Pacific Rim

Whatever I have to say to praise or criticize it, I have to admit that Guillermo del Toro’s Sino-American nerd-pleaser Pacific Rim is no Star Wars. Star Wars was just the biggest thing on the planet for months, whereas Pacific Rim never even cracked the #1 spot in the box-office rankings. [Yes, I’m still sour, whyever do you ask?]

And anyway, Star Wars’ gigantic success was due to a dozen unrepeatable factors, not the least of which was that there was jack-all else in theaters at the time – the #2 spot at the box office in 1977 went Smokey and the Bandit. A decent movie, I guess, and one which definitely had some cultural impact, but definitely not anything close to George Lucas’ genre-defying and genre-defining space opera.

But in many respects, Pacific Rim is cut from the same cloth as the third-most popular film of all time (numbers one and two should be obvious). Both are very personal and childlike pieces, almost autobiographical in their obvious inspiration from the writer-director’s childhood favorites from Japanese and American entertainment. They both have a simple and direct narrative arc, with a minimum of plot or character development, and an emphasis on relationships between the characters driving the action.

But despite those similarities, one question must be asked: Does Pacific Rim succeed in capturing the same sense of wonder that Star Wars did? Well, not as well, but it’s still there, which is rare for a movie like this. Let’s discuss this in the recap.

As is the custom for modern alien invasion movies, we start with a news montage. Instead of the generic “It was a nice day, but then aliens invaded, and that’s really been harshin’ everybody’s grooves lately”, there’s some real effort put into world building. There are certain shots which are only onscreen for a couple of seconds, but go a long way toward suggesting the fact that the movie takes place in a real world filled with living people.

Sadly, most of the movie’s characters don’t bear this out.

After the montage ends, we learn what these living people have gotten up to: Since the invading aliens are huge and reptilian, the best way to fight B-movie villains is with B-movie heroes. And thus we’re introduced to the Jaeger Program, whereby two intimately bonded people use that bond to pilot a giant robot with which to fight off the alien monsters.

We’re introduced to two of these pilots: All-American brothers Yancy and Philip Fry. Their clean-cut looks and broad Midwestern accents help the WWII-esque aesthetic that permeates the entirety of the film: They sleep in bunks, share fighter-pilot banter and lingo, and they’re even given bomber jackets for their dangerous and chilly journey…down a corridor to put on robot-control suits.

While they suit up, let me say for a moment how much I love this core concept, of teamwork and friendship being necessary to power the giant robots. This is a dramatic device you don’t see often – the emotional arc of our heroes being literally tied to the action rather than simple cause and effect – and I wish it was used a lot more. This idea has to carry the entire dramatic throughline of the film, and it’s not quite up to the task, but its qualified success shows how effective it can be.

“Neural Handshake” is a dumb name for it, though. How about just “the Uplink” or “the Convergence”?

Anyway, we see this concept start to be used in interesting ways almost immediately: The brothers manage to defeat one of the giant monsters, but not before it rips one of the brothers out of the robots’ command module, leaving the other with a permanently scarred psyche. Now, that’s just a sentence, but it doesn’t really communicate the scope of the fights: Minutes upon minutes of giant robots vs. giant monsters, usually surrounded by water and bright lights. It’s powerful, it’s visceral, it’s epic…and thanks to the editing, it’s very hard to actually see for most of the time. It also straddles the line on my litmus test for “Smart action” – the action is varied and imaginative, but it’s also relatively slow-paced, which means that the fighting occasionally becomes rote, but it usually manages to snap out of it quickly.

Anyway, Philip Fry (the surviving brother) manages to pilot his robot for long enough to limp back to shore. Five years later, though, we see him in the depths of despair. The government has deemed the Jaeger Program ineffective and ill-conceived (which makes a lot of sense if you think about it for a few minutes), and wants to replace it with a make-work project that amounts to building a giant wall (which doesn’t make a lot of sense if you think about it at all). We can see this when another monster attacks the wall and shatters it in minutes – meaning a Jaeger piloted by some arrogant Kiwis has to stop it.

