As a war between humankind and monstrous sea creatures wages on, a former pilot and a trainee are paired up to drive a seemingly obsolete special weapon in a desperate effort to save the world from the apocalypse.
It So Happened
It was February 2011 when I first heard talk of what would eventually become Pacific Rim. Director Guillermo del Toro talked about a secret project that would put his fledgling company, Mirada, on the map. At the time he shared this, he was only days away from beginning production on his adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At The Mountains of Madness. Mountains, itself a monster picture, was raring to go, but within a week of my meeting with del Toro the project was effectively dead. Unfortunate as it was that Mountains of Madness did not come to fruition, the opportunity to bring Pacific Rim to the screen would have been left in someone else’s hands. After seeing the film, it becomes clear that the project would have been a very different beast and dare I say a lesser one at that.
When you go to a del Toro made film you expect to be impressed by the visuals, that goes without saying (although I’ll say a bit about that in a moment), but with Pacific Rim — Guillermo brings a very strong sense of direction of the cast and the action that mixes elements from all his previous work and above all brings new sensibilities.
Of the movies he’s made before, Blade 2 is probably the closet comparison. Everything he experimented with on that film, from the character humor to the staging of action sequences. It’s finally come into its own here. This is most certainly his lightest toned picture. Not 15 minutes go by without some sort of light hearted character dialog and/or action. Charlie Day (Sunny in Philly) and Burn Gorman (Torchwood) are the most overt of the humor bringers. They play a pair of eccentric scientists with highly competitive streaks and whose constant bickering gives us the word-heavy forward momentum in story, as well as levity from the hard hitting action. del Toro mainstay, actor Ron Perlman plays a small yet integral role as a flamboyant opportunist in this brave new world of monsters and mecha who’s humor is visual more than anything. With his overbearing couture and even lowder dialog, it’s likely his role could be expanded in future films. Even the action scenes get a sprinkling of humorous moments as in the fight against the beastie they call Leatherback.
In addition to the amped up humor, del Toro has approached the action for the film in a most unorthodox way. What seems at first glance to be restricting turns out to be the best choice he could have made for the integrity of the action. Unlike what you’d expect in a movie with this much attention to giant creature detail, del Toro chose to shoot the action scenes as if from the POV of a man on street or traffic helicopter. Meaning no unrealistic camera moves or angles that could not otherwise be pulled off for real. In other words, what would it look like if a director were actually in a position to film this stuff for real…the result is a viewpoint on destruction that makes the heart pumping nature of the events that much more hard hitting.
There are several action sequences between mecha and Kaiju (the term used to describe this world’s monsters) and the decision to shoot the action as close to real as possible gives a strangely claustrophobic quality to the fights that marries well with the experience of the mecha pilots (called Rangers) who control the robotic vehicles (called Jaeger). Every crack from the kaiju is felt by the rangers and the audience gets a very good idea of the stakes placed on each pilot each time they set out after these beasts from another dimension. It’s a unique experience that was unlikely to have occured under any other directorship.
The main draw for a film of this sort is the visuals. In that category, rest assured that you will not be disappointed. ILM outdoes themselves again by bringing to virtual life nearly a dozen jaeger and kaiju designs from the fertile minds of del Toro maintays like Wayne Barlowe and Ty Ruben Ellingson. The jaeger designs are more Patlabor than Evangelion, but still manage to fuse elements that should make both fans happy. The creatures feel very Guillermo with their one too many eyes and limbs and their immediately recognizable skin folds. There is some fresh paint added though from new collaborators like David Meng and Guy Davis; with the latter being known for his work on the BPRD comic serials and the hopefully soon to be resurrected Mountains of Madness (his live action feature debut).
Lastly, it should be said that there are a lot of hidden surprises in the film. Unless you’ve been spoiling yourself on tv spots and behind the scenes footage ofcourse. Pacific Rim is a true culmination of everything Guillermo has worked on and aspired to do over his few years in Hollywood and he’s shown that he can manage a high budget (his biggest yet) just as well as he’s ever done. As expensive as films have gotten lately, he manages to make his look much larger than the nearest competitors and unlike the many overblown budgets masquerading as storytelling, you’ll have a heck of a time seeing this one, but still get your heart strings pulled.
It’s a true shame that American audiences have not yet discovered the film and a relief that everyone else has. We might yet get a sequel from this if it can succeed outside of these shores. I’ve no doubt that the Americas will eventually discover it on the small screen, but of any of del Toro’s prior work, this is the only one I would say was meant to be seen on the big screen. The bigger the better. It’s his first film available on Imax.
A grade for visual/special effects
B+ grade for storytelling
A grade for action
Overall A grade for a great time at the theater and the best stateside film from Guillermo del Toro, period.