Pacific Rim didn’t change my life. It’s not Star Wars, Reservoir Dogs, Cloud Atlas, or another movie that has shaped the way I view cinema and, as a result, the world in general. It did not “blow my ass through the back of the theater”, nor am I even sure it’s the best big-budget film of the summer (I’m a big fan of both Iron Man 3 and Furious 6). Geek hyperbole rose my expectations for this one so high that there was no way it could fulfill the promises of all of that early praise. But the movie is pretty fucking awesome, nonetheless.
There’s been a lot of talk about how the advertising dropped the ball and made it seem “too Transformers-y” by focusing on the robots and not the humans. Well, inevitably, this is because that’s really where the interesting stuff is. I like this cast of characters; Charlie Hunnam is a solid hero, Rinko Kikuchi is both adorable and badass as his co-pilot, Charlie Day is a strong comic relief, Ron Perlman makes a huge impression with his black market smuggler, and Idris Elba rules all ass as the head cheese of the Jaeger (read: giant fucking robot) program. But none of this is brilliant characterization, just archetypes bolstered down by actors with genuine personality and charisma. We are introduced to Hunnam’s brother (played by Sgt. Brody’s army buddy/frenemy from Homeland) in the opening scene, and he’s such a fucking Goose character that we hope that Hunnam’s cocky-upstart schtick is just a red herring and he’s actually gonna play a part in the movie besides being a corpse. But I liked his death scene. Abrupt and potent. Helps that it’s the first legit death scene in the film.
Charlie Day’s character is a geeky scientist type, and he’s played broadly and cartoony, but it’s his know-it-all superior who’s the real screaming kaiju stereotype. That character is not nearly funny enough to warrant the over-the-top level of his performance, and that actor (Burn Gorman) really should’ve dialed it down a notch. Hunnam’s character spends most of his time dealing with his dead brother issues (there’s an interesting element of the “drift”, the mind-linking between two Jaeger co-pilots, and how it fucks with you when someone breaks mid-drift), and then bolstering Kikuchi’s confidence as a pilot. He’s basically a non-entity in the second half in the film; all the plot stuff is being motivated by Elba and Day at that point, and he’s just a grunt in a bio-suit. Hunnam has a Iceman-like rival whose dad is also a major character, and the two could have been easily cut out and no one would’ve cared, except for anyone who thinks that watching them suplex each other for no reason early on was crucial to their enjoyment of the film. Sometimes the corny archetypes work in a movie’s favor, sometimes they just seem like filler. I’d take half an hour more of the bleached-blonde Russian Jaeger pilots before I have to sit through faux-Iceman’s daddy defending his actions one more time.
For a movie that was touted to have the best action of anything ever, there’s an awful lot of goofy robot-to-monster punching and wrestling. I was into it for the most part, but it starts to get repetitive, especially considering that most of the fights occur off-land, in the water. The money shots, however, are all winners. We’re talkin’ rocket-powered punches, retractable swords, acid spurts, triple buzz-saws, and good, old-fashioned Mega Man-style plasma cannons. All gold. This is the kinda shit we wanted from your goddamn Transformers movies, Bay, not Shia LaBoef meets Black Hawk Down. The “battle for Hong Kong” is such a showstopper, that you figure there’s no fuckin’ way that the climax can top it. And it doesn’t. There’s a perfunctory sacrifice, and an inverted version of Iron Man’s heroic last move in The Avengers. But it still got me totally riled up. I love it when a nuke goes off at the ocean floor, and all the water gets blasted away for a brief second, leaving fish flopping around, before it comes rushing back.
The best thing I can say about this movie is how much greater it is as a whole than as the sum of its parts. Everything really does come together. The comedy may be too goofy sometimes, the action may occasionally suffer from being overly ambitious, and the tech is dealt with both too much and too little, but it all seems surprisingly human, rather than assembly-line manufactured.
One thing that is a no-bullshit home run in this movie? The use of Idris Elba. The 40-year-old actor is the General/C.O./authority figure of the film, a Jaeger vet who has links with both Hunnam and Kikuchi’s characters, but despite his improbably young age for someone in his position, he absolutely kills it in the role. That “canceling the apocalypse” bullshit is the tip of the iceberg. There’s a moment where Hunnam grabs Elba’s arm while he’s walking away, and for a brief second, you wonder whether this older, weathered guy is about to smack the piss out of this young hotshot. And Hunnam don’t look like no bitch; he’s got that Sons of Anarchy bulk on him now, and Lloyd the wannabe actor he is no longer. But there’s not a doubt in your mind that when Elba throws down, or gets his Jaeger suit back on, he’s a force to be reckoned with. He validates everything that the film puts out there in regards to the program’s relevance, the danger of the impending kaiju threat, and how much his subordinates respect him. This is how you use this guy.
There’s some really Guillermo Del Toro-y stuff in the movie involving Day and Perlman’s subplot of finding a fresh kaiju brain to amass data off of. There’s a shit-load of creature anatomy and fake science, giving GDT’s brain free reign to run wild with crazy set design and a mess of interesting-looking monster parts in jars. And Ron Perlman standing tall and making jokes, which is always great. Love that section, and it pads out the monster melees perfectly. This is a movie that could’ve been severely wounded by a Liv Tyler/Brooklyn Decker character on the ground missing our hero and crying while taking time away from the cool characters. Rinko Kikuchi is an excellent love interest. Between Babel, Brothers Bloom, and now this, she’s shown nothing but strong intuition and a great talent for silent expression. I’m fairly certain this movie will help her get cast more in American stuff.
This movie may have the most convincing digital effects I’ve ever seen. Ever. It may be because the bulk of it doesn’t include humans in the shot. But Avatar already looked kinda phony before they started lugging decidedly-human Sigourney around, exposing everything for how bizarre it all looked in a real-world context. Here it’s mostly massive, Cloverfield-y creatures and giant fucking robots, and they do that Godzilla slo-mo thing where even the creatures are moving a little slower than they probably would in real-time, just for effect. But all the tech and stuff that control room operator Clifton Collins, Jr. fucks with is totally convincing, not just snippets from a layman’s wish list like some of Tony Stark’s magic, talking, holographic interfaces. This makes something as recent as World War Z look like the original TRON; there’s not ONE shot that is obviously, readily apparent as CGI in the whole flick. I have to applaud ILM, as well as GDT for exhibiting some crazy knowledge as to what his FX people could be expected to perfectly render.
You know what, you all should see this movie. You can’t see Grown-Ups 2 over this, unless you have young daughters who are really girly and love Adam Sandler. I’d imagine it’d be hard to say no to them girls. Or if you’re going out with a girl who thinks it looks corny and you think backing it up will blow the date. Otherwise I can’t see any excuse. They really had a marketing challenge here though; it’s an untested property, and it’s got an ensemble cast with no real stars in it. And it’s far from perfect, despite what some have enthusiastically proclaimed. But it’s awesome, and could be Del Toro’s calling card for years to come. I still prefer Blade 2, though, but only because Wesley Snipes in shades cracking wise and killing vampires with kung fu and magic weaponry is more my cup of tea than a perfectly realized kaiju flick.