DISCLAIMER (skip if you don’t give a shit): I haven’t reviewed Guillermo Del Toro’s movies since 2004, when Drew McWeeny got him to write a blurb for a book I self-published (later used by Titan on my other books). I never met or e-mailed the guy but it was a harsh, self-imposed rule to avoid any perception of being easier on his movies because of that connection, or worse, actually doing that. But I decided I want to write about PACIFIC RIM anyway. Maybe it was just a 9 year rule.
Since I haven’t reviewed them all here’s where I stand on Del Toro: been a fan since MIMIC. BLADE 2 is my favorite, followed by the three Spanish language movies in reverse chronological order. I enjoy the HELLBOYs but don’t love ’em. The second one frustrated me because it has many flashes of brilliance but doesn’t all come together for me. I like the movies he produces, also.
* * *
After wasting years almost directing THE HOBBIT and not directing AT THE MOUNTAINS OF MADNESS, Guillermo Del Toro finally actually got something on film and released on Friday, and it’s also his first real big budget movie. The HELLBOYs were pricey for him and tried to compete with the big boys of summer, but this is the first time he’s been allowed to do one of these movies they do now where it’s so expensive that if it doesn’t do better than almost all movies do starting on day 1 then it’s considered a disaster.
So I look forward to his long career of doing smaller movies for now on. Sideshows instead of tentpoles. But hey, we all got something good out of it: a big, fun sci-fi epic inspired by the old Godzilla pictures and the Japanese animation with the people driving the giant robots. PACIFIC RIM takes place in a weirdly-not-supposed-to-be-that-far-off future where giant monsters have started to crawl out of a big hole in the ocean, waddle out and attack the cities. As you can imagine this is a pain in the ass, so all the nations had to start working together and come up with a plan, which was to build these giant robots called “Jaegers” (I don’t know how the Germans got naming rights). Each requires two hotshot pilots whose thoughts merge (it’s called “drifting” as a tribute to THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS 3) to control the thing, and they go out there and punch some monsters and shoot missiles and shit.
This story takes place at a time when the war against the monsters is not going so well, and our hero Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is washed up. The war turned 5 years ago when his Jaeger, Gipsy Danger, was defeated, and his brother/co-pilot didn’t survive. He’s doing the best paying dangerous job he can get in this world (working construction at the top of a monster-stopping wall in Alaska) when his old boss (Idris Elba) comes to recruit him for One Last Mission before the government shuts down the whole outdated Jaeger program.
Alot of the movie is a ROBOTJOX meets TOP GUN type story about these hotshots in the “Shatterdome” base in Hong Kong, feuding and trying to earn their spots in the robots and find their ideal partners. Meanwhile there are these two wacky comic relief scientist characters (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) bickering over competing theories about the rising number of monster attacks and what needs to be done about them. The plan is to try dumping a big ass bomb in “the Breach” that the monsters come out of, but Day’s character has an interesting idea for how to improve their chances (it involves dealing with a black market monster-organs dealer played by Del Toro’s DeNiro Ron Perlman).
There’s a cool underdog aspect where Raleigh is only involved because they want to throw every old piece of shit robot they have left at this mission, but then it turns out to have an unforeseen advantage just from being an older generation of robot. I wish they would’ve played it up in the designs, though. I get no idea looking at it that it’s supposed to be a different type of robots from the others. They’re all pretty cool robots, though. Not overly complicated like the Transformers and not as off-brand-toy looking as the Real Steels.
The idea of the robots requiring dual pilots seems kind of contrived at first, but it works because it forces these characters to learn to get along and use teamwork. The most interesting character is aspiring Robotjock Mako (Rinko Kikuchi from BABEL and SIDEWAYS [Japanese remake]), who has to prove herself to become Raleigh’s co-pilot, and overcome some hangups and what not. And there is a feeling that they could fall in love or whatever but it never really happens, so instead you just have this story about teamwork and partnership, and that’s pretty cool.
Max Martini from REDBELT is also in here, always good to see him. He plays Australian, causing me to think “Wait a minute, he wasn’t Australian all along, was he?” I was also a little confused because I somehow missed where they said he was his co-pilot’s dad. He doesn’t look that much older (turns out he’s 14 years older) and at one point I mistook some family bonding emotion for “oh shit, are they gonna kiss?” That’s how slow I am sometimes. Would’ve been kinda cool though. I never saw that in one of these movies before.