Okay, fine. You get one shaky-cam sequence in your movie, if you pass it off as news footage. But I’m drawing a line, del Toro! You got that? A line!

This plunges Philip into despair, because the government has stubbornly insisted on building the wall even though they know it’s useless. It’s a little bit of Verhoevian political satire, but it doesn’t really mesh with the completely sincere and idealistic tone of the film, so it feels out of place.

But it serves its purpose in the story well: It introduces Phillip to Gen. Idris Elba, commander of the Jaeger Program. Considering the huge drop in population that comes with the territory of a giant monster invasion, it’s pretty safe to say that he’s now the most dashing man on the face of the earth. He looks supremely cool and in control whether he’s wearing a topcoat and tie instead of a dress uniform, downing foreshadowing flavored Altoids like nobody’s business, or just catching the light right so he looks like Mr. T.

Man, remember Mr. T? He’s one of the few 80’s icons to not make a comeback in the last few years.

As Gen. Elba takes Philip on a trans-Pacific helicopter flight (?), he exposits. The government has shut down the Jaeger Program, but that just means they’ve cut all the funding, and they still have some resources they can call on. The Jaeger program now consists of a converted Navy bunker in Hong Kong, four robots, and their retinues of pilots, mechanics and technicians.

This gives me an opportunity to talk about another parallel with Star Wars: the visual aesthetic. Not only is there lots of background world-building to suggest that the story is a part of a larger universe, but everything has a subtly weather-beaten, old-school look to it to show that this world has been around for a long time.

All this business right here. I like all this business right here.

A problem with this sequence, though, is that it’s at cross purposes with itself. Dramatically, it’s the “HQ reveal” sequence, where the hero is introduced to their allies and the rules of their world – memorable examples of this are in Men In Black, X-Men, and The Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone. It’s supposed to show the hero becoming a part of something bigger, and supposed to saturate the audience with a sense of wonder. The problem with having that sequence here is that in the context of the story, we’re looking for the exact opposite reaction: That this is humanity’s last, desperate hope.

This is not desperate. This is wonderful.

But the scene also serves to introduce us to our hero’s allies. First off is Mako Hatsune, the program’s premier technician, who has dreams of being a Jaeger pilot but doesn’t have the experience or temperament. Now, I’ve seen Neon Genesis Evangelion (which I insist on rhyming with “dandelion”), so I get that she’s the Rei Romano figure, and thus has to be emotionally detached and indefinably powerful. But that just doesn’t come across here, so the actress doesn’t really put anything into her lines, making the character monotone and uninteresting.

Not much better is our comic relief: Two buddy-movie scientists – the older and conservative scientist, played by the Whoniverse’s second-biggest sex maniac, Burn Gorman (who’s pretending to be about 30 years older than he is), and the younger risk-taking scientist played by Charlie Day. They’re straight out of a WWII movie, frantically writing equations on chalkboards and reenacting the age-old America vs. England rivalry. They’re not important until their B-plot starts up later, so let’s leave them for now.

No, seriously. Burn is barely a year older than Charlie, but everyone in the movie acts like he’s supposed to be wrinkled and silver-haired.

You see, the central relationship is supposed to be between Philip and Mako, but the nature of that relationship is never made clear. Since del Toro is obviously a diehard s-f’n’f fan, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he really doesn’t want to have a romance plot in the movie, but the formulaic nature of the story has forced his hand. The problem is that even making that allowance, exactly who the two people are to each other isn’t clear at any point in the story, which doesn’t work in a movie as basic as this.

But this murky relationship is the focal point of the film, and so we see them do some training exercises with each other. After various tests and simulated battles they see that they’re perfect matches and would be ideal for tandem robot piloting. General Elba overrules them exactly three times, but he finally relents so he can appear in the bathroom mirror after someone else calls for him three times.

