As a kid, I always enjoyed the movies about giant monsters wreaking havoc on the world. I suppose in part my love of these monsters came out of my love for dinosaurs, and I just couldn’t get enough of them. Godzilla, Rodan, Gammera, King Kong- I just couldn’t resist watching any film featuring these creatures. Even some of my favorite TV shows from when I was a young child in the early 70s dealt with the same subject- shows like Ultraman, Space Giants, and Johnny Soko and his Flying Robot. For the longest time, these movies featured some cheesy special effects. Either they were guys in a rubber suit stomping around a set made of obvious miniatures (gotta love the wind up tanks and model jets in the old Godzilla movies), or they were done using stop motion photography, like in 1933’s King Kong (done by effects expert Willis O’Brien) or in any of the Ray Harryhausen movies (The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad). Since Jurassic Park burst on the scene with its CGI and animatronic dinosaurs in 1992, the effects have gotten increasingly better. Whether you cared for Roland Emmerich’s version of Godzilla in 1998 or not, visually it was a spectacular movie, with the big lizard smashing through Manhattan. Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005) took things further, making the monsters even more life-like. It’s these advances in special effects that now make these type of movies possible to grace the big screen once again, and it’s these visuals that director Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Labyrinth) uses to their full advantage in his new monster movie, Pacific Rim.
Pacific Rim is a movie that wears various influences on its sleeves from both anime and popular sci-fi flicks. The giant robots, called Jaegers, instantly remind one of the large mechs from anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion, and the kaiju (the term applied to the Japanese monster movies) easily evoke memories of Godzilla and Rodan. There are also homages to other sci-fi movies tossed in. Early on in the movie, a Jaeger pilot tells his co-pilot, “Don’t get cocky, kid!”, a direct reference to a line from 1977’s Star Wars. One of the kaiju spews acid, reminding one of the Xenomorphs from the Alien series. Even Independence Day gets a nod in a couple of the scenes. This is a movie made by a fanboy for fanboys, and its done in a spectacular fashion that entertains throughout its brisk 131 minute running time.
The movie opens with an explanation on how the world came to be in this state. A rift to another dimension has opened up in the Pacific Ocean, allowing the monsters called kaiju to come through to our world. To combat this menace, the international community comes together and creates the Jaeger program, a program consisting of a fleet of gigantic robots controlled by two pilots who link their minds together to better work in tandem during combat. Two of these pilots are Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam, from TV’s Sons of Anarchy) and his older brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff). During a particular brutal battle with a kaiju, Yancy is killed, and Raleigh pilots the Jaeger to the safety of a beach solo, a rare feat for a Jaeger pilot. Five years pass, and the world’s situation worsens. The UN decides the Jaeger program is no longer working, as it has suffered great losses, and decides to pull the plug, despite the arguments of the head of the program, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). Stacker takes his program underground, using its final days to make an attempt to seal the rift and end the kaiju threat. To do this, he needs Raleigh back as a pilot, but Raleigh is now among the many construction workers building a massive wall to keep the kaiju out of coastal cities. Stacker convinces him to return, and Raleigh even gets his old Jaeger back, which is nicknamed Gipsy Danger (in a brilliant bit of casting, del Toro cast actress Ellen McLain as the voice of the computer, a familiar role, as she did the voice of GLaDOS, the deranged computer in the videogames Portal and Portal 2). He gets as his co-pilot an untried rookie named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a Japanese girl who had been rescued years earlier and raised from a child by Stacker. The two prove to be compatible, and join in with a group that intends to finish off the kaiju invasion once and for all.
The movie is loaded with plenty of action sequences, but in between these scenes are some surprisingly tender moments. The relationship between Raleigh and Mako is well developed, and never devolves into the typical lovers facing incredible odds trope, instead just making them close friends. The scene of young Mako (played by Mana Ashida) running through rubble strewn streets while being pursued by one of the monsters is both thrilling and touching in the end when Stacker’s Jaeger appears on the scene. Some comic relief is provided by two scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) who are working to aid the Jaeger pilots in their fight, as well as by del Toro stalwart Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau (who tells Day’s character that he’s “named for my favorite historical figure and my favorite Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn”), a black market dealer in kaiju body parts.
But it’s the action you’ll come to the theater to see, and Pacific Rim provides that in spades. The battles between the kaiju and the Jaegers are thrilling to watch, and you can just feel it in your seat each time one of these forces lands a blow. There’s plenty of spectacular destruction rendered on screen here, as buildings topple and are shattered, and in one clever scene a Jaeger uses a large ship as a club to wield against one of the monsters. Battles out in the ocean are equally exciting, though here the effects suffer slightly from being obscured by large waves and driving sheets of rain. Add to that the fact that most of these battles occur at night, so you never get a fully clear view of the creatures, which are nicely varied. Overall, it’s a minor quibble, and the fights are all spectacularly staged and are thrilling to watch. The cast does a fine job here, though no one really gives an outstanding performance. Day and Gorman are very funny in their bickering back and forth, and Perlman plays his part well as the shady black marketeer. Elba gives a suitably rousing speech (“Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse!”) before the final mission, and Hunnam makes a suitable lead. Kikuchi’s Mako, while a likeable character, can come across as a little flat in spots, but she acquits herself well in a fight sequence with Hunnam to prove she should serve as his co-pilot. The screenplay by Travis Beacham and del Toro from a story by Beacham offers us no real surprises, but it does move things briskly along and manages to entertain the entire time. The score by Ramin Djawadi (who also scored Clash of the Titans) provides a suitable backdrop for the chaos and drama surrounding the conflict by giant beasts and machines.
Pacific Rim is a perfect popcorn movie. It requires little thought, and has no real surprises, but it is always entertaining to watch. The battles between the kaiju and the Jaegers unfold in thrilling fashion, and offer a visual treat for fans of the genre. If you’re a fan of giant monster movies, you owe it to yourself to hurry to your nearest cineplex and catch this on the big screen. Giant monsters? Fighting giant robots? That combination here works well, to give you a good time at the movies. Fans, don’t miss this one.
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