by Matt Smith
Guillermo Del Toro’s giant-scale monster movie Pacific Rim is a glut of big ideas and dazzling technical wizardry. It may be a mash-up of many different films, television shows, manga and anime from the past forty years or so, but it combines them in a way that reinvigorates the summer blockbuster and provides a filmgoing experience I can honestly say I have never had before. Sure, I’ve seen monster movies, and I have similar life-impacting memories of seeing Batman and Jurassic Park in the theater, but neither of those films were like this. In its sense of scale, the constant procession of big, new, bold ideas, and its bright, candy-colored visuals, Pacific Rim is a thrilling experience that I cannot wait to have again.
In the near future, a fissure opens in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that allows interdimensional creatures known as Kaiju (Japanese for “giant monsters”) to enter our world. We are told that the first Kaiju through the portal took an inordinate amount of military power to take down, so the world’s militaries began developing the Jaeger program. Jaegers are giant human piloted robots sent in to battle the Kaiju. The human pilot connects via the drift, which combines his or her (and their co-pilots) consciousness to the machine, utilizing their specific fighting abilities and various life experiences to make them a better Jaeger pilot.
The film begins with an extended cold open that sees hot shot brothers Raleigh and Yancey Becket (Charlie Hunnam and Diego Klattenhoff) combating a Kaiju in their Jaeger, the atomic core powered Gipsy Danger. In this encounter, Yancey dies when the Jaeger is ripped apart, and Raleigh leaves the program with horrific shared-consciousness visions of his brother’s horrific death. As time passes, more and more Kaiju come crashing through the portal and the human defense systems, including the Jaeger program, begin failing. Humanity is on its last legs.
Cut to seven years later, and the Jaeger program has been de-funded and is now privately operated out of Hong Kong by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who has been the head of the program for quite some time. Pentecost approaches Raleigh, now working construction on a wall being built to prevent the Kaiju from making landfall, and asks him to come back and pilot a Jaeger. When it becomes evident that the wall will not stop the monsters’ attacks, Raleigh joins up with rookie pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who has a traumatic past of her own to enact a master plan to close the portal for good.
There are a few subplots in the works, the most enjoyable of which is Dr. Newton Geiszler’s (Charlie Day) quest to enter the drift with a Kaiju brain and see if he can uncover their secrets. This adventure takes him into the city of Hong Kong to see a gangster named Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) who oversees a vast black market operation that procures and sales pieces of the defeated Kaiju. Geiszler goes to Chau to gain access to a fresh Kaiju brain in order to conduct his experiments and almost gets killed in the process. All of this is infused with a fair amount of humor to provide levity for the film’s action, which is nearly non-stop, and Day is a performer who, along with Perlman, really makes this story line shine.
The special effects can make or break a picture like this, and they really are terrific in Pacific Rim. A combination of CGI (a LOT of it) and live-action, we are given a visual extravaganza. It is some of the best work Industrial Light and Magic has ever produced. And Del Toro and longtime cinematographer Guillermo Navarro capture the live-action elements to perfectly complement all the pomp and bluster of the computer created imagery. Released theatrically in 3D and in IMAX, the film really does use every square inch of possible screen space to tell its story. And furthermore, the digital compression looks absolutely fantastic. Seriously, for doubters of digital projection (myself sometimes counted among them), go see this in IMAX 3D and gaze in wonder at the clarity of color definition and depth of field. It’s a marvelous technological achievement for effects-driven storytelling.
There were entire chunks of this movie during which my mouth was literally agape. Watching gigantic robots beat the ever-loving crap out of giant monsters is a pastime I have enjoyed since childhood and the battles here are excellent. The main set piece begins as a throwdown between two Kaiju and Jaegers from China and Russia. Both of the Kaiju handily take down the Chinese bot, while the older Mach 1 model from Russia wails on them nonstop before being split in two and both of its pilots killed. Before a third Jaeger can help, this one Australian, one of the Kaiju unveil an evolved electromagnetic pulse attack that cripples it, which forces the untested duo of Raleigh and Mako into action.
Gipsy Danger hits the ground running, slaying one of the Kaiju in the bay before it can make landfall. The other comes at Gipsy Danger fast, tossing it toward land, where it crashes into bridges and buildings and wreaks general havoc in a truly epic battle with the evolved monster. Gipsy Danger’s antiquated nuclear core (as opposed to the digital processors which drive the other, newer models of Jaeger) means the EMP powers of the Kaiju can’t harm it in any way, and the only thing that will end this fight is when one of the giants falls.
This battle, which lasts a solid twenty minutes (if not more, I wasn’t looking at my watch or anything), sees a city destroyed, and features some nice visual flourishes and jokes. Gipsy Danger’s hand enters the side of an office building, tunneling through office after office before gently tapping a desk and setting off a click-clack desk ornament. There’s a move called a “rocket punch” which initiates on the inside of the Jaeger with a shot of Raleigh and Mako, pulls out and around to the back of the machine’s elbow to show an engine ignite, and culminates in the crushing blow dealt directly to the monster’s face. It is literally awesome.
The film provides far too much I could go on and on about. But I won’t. I’m going to stop myself before giving away everything. The design work on this film is amazing, the action is intense, and more than anything the movie is flat-out fun. How this film still hasn’t found a theatrical audience in the United States is far beyond my comprehension.
There’s nothing that can compare to this. Not anything this summer, not last summer. Okay, maybe The Avengers hit as close for me, but this feels better. If I have to stretch all the way back to Jurassic Park for the last time something made such an impact, that says something, I think. Pacific Rim is everything one could possibly want in a summer blockbuster. This is not to say that it won’t disappoint some audience members, or that it won’t piss off hardcore Kaiju or mecha fans (I’ve heard rumblings that Neon Genesis: Evangelion fans have hated it), nor is it perfect. It certainly has some flaws. But I didn’t care about them while watching, and I don’t particularly care about it now. And it should eventually find a wide audience, and hopefully it will do that in IMAX. I rarely endorse a specific format, but for Pacific Rim, trust me, you’ll want to see it on as big a screen as possible.
5 out of 5 stars