The two finally get to try out piloting a giant robot, and it turns out General Elba may have been right all along: Because Mako is so inexperienced at piloting, she messes up the Convergence and ends up trapped in her worst memory: Being a little girl in (Tokyo? Shanghai? San Francisco’s Chinatown?), and having to run away from a rampaging monster. This is an effective change of pace, and helps to keep the monsters as formidable and scary enemies. The only problem I have with it is that the spell is broken by Philip, who has been transposed into the memory and stands around gawking at things like his time-displaced namesake.

“Hey, a girl! Boy, she doesn’t look happy! D’aawww, I wanna make her smile!”

Because of this mishap, all Jaeger-ing has to be put on hold for a while, so the B-plot scientists can have a moment in the sun. The “younger” scientist has a hare-brained scheme (which, according to Clarke’s lesser-known first and second laws, can’t fail) to recreate the Uplink and use it on one of the monsters, so he’ll be able to learn exactly why and how they’re destroying everything. The “older” scientist is skeptical, though, saying that they should worry about the fact that all the projections report that multiple monsters will soon start attacking in tandem.

The younger one ignores this and does a test run of his experiments, which only succeeds in making his eyes bloodshot for some reason and giving him vague impressions of needing to find out more. He takes this to General Elba, who recommends going to the black market, where dead monster parts have become the near-future equivalent of blue meth.

So the scientists head to the dark underbelly of Hong Kong – and in this case, it’s a literal underbelly, being a community built around the enormous bones of a dead monster. Again, this is the sort of thing I wish would take up more of the movie, instead of the sanitized Evangelion stuff (not that I’m complaining – Evangelion was in dire need of sanitization).

Anyway, in the near future Asian slums, no one’s escaping untouched by Blade Runner references. And so, they meet the Mr. Tyrell figure: Ron Perlman the robot-organ kingpin. I would say he steals every scene he’s in, if not for the fact that they’re all specifically designed to show him off, so it’s more like he accepts every scene presented to him on a silver platter.

“You wanna know how I got these scars?”

He can only do the intimidating growly man act for so long, though (which was a real problem in his previous collaborations with Mr. del Toro), and so while he monologues to the scientists, the predicted two monsters attack the city.

General Elba is far too awesome to regret not listening to the scientists, immediately putting three of his four Jaegers on duty to battle the robots, leaving only Philip, Mako and their Jaeger in reserve. Unfortunately, since the Jaegers have been learning more and more about our defenses over the course of the film, this one somehow can let out an EMP blast that disables the three robots, and rips two of them to shreds, leaving only the ‘Strine pilots (remember them?) to stand around looking dumb.

Fortunately, Philip has a solution: You see, because of his old-school Jaeger’s more basic design, it can withstand EMP blasts and have a fighting chance against both monsters. General Elba agrees instantly, and soon we’re having the sprawling, fifteen-minute dust-up that forms the film’s centerpiece.

The music here is pretty wallpaper, so put in your own favorite fight theme here.

It’s pretty good. The action is as varied as it gets as the monsters and robots show off all their different capabilities, and the fighting moves from the ocean to the Hong Kong streets to the skies. And it’s balanced with good character drama too, since Philip and Mako are constantly receiving orders and advice from General Elba. The fight can get a bit too schlocky for some people, but it never feels its length and it stays fresh…a lot like the movie as a whole.

Eventually, Philip, Mako and their robot triumph, but the final monster collapses right in front of Ron Perlman and the scientists. It barely manages to gobble up Ron before it succumbs to its injuries, in a really baffling attempt at a jump-scare. I will admit that this is a sound concept – the character will get old pretty fast, so it’s best to take him out of the movie after a few scenes – but he should have gotten a more satisfying death than a random fear moment.

Back at the Jaeger hangar, General Elba congratulates Philip and Mako on their success, but Philip confronts him on his unwillingness to let Mako pilot a robot. He then talks about the part of Mako’s worst memory that we didn’t see: After she was scared and ran away from the monster, a Jaeger piloted by General Elba came and defeated the monster, whereupon he adopted Mako as a daughter.

It’s sort of weird how everyone’s talking about “The Mako Test” when Mako herself doesn’t pass it.

