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The scale of this movie is in its own category.

I followed the production of Pacific Rim since I first heard about it. There’s probably no one who was more hyped for this movie than me. Pacific Rim wound up not being quite the slam dunk I wish it was, but it is a great ridiculous distillation of 80’s action movies, Saturday Morning cartoons, and corny ghetto anime. It’s the closest thing to a live action anime since Speed Racer. There’s no other movie quite like this, though, and that includes Speed Racer. But that doesn’t mean Pacific Rim always feels brand new. The story actually feels pretty familiar, maybe too familiar, and the plot is so basic and characterization so lean that there’s not much of the story that really differentiates itself from those familiar things. This may put off some people, but it should be noted that Pacific Rim is a movie aimed squarely at ten year olds, not jaded thirty year olds with enough pop culture awareness to chart every beat, reference, and quirk of of the movie. If you’re the type of person who enjoys that stuff, you’ll have a ball here. Guillermo Del Toro is the type of guy who enjoys that stuff, and so his movie is awash with it. It’s almost as prominent a feature as the film’s robust world-building (one of its strongest features). I’m sure Del Toro is the most responsible for the sheer level Pacific Rim reaches in that (blowing even District 9 out of the water), but writer Travis Beacham also deserves tons of credit.

Without splitting hairs too much, Pacific Rim is all about seeing some shit you haven’t seen in a movie before. Namely, watching gigantic mechs with human pilots do battle against sea monsters. That is exactly what you’re going to get. The story and characters exist to serve the initial hook or get the fuck out of the way. That introduces some problems, particularly a lack of story meat to chew on. The thinness of the story does not make it stupid, however. Everything functions perfectly well in spite of some rough edits and a few too many places where you really feel the absence of the three-hour cut that’s supposed to exist.

At its worst, Pacific Rim is a big corny cartoon that is another example of something I’ve talked about before: the cinematic equivalent of a big dopey dog that fucking loves you. This is a robotic dog painted up like an airshow plane, yes, but a dog all the same.

But at its best, it’s a spectacle unlike any other. This is big all over. Big subjects, big moments, and big clear images of staggering beauty.PACIFIC RIM

And big fucking monsters wrecking shit.

Pacific Rim opens with two definitions: Kaiju (Japanese for “giant beast”) and Jaeger (German for “hunter”) and these are the two most important words in the movie. Kaiju movies are a genre in and of themselves in Japan and popularized elsewhere by the Godzilla brand. Paying homage to that genre, and the subgenre where humans in giant robots battle monsters (it’s a thing), Pacific Rim is all about the fantastical premise that humans would set aside our differences to build giant humanoid robots to fight the Kaiju. Rather than just waving it away as a necessary contrivance, it is quickly established that battling Kaiju with conventional weapons takes days, creates immense collateral damage, and gets their toxic body fluids on everything. This is all shown to us with some connective voice over from Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), one of the heroes (it’s a bit of an ensemble) of the movie.

This is a heavy dose of rapid, rich world-building. By the time it moved into the movie proper, I was like “wait no, give me more” because they really did the work and mixed in the love and detail that makes for great world-building. Even the eccentric looks and attitudes of the Jaeger pilots is accounted for. During the first years of the Jaeger Program, it was so successful that humans weren’t afraid of the Kaiju and treated it like a spectator sport, making the Jaeger pilots into celebrities and action heroes (rockstars, as Raleigh calls them). Little details like this come at you fast and account for a lot of later stuff that might seem random otherwise. For instance, some people will see the Russian pilots and just roll their eyes but it makes sense, even while still being silly, given the “rockstar” chic the Jaeger program once enjoyed.

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It’s like a sequel to Rocky IV.

Guillermo Del Toro, who directs this with his usual gumption, is a supreme world-builder. Pacific Rim is full of his artistic sensibilities, from the design of the monsters to the detail I keep praising. It also has his quirky sense of humor and corny sentimentality. Del Toro likes big, broad heroism and broad strokes storytelling. But he’s also a guy who loves small character moments and there aren’t very many of them in Pacific Rim. Some critics are speculating that they cut all that stuff so that they could mesh a more marketable, familiar sort of story with the spectacle to make it all more palatable. Pacific Rim uses some specific terminology and concepts to great effect, but I could see how there’d be a concern about it. An early warning sign that Pacific Rim was going to be light on story, drama, and character development was in that the trailers all focused exclusively on the action (thereby familiarizing audiences with several of the biggest moments in the film before they ever got to see it) and danced around the who and why. I thought that they were just trying to sell the novelty of the premise and the spectacle front-end, with the story stuff taking a back seat in the marketing. I didn’t realize until about halfway through the movie that the story stuff takes a back seat altogether.

