IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 131 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
When a rift appears in the Pacific Ocean, huge monsters called the Kaiju are unleashed, destroying many cities and killing millions. The nations of the world put aside their differences to develop Jaegers, giant robots operated by two pilots through a mental bond known as “the drift” because the task is too great for one mind alone. Seven years into ‘the Kaiju war’, Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket loses his brother and co-pilot in a confrontation with a Kaiju and spends the following five years working on the futile construction of a giant protective wall on the western US seaboard. When his Marshall shows up asking for his help, Becket finds himself paired up with a new co-pilot, Mako Mori, a young woman with a troubled past….
When was the last time you felt like cheering in a film? The last time you felt like standing up and crying out: “hell yeah”!? The last time you felt like a kid again, full of awe and wonder? It’s certainly been a long time for me. The latest film from the great Guillermo Del Toro did that for me, and should be able to do that for any viewer who is able to simply sit back and be entertained. In some ways Pacific Rim is a bit of an anomaly at the moment, which may go some way to explaining why it doesn’t seem to be the huge hit it should be, though it’s doing better commercially than many predicted. Though of course there are films which have a lighter tone, the tendency at the moment with big blockbuster action movies seems to be to make them dark and serious. Except for the odd scene, Pacific Rim doesn’t try at all to be this way, nor is it full of the gently mocking tone that served The Avengers so well.
It has a curious innocence about it, a childlike simplicity which I think serves its subject well but may have cost it at the box office, though we do live in sad times where audiences seem hesitant to spend their hard-earned cash on something they are not familiar with. Saying that, Warner’s odd marketing, which should have been aimed far more at kids, especially young boys, clearly hasn’t helped. If I was a twelve year old boy I would probably think that Pacific Rim is the best film ever made [where the hell are the toys?], and so would most twelve year old boys. I’m no longer a twelve year old boy myself, so I’m not going to say it’s the best film ever made, and probably not even the best film this year. I doubt I’ll be entertained quite so much though. I’m going to see it again, and that’s something I rarely do when films are now released for home viewing very quickly.
Though I could not help but get excited at the prospect of seeing Pacific Rim, there were times I felt very apprehensive about it. Pacific Rim is not really ‘Guillermo saw the Transformers movies and felt he could do better’ [though he does do a lot better, and this is coming from someone who enjoys the Transformers films as guilty pleasures], though it’s clearly aware of those films. It’s a tribute to the Japanese films and TV series that thrilled the director as a kid, though it also seems to borrow from the Godzilla films of the 90’s and after where they constantly seem to be building machines including robots like Mechagodzilla and Moguera to defeat Godzilla and his monster pals, as well as I think anime like Neon Geneses Evangelion. Now if you’re a regular visitor to this website you will know from the series of reviews of Godzilla and other Toho Studios films posted on here that Yours Truly is an enormous fan of exactly the same things that Del Toro’s film is inspired by. And he has done them proud. He’s done this not just by tributes like calling the monsters Kaijus, having something called the Serizawa scale [Serizawa being the hero of the very first Godzilla film] and what looked like to me near-recreations of certain moments in films like The War Of The Gargantuas. He’s also done it by recreating the energy, imagination and “wow” feeling as well as a certain sincerity which is felt by many to be outdated in our times.
Of course, when it all comes down to it, this really isn’t much more than giant robots fighting giant monsters. But, if done well enough, that’s all you should need for two hours worth of escapist fun. We open with a concise explanation of the set-up, and we have a bit of Shakycam here amidst the flashes of incidents that we witness, but it’s very brief. Then we get a major action scene where a boat is threatened by a Kaiju, and a Jaeger comes to save the day. The ensuring battle is full of close-ups, and one of my major bugbears in action scenes these days is the over-use of close-ups, but every now again we pull back to let you see things properly, especially effective in certain “wow” moments dotted throughout the film where the camera pulls back and, for instance, we can see that a Jaeger has picked up a fucking ship to use as a weapon. In any case, I’ll forgive the opening fight, because successive action scenes mix the close-ups and long shots perfectly, and the camera doesn’t shake about. You can see what’s happening. This might sound like a strange thing to say, but many filmmakers at the moment have adopted the perverse notion of not showing you action properly. Shakycam is used a lot in films presumably because it is thought that it gives a feeling of gritty realism, but it actually does nothing of the kind, unless you’re Paul Greengrass, and most directors aren’t. It’s perhaps a little disappointing that all the fights are at night, but I think this was because the budget may not have allowed for lots of day time action [it’s much cheaper and easier to do CGI against a dark background[.