General Elba takes another Altoid, showing that all the robot fighting also gave him fatal radiation poisoning, which is why he doesn’t want his daughter going down the same path. and… you know what, let’s just stop the recap for a sec. I haven’t done a lot of actual review in this, and the reason for that is because there’s not much to say.

If I had to pick one word to describe del Toro’s body of work, it would be “competent”. The Hellboy movies never really got huge, but both have a very competently constructed story. As for Pan’s Labyrinth, it very competently alters the plot of an old children’s movie to make a serious point. And this movie very competently balances the action and character drama to inspre all the feelings a movie is supposed to.

But the reason I only call it “competent” is because it doesn’t really stand out as anything special or particularly memorable, even in this, his most stunning and flashy film to date (and that’s counting the one with the eyeless giant).

Ironically, the movie was least popular among the blind.

Anyway, back to the movie. General Elba admits how overprotective he’s been, and decides to share everything with Mako. His plan all along has been to pilot a Jaeger by himself through the wormhole in the bottom of the ocean, where all the monsters are coming from. Then he’ll explode the robot’s nuclear reactor, killing himself and closing up the wormhole (Yeah, you knew this movie would involve nukes sooner or later). However, he hasn’t been able to put this plan into practice because the scientist still haven’t worked out how to get back through the wormhole yet.

Meanwhile those scientists are at the last monster’s corpse, uneaten. Since there’s still activity in the brain of the monster, they now have the perfect opportunity to interface and discover exactly what’s going on. The scientists finally stop bantering and arguing to say some dumb and predictable stuff about the value of teamwork, before they both get an electric shock in the brain for their stupidity.

One of them should have said “Nothing can stop me now!”

They immediately realize what’s going on: The monsters are all clones sent by evil, ancient aliens from the other side of the wormhole. They’re the standard Independence Day model of aliens – locust mentality, suggestions of a hive mind, were on Earth millions of years ago and now want to raze the planet – except for the fact that they look like Legion from Mass Effect.

They rush back to the Jaeger control center, where they encounter some bad news: General Elba has already put the plan in motion, having sent himself, Philip, Mako, and one of the ‘Strines (remember them?) to pilot the last two Jaegers to fight off three monsters. They manage to relay their findings just in time – i.e. just before a trippy underwater final battle. General Elba and the ‘Strine (remember him?) sacrifice themselves to dispatch the last of the monsters, and Philip and Mako go through the wormhole thanks to the scientists.

On the other side, they discover a strange, aquatic world, filled with strange buildings, an orangey sun, and lots of the Legion aliens. Philip and Mako set their robot to detonate and escape, in a very Alien-style sequence, before the wormhole closes, they emerge triumphant, and have a very deliberate thing which is not a final kiss.

A mind-meld, perhaps? Has all that robot piloting given them telepathy?

The world is saved, everyone cheers, and the credits roll, but the movie still isn’t over yet. You see, there’s a reason for this year-later gimmick of mine. If I had given my opinion immediately after seeing the movie in the theater, it would have been much more positive than it is now, because Pacific Rim had that rarest of story beats in a sci-fi blockbuster: an unequivocal ending.

At the end, it’s clear that the entire monster menace is supposed to be over; humanity has won its war, at the cost of most of the main characters’ lives. I was happy that del Toro knew when to walk away, saying “This changed the world of the movie, and everything after that wasn’t as interesting”.

But less than a month after the movie came out…

This crap goes for you as well, “The Lego Movie 2”.

They just blew it here. Star Wars had a complete ending too, but it still left enough open for more stories – it was obvious that destroying the Death Star didn’t destroy the Empire, and that Darth Vader was still around to cause trouble for the Rebellion. Here, though, it just didn’t make any sense to end this story by completely defeating the enemy, only for that to double-back on itself when the movie became popular.

This really worsens the film’s standing to me, but I still have to admit it’s got some wonderful visuals and is altogether completely competent.

 

TWO THUMBS UP: Visual design, the teamwork concept

THUMBS UP: The action, the actors we’ve heard of before

THUMBS DOWN: Mako Hatsune, the self-contradictory plot beats

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The existence of a sequel

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