The main attraction is obviously the scenes where the robots fight the monsters, which are enjoyable and probly the best CGI giant monster and/or robot fights so far. There are lots of cool weapons hidden inside the robots, the monsters get chopped up, there are a couple good gags of things that get smashed or used as weapons. It’s the kind of thing I always enjoy.
My internetical colleagues have anointed this a landmark in my beloved category of the Big Summer Popcorn Movie. I’m not sure I’m as sold on it as them, at least on one viewing. I would put it more on the level of other movies I’ve enjoyed this summer than with TERMINATOR 2, JURASSIC PARK, DARK KNIGHT and stuff like that. Maybe it’s my high expectations. I was way more excited for Del Toro to do Toho than Tolkein or Lovecraft. Usually he does his own thing, he’s kind of a weird idiosyncratic arthouse horror director, and then sometimes he takes these stabs at injecting his freaky blood into something more pop. I know it’s his only for-hire movie (and PAN’S LABYRINTH is hard to top), but to me BLADE 2 is his best because it’s such a perfect marriage of his weird obsessions and unique talents with a ferociously entertaining mainstream type of movie. It’s a fun, badass, action-packed comic book horror movie but with his weird monsters, humor, groundbreaking practical/digital hybrid effects, and even an operatic kind of tragedy with the villains. Just an all time great movie. So when I know the guy that directed BLADE 2 is doing a big budget giant monster movie I figure that’s gotta be The Ultimate Giant Monster Movie.
Well, it’s a really good one, with a clever new presentation of the monsters and robots. But I’ve been around the block and I’ve seen some of the giant monster pictures and I believe this is missing alot of the qualities that I enjoy about the genre.
In a Godzilla picture, part of the fun is seeing the monster stomping through cities, swatting away jets, picking up tanks, eating trains, shit like that. That aspect is minimal in this movie because that would’ve happened a long time ago, before the robots.
I was bummed to read a piece calling this the most exciting summer movie since INDEPENDENCE DAY, because I consider that only to be a benchmark for the acceptance of poor quality summer movies, not an old classic to live up to. But one thing INDEPENDENCE DAY had that PACIFIC RIM doesn’t is the disaster movie fun of seeing the creatures wreck various recognizable parts of the world. PACIFIC RIM avoids that. One scene was supposed to be Seattle, but I didn’t spot any landmarks. In another a monster approaches the Sydney Opera House, but he lets it be. A lover of culture, maybe.
(I assume we’ll get some of that stuff in the upcoming GODZILLA movie, but I have some concerns that that one’s gonna go the “the original GOJIRA was about Hiroshima and Nagasaki so ours has to be about 9-11 and bum everybody out” route.)
In place of monster attacks we get monster vs. robot fights, which is better. But you know me, I got some complaints about the fight scenes. Don’t get me wrong – they are fun, and compared to the TRANSFORMERSes they’re clear as water. But I think they could’ve been clearer. In fact my biggest complaint of the movie by far is that all of the monster fights take place at night. Late in the movie it looks like the sun is finally coming up… and they immediately go underwater.
To make matters worse, it’s always raining. I appreciate that now they can add more detail than could be done with models and rubber suits, but you gotta know when to simplify things to make the image more powerful. For that matter, they coulda gotten to the city alot earlier. I know the Godzilla movies start out with fights in the water, but they shoulda watched some of those and remembered how boring it is and get to the good shit faster.
I’m almost done I swear but I can think of two other things that muddy up the fights a little. 1, the camera is always close to the monsters. This really shows how huge they are, so I get it, but if they occasionally pulled back to get both combatants in frame it would bring more impact to the moves. 2, because they got these humans inside the robots you never see more than a blow or two before they cut to the robot interior. There should be at least one fight where they trust the physicality of the robot to express that there are humans inside so the action can flow unbroken. We remember they’re in there, and it’s not like we can see much of their faces through their helmets anyway. Give us a continuous fight, in my opinion.
Now, this is gonna be considered heretical in some circles, and I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I gotta question Del Toro’s monsters in this one. They just aren’t distinctive enough in my opinion. They’re cool, they look like some of Gamera’s opponents, and I like ’em better than the SUPER 8 monster and stuff, but I definitely couldn’t pick ’em out in a lineup. Think about all the monsters from the Godzilla movies, and you might not know their names, but you could describe them: the giant white moth, the pterodactyl type thing, the three-headed gold dragon, the round guy with the spikey shell. PACIFIC RIM even says at the beginning that they’re all supposed to look different from each other, but for the most part (at least from pretty close, looking up, at night, in the rain) they’re hard to tell apart.
