Pacific Rim may well be Guillermo Del Toro’s worst film to date. Not having seen all his others I don’t feel qualified to judge. I can say this though. It’s a fuckload better than Transformers. Not that this is saying much, mind you. Pretty much the entirety of everything ever is better than Transformers, but given that both that and this are basically about giant things beating the crap out of each other, it bears mention here.
Kicking off with its simple premise and never straying too far into complexity thereafter, Pacific Rim is painting by numbers storytelling, and quite a few of the brushstrokes go outside the lines. The opening sequence is dedicated to a brief history of what’s going on. This film is about the end of the war (spoiler alert: we beat the evil aliens), not the beginning. So there are some nice shots of a jock-off monster invading San Francisco with the obligatory, did-the-bridge-survive-unscathed; no-of-course-not shot, a rush forward to humanity coming together in the face of a common threat to build the world’s biggest beat-em-ups, and then we’re informed that we were winning the war easily. Since this wouldn’t work for the film, something has to go wrong.
So we see our hero and his brother who both pilot the American Jaeger (Jaeger is the German word for ‘fuck-off big robot with plasma cannons and a sword’) notable mostly for being the blandest design in the film and for encouraging a whole generation of kids to misspell ‘gypsy’. They both pilot it because one person alone can’t handle it; the toll on the mind is too great. So of course we’ll later be treated to a scene where our hero pilots it alone, probably after some sort of emotional trauma, maybe like losing a brother.
The script is so straightforward, the only shock about this inevitable string of occurrences is that it happens so early, because big bro is killed off during the first fight and Hero Boy pilots the thing back to land. Then he disappears for five years. As you do.
The meat of our tale begins when Idris Elba’s Nick Fury character is told that despite the fact the Jaeger program has killed off every alien that’s come to Earth, it’s being shut down so we can build a wall around the Pacific Ocean (said Rim is where a wormhole lets them into our world). As everyone watching knows, this wall is doomed to failure, but thus far only Air Marshall John Luther is smart enough to see it.
On cue though, five minutes later the wall is breached and the Australian Jaeger beats the shit out of an alien. The good military man was right all along, and the silly politicians were wrong. Doesn’t quite explain why their decision wasn’t immediately reversed though. The shutdown still goes ahead despite the obvious risk to national safety. Wait… that reminds me of something…
Don’t try to read that much into Pacific Rim, because there’s nothing under the gloss. Hero Boy’s trepidation at getting back in the cockpit is due to the fact that the piloting software requires pilots to literally enter each other’s minds, so he felt what his brother felt as he died. This is forgotten in less time than it took me to write this paragraph.
When he agrees to come back, he needs a new co-pilot and we’re immediately aware that it will be Hot Chick despite Authority Figure saying no. This is due to very serious reasons as we can see from Elba’s stern expression, but which are forgotten just as quick as Hero’s traumas and he changes his mind for no discernable reason.
These serious problems are evident as when linking with the machine, Hot Girl has a nightmare and nearly kills everyone on the base. She’s suspended because this has clearly never happened before, hence the lack of a safe training environment where mass manslaughter would be impossible. It probably takes about ten minutes before this too is forgotten, and she’s back out there.
We’re introduced to other pilots and Jaegers as well who play nicely to the stereotypes. The Asians wear red and have a technologically advanced robot, the Russians are bleach-blonde-burly and have a massive hulk of antiquity and the Aussies look like they’d be more comfortable surfing in their slick machine. Each and every one of them may as well be wearing T-shirts that say ‘expendable’ on them.
There’s some forced competition between Hero and Aussie guy that wishes it was as emotionally complex as Maverick and Iceman, which ends up not so much being resolved after Hero saves Ausman’s life, but forgotten. Less, ‘you can be my wingman’ and more, ‘I know I walked in here for a reason but I’ve forgotten what it was…’
Meanwhile, Elba is revealed to have been a solo Jaeger pilot back in dem old days, by whom the great toll was paid. If he gets into the cockpit again, he tells Hero, he’ll die. We’re left to pretend to wonder for less than five minutes whether or not he’ll end up in the cockpit again, and only slightly longer before we find out he’ll ‘sacrifice’ himself to help save the day.
The amount of questions you could ask throughout are legion. How do these bipedal machines walk in water when the ocean bed is miles below? Why didn’t they just build bigger Jaegers when the aliens started getting too big to deal with? Why did the hero spend five years off the grid instead of reporting back in? Why did they have such a hard time finding him? Was no one tracking the giant robot he was in? Why did they shut down a functional defence plan in order to build a wall that even a kid could see wouldn’t work? Why didn’t they go back to the good plan straight away when said wall got knocked over? Why did the aliens chase after one man who melded with them, but not another who did it before him? What was Idris Elba doing with a little girl’s shoe for twenty years? How did hero’s girlfriend nearly kill everyone the first time she merged with the machine? Don’t they have safeties on these things? Doesn’t it defeat the purpose of a noble sacrifice if the character survives through a suicide mission?
It’d be easy to guess from the above that I hated it, but I didn’t. There’s always a place in my heart for big dumb fun, and it doesn’t get much bigger or dumber than giant robots versus giant monsters. It’s nice that it has nods to its spiritual predecessors; having the majority of the action take place in Godzilla’s Hong Kong rather than anywhere in the US is nice, and the special effects are great; there’s a real sense of weight to the machines that’s completely absent with Michael Bay’s juckin’ n’ jivin’ Transformers. It’s also nice that though Hero Boy is the clean cut American protagonist of old, his chums are international throughout, at least attempting to buck the ‘America saves the World™’ trend. The fight scenes are good (albeit not great) and it’s refreshing to see a film that makes no excuses for what it is and ditches practically all the fluff you’d otherwise see in a summer blockbuster of this type. The romance, tragedy, humour, backstory, politics and edifying are all as naught to fuck-off big robots belting fuck-off big monsters with fuck-off big fists. Pacific Rim is a solid 3-star film if you don’t look too closely at the details.
The moment you do though, you’re lost. I had to consciously fight to ignore the above and so enjoy myself. There were moments where I swear to God, I was actually saying the characters’ dialogue verbatim along with them, it was that predictable. It’s a phenomenally simple film, is too mainstream to be a cult classic and too average to be remembered, but it’s not that bad. There’s nothing wrong with big dumb fun. Trouble is, if you watch other summer sci-fi blockbusters like Star Trek or Independence Day, you’ll immediately be reminded that even big dumb fun can have charm and emotion. Pacific Rim has robots hitting monsters in the face. And they’re fuck-off big.