A big part of that is the anime influence. This is a story of broad strokes and cliches, writ large in fresh circumstances. For some people, the movie is just going to seem silly for no reason and they will inevitably say it was just poorly written or stupid. In fact, a smart script is an economical script where everything is present for a reason, even if it’s subtle, and all elements work together to reinforce one or more central themes and one or more key character arcs. Pacific Rim has all that. You’re given ample character motivation, though it’s executed in broad and spartan terms, and the theme of cooperation is reaffirmed throughout the movie and informed by the characters and their various personalities, desires, and conflicts. It’s just that it’s straightforward and uses cliches to court mass appeal. I stop short of saying shallow, because it isn’t (it’s too well constructed), but thin seems to fit well.

There’s a distinction between the structural nature of a script and the actual texture of dialogue, though. Pacific Rim‘s script isn’t the most structurally smart ever written, but it works well in its commitment to functionalism and servicing of the spectacle. That’s actually rare in big Hollywood movies these days. Take Man of Steel. That movie’s script is a mess, structurally speaking. The dialogue, though, is what people actually hear and it’s easy to get the impression that Pacific Rim is a dumb movie since the dialogue is often impressively silly. It’s intentional, though. Completely intentional. I’m not sure it always works, in fact I know there are many lines that just don’t, but on the whole it’s better for a movie to have flaws for a reason, instead of out of laziness or stupidity. It’s better to try for something and not quite get there than to hedge your bets (which you could argue they did with the other elements of the script). The anime feel of the dialogue (let alone the visual aspect) is obvious to people like me who grew up watching 80’s anime on 90’s TV. If you didn’t watch anime, Power Rangers might be close enough and not just for the obvious reasons.

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The Beckett brothers are strong in the Drift.

Hunnam’s voiceover intro serves to set up the moment when all the winning starts to go the other way. You could easily have a movie set in this universe that tells the story of the first Kaiju attacks, the first Jaegers, etc and it would be awesome. Pacific Rim is the story of what happens when a winning war turns out to be a war of attrition that humanity’s resources can only handle for so long.

Raleigh and his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff, who you might know from Homeland) are copilots of an American Jaeger called Gipsy Danger (not sure why they decided to spell “gypsy” that way). Yancy is the older and wiser one and Raleigh is the young and enthusiastic one. You get that out of them in twenty seconds of body language and banter, so I guess the characterization in the movie isn’t as stilted as I might have made it sound. Yancy dies in a Jaeger attack and Raleigh is traumatized due to their neural connection, a necessary element of piloting the Jaegers. One of the examples of the many concepts and terms this movie throws at the audience, “The Drift” is the shared headspace of Jaeger pilots as they work in tandem to pilot the machines. The idea is that they are too big and powerful to control alone, so a two-pilot system is created to make it all work. In one of its more obvious tributes to anime, Pacific Rim borrows the idea of “synchronization” from Neon Genesis Evangelion with the difference being that the synchronization happens between the pilots, not between a single pilot and a biomechanical giant robot. The mechs in Pacific Rim are just machines, after all, triumphs of human ingenuity and teamwork.

Teamwork is actually the core theme of Pacific Rim. Getting over our issues and differences to be brave and work together. It’s really as simple as that. The idea of two pilots forced to work together across the Drift reinforces that idea beautifully. In terms of its execution, you can certainly imagine a plethora of alternate set ups and possibilities. What if the copilots don’t like each other? Pacific Rim inspires twice the ideas that it shows us, and that’s the sort of thing that made Star Wars what it is.

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Though not all big movie stars, the cast has major geek cred.

After Yancy’s death and the trauma he endured feeling it through the Drift and being forced to pilot the Gipsy Danger alone (which is something that few can survive doing), Raleigh quits the program and goes roughneck, working for rations on a giant Coastal Wall. In the ensuing five years, the attacks escalate and the Kaiju get bigger, meaner, and more adapted to our tactics. What was once an army of 30+ colorful rockstar Jaegers and their eccentric, celebrity pilots has dwindled down to four machines and a handful of pilots. The UN funding for the program is being pulled and its commander told to stand down while Coastal Walls are erected as a last ditch effort to fend off the attacks. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) knows this won’t work with the same kind of gruff self-assuredness that commanders on the ground always seem to know better than the suits thousands of miles away. In one last ditch effort to do his job and prove the Jaeger program is still vital to human survival, he concocts a plan to close the portal once and for all.