More importantly, the monsters are all mindless bad guys. In the best of this genre part of the fun is rooting for the monster. Godzilla and Gamera quickly turned into good guys protecting the humans or the earth from attacking monsters. Even when they’re attacking us though they have personality. Sometimes it’s funny that they’re angry, there’s a sense that we kinda deserve it, or at least that they don’t deserve it when they get killed at the end. There is a nobility to Godzilla, a respect for him as a unique animal. In the American version of GODZILLA 1985 the monster is the bad guy, but when he dies, violins play and Raymond Burr does a voiceover about how tragic it is. Most of the humans might see him as a monster, but the hero sees what the others don’t, and the solutions to their problems usually hinge on understanding the monster’s motives. He’s just trying to do this, so we have to do this.
This is why these monsters are so beloved, so it’s weird that Chief Monster Lover Del Toro makes his just be interchangeable, roaring punching bags. Where is the sensibility of HELLBOY II, where Hellboy kills the giant nature spirit and its corpse grows into beautiful plants and we’re like jeez Hellboy, whose side are you on, killing this guy? I guess that just doesn’t fit into the robot-monster-fighters concept, but that’s why I feel like there’s a missing dimension.
I actually thought Del Toro was gonna go another way with these PACIFIC RIM monsters. There’s that great concept of how the wacky kaiju expert guy Tokyo drifts with the monster brain, but they become connected so a monster comes after him. Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham (CLASH OF THE TITANS remake that only I liked) did what they wanted to do but man I would’ve loved it if it had a twist where the monster wasn’t trying to eat him, it had actually bonded with him and the scientist would (if not ride around on it and be its little friend, which would be the best option) have some control over it and make it fight the other monsters. This becomes a possibility again when the baby monster is born (my favorite scene). Plenty of opportunity for human-monster friendship. I know Harry and some of these guys can name off all the monsters, but I don’t believe they could’ve done that without studying trading cards. I think the movie itself could’ve established them better.
Some of the rave reviews have compared PACIFIC RIM to STAR WARS (never a good comparison to make, ’cause nothing lives up to it, it’s kinda like the reverse of making a Nazi analogy in a political argument). By that I think they mean it’s got this whole lived-in world with a history and mythology and worn out technology. And that’s cool, but imagine if STAR WARS started out with 5 minutes of montage of Luke telling you the whole history of the war and what X-wings and The Force and light sabers and Jedis are. I think it could’ve had more impact if they did follow the STAR WARS route and drop you into the world and explain all this shit through the story.
(And by the way, who is he narrating to? Why would he have to explain the last 15 years of regular every day life? How does he know we’re watching? I feel like even just using the images without the voiceover they could get most of that backstory across without it feeling like its taking an infodump on your lap.)
But these are all nitpicks, nothing seriously detrimental to my enjoyment. All I’m arguing is that it’s not THE BEST movie. It’s a good one, though. This might be the third movie this summer that I go to see a second time. And while I’ve just listed many reasons why I don’t think the movie transcends or tops its genre there is one very important aspect where it stands out: you don’t necessarily get bored of the human characters and just wait for the monsters to show up. I’m not gonna claim these are deep characters, but I do think their story is more involving than the humans in most giant monster movies, which are often just people in regular lab coats or military uniforms standing in labs or war rooms talking. Or reporters standing in a clearing somewhere watching the monster smash something in the distance.
With this in mind, I have decided to join the human team against the monsters. You shouldn’t have messed with us, monsters. Go back to whatever Breach you crawled out of before we robot you in the ass.
* * *
1. Oh shit, this is gonna start while Obama’s still in office? I don’t feel ready yet.
2. Am I crazy, or was RZA doing a British accent on that end credits song? Is he rapping as Idris Elba or something?
3. I like the international force. But if the second monster attacked Khabul why can’t we get a few Arabs in here?
4. We coulda used more of the Ivan Drago contingent too, they looked funny.
5. Man, I wish in the hole at the end the robot could’ve given ’em a taste of their own medicine, gone in and smashed some weird bug-alien buildings! Not because I thirst for revenge (an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind) but because I never seen any shit like that. To this day.
6. Since this is not a straightahead action movie I am not giving it an ACR, but it would be somewhere in the upper-mid-range. Closeup giant action, darkness, mild transformersism in climax only. No shakiness issues or Michael Bay type editing.
3D comments: I saw it in the fake 3D. It was not particularly bad or good 3D. Since the monsters and robots are all 3D models they look better than some converted 3D. It is possible that seeing it 2D could alleviate some of the problems with it taking place at night, but I doubt it would make that much of a difference.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.