After all this action we slow down for the next third or so, and I must admit that the dialogue could have used a polish, it sounds a bit like Michael Bay dialogue, but here as in elsewhere Pacific Rim avoids glorifying the military or violence. It even has a bit of Ishiro Honda [the director of most of the best Toho Studios science fiction movies]’s favourite theme of word unity, as well as just a touch of an environmentalist message in there. The subplots are cliched [but that’s part of the point] and most of the cast like Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Diego Klattenhoff and others seem to just be playing variants on TV roles, but they do this well enough. The human characters in films like this don’t need to be totally rounded. They just need to be likeable enough to carry through till the next bit set piece, and actually Burn Gorman and Charlie Day are immense fun as feuding scientists without the film resorting to the distasteful humour that let down the Transformers pictures, while hit or not I’ll be very surprised if the [absolutely stunning] Rinko Kikuchi doesn’t get more major roles from this film. And of course the great Ron Perlman soon turns up to dominate the screen even when he’s not doing anything.
Kikuchi’s character Mako Mari is given two flashbacks which are borderline scary and give the proceedings some real sense of danger, though I was most pleased that Del Toro, as with most of the films that inspired him, shows people evacuating a city before the destruction begins. He enticingly toys with the audience. Throughout the first half, we are shown short bits of monster rampaging, a few flashes here and there, building up the excitement until Hong Kong is threatened and we are treated to simply awesome spectacle. As a Godzilla fan, I was in heaven, because I felt like I was watching a ‘proper’ Hollywood version of a Godzilla film. Jaw-dropping shot follows jaw-dropping shot, and the special effects, bar the odd bit, are superb. No 90’s videogame-quality shots of buildings floating into the air as they are destroyed in this movie, unlike a certain other film involving mass destruction that is still in cinemas. The cutting is fast enough to help make the sequence incredibly thrilling but stil lets you see stuff.
Both the robots and the monsters are cleverly designed and thought through, and often shot with great beauty. This film certainly doesn’t stint on the visual aspect. There are some shots inside the main base of the robot Gypsy Danger from Del Toro’s usual cinematographer Guillermo Navarro which are gorgeous compositions of various colours. In the end, this film may be simplistic compared to usual Del Toro and certainly doesn’t approach the masterpiece that is Pan’s Labyrinth, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been crafted with care and love. There is a great moment when one of the monsters suddenly shows an ability he previously didn’t have. In any other film, this may not have worked, but in this one it perfectly epitomises the childlike sense of wonder and is one of the coolest moments in cinema so far this year.
The climax is maybe a little disappointing because what went before it is so great, and it almost seems like a weirder version of the climax to Independence Day, but the biggest flaw of the movie is Ramin Djawadi’s score. One of Hans Zimmer’s many disciples who are all trained to score films the same way, Djawadi’s music doesn’t ruin the film, but doesn’t help it either. Just think how hearing a rousing march when the Jaegers go into action would have lifted the film. Still, it could have been worse. Zimmer himself could have scored it. In any case, for the most part Pacific Rim is a treat for those with a bit of imagination. It successfully remains true to the ethos of films like Destroy All Monsters and TV shows like Ultraman while modernising it all with state of the art special effects and more sophisticated filmmaking skill and artistry. It is dedicated to two heroes of Del Toro’s who are also heroes of mine: Ishiro Honda and the late Ray Harryhausen. They would have been proud.