Rinko Kikuchi. As nice as that might be, the film is not the shining beacon to diversity it could have been, it still has to focus around a bland, conventionally handsome, young white American male, and bar Kikuchi, I think there’s only one other woman in the film who has maybe 2 lines. Two other leads are supposed to be Australians but are played by non-Australians with dodgy accents. None of the main characters are all that interesting though, and even the usually great Elba is hardly at his best here. Two grating comic relief ‘wacky scientist’ types are also featured but the only really good performance comes from Del Toro regular Ron Perlman in an extended cameo.
Still, what the film is really about is the monsters, the mecha, and the battles, and it frames itself to feature 3 big ones at the beginning, middle, and end, and none disappoint. It’s a huge, (in every sense) but honestly heartfelt and caringly designed entertainment extravaganza, which aims and succeeds to make you feel like a kid again, and even with its flaws, that’s no bad thing. Pacific Rim could be enjoyable for all age groups but I’m pretty sure that if I were an 8-12 year old boy I’d be absolutely raving about it.