To get it done, he recruits Raleigh. There’s not much hesitation, no “Resisting the Call” episode where Raleigh struggles with self-doubt vs. the man he was Destined to Be. Raleigh is a good guy and a born fighter pilot, and an unpredictable scrapper. The conflict doesn’t come from him resisting heroism, but from whether or not Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) can or should be a pilot. She’s got the more classic heroic arc, really, and a personal history with Stacker that makes him extremely reluctant to let her fulfill her dream and avenge her dead family. This is the type of thing I mean when I call this movie a Saturday morning cartoon. These motivations and conflicts are given just enough time and attention to keep you invested in the characters and the movie, but it can occasionally be a close call.

Mako, as a little girl, was caught in a devastating Kaiju attack on Tokyo. A younger Stacker killed the Kaiju with his Jaeger moments before it could gobble up little Mako (the little girl who plays her is expressive and awesome, by the way). In a great example of the simple, sentimental heroism of the movie, there’s a shot of Stacker emerging from his Jaeger with a bursting halo of yellow sunlight behind his smiling head. It’s a brilliantly cheesy moment, but inspiring the way classic heroic pin-ups and poses are supposed to be inspiring. It looks like the living version of a “Join the Jaeger Program and Fight for Humanity” recruitment posters that I’m sure are wearing away somewhere between the scenes of the movie. This is the kind of thing that makes or breaks the movie. It’s a movie that asks you to leave the cynicism at the door and enjoy yourself. By the time it happened, I had stopped expecting Pacific Rim to take itself seriously and begun to groove with its tone. This moment is a perfect example of that tone and it’s the kind of thing that will make little kids go apeshit but it also risks cringes from the jaded adults.

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Mako Mori is part of the ensemble, but gets the most character development.

Raleigh and Mako have great chemistry and have a lot of potential as a team. However, they also both have deep personal trauma that gets in the way. Mako’s especially causes her to fuck up their trial run and obliterate what little faith Stacker and the army of support personnel have in them. To say nothing of the other pilots, for whom Raleigh is already a pariah who represents the moment the Jaeger program went into decline. The drama that ensues isn’t especially deep or introspective, it’s more breezy and light-hearted and perfectly in keeping with the overall fluffiness of the movie’s tone. Their chemistry never fully coalesces into romance, because the movie maintains a nice ambiguity about whether theirs is a brother-sister bond or a potential romantic one. People watching the movie are going to come to their own conclusions about the earnest glances, the shy awkward body language, etc. But the movie doesn’t end with a kiss, but a relieved triumphant hug. The fact that Pacific Rim doesn’t shoehorn a romance is a nice touch. That you could get behind it if they had gone that route makes it even better.

The theme of teamwork and helping each other comes through most effectively in Raleigh’s mentor/partner relationship with Mako. She’s the one who’s unused to Drifting and needs the helping hand to achieve her full potential. It’s the kind of relationship, simple but elegant, that Pixar might write a story around. It’s only when they work together fully that their full potential gets unleashed, and they are able to do astonishing things.

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Del Toro said there’s a lot of Mexican wrestling in the fight choreography. I can see that.

The big action setpiece occurs a little ways into the second half of the movie, just after Mako blows the trial run. Stacker has to rely on them, reluctant as he is, once again and they get another (spectacular) shot at proving their the ones for the job. The theme of teamwork circles in again, with the Gipsy Danger the last Jaeger standing against a “double event”, the first time two Kaiju have attacked simultaneously.

People will talk about the “Hong Kong Sequence” for years to come, even if only to say it was the only good thing in the movie (they’ll be wrong, but whatever). It is seminal, astounding action spectacle. It’s an epic fight, and I don’t use those words lightly, beginning in the water and ending fifty-thousand feet in the air. The work done to bring these machines and monsters to life, and give them a realistic (as best as can be done, it’s not like this is a plausible movie) feel is leagues ahead of anything else and may be a benchmark for a long time yet. Ramin Djawadi’s work with Tom Morello on the theme also comes through full force during this sequence, underlying the muscular and spartan sensibility of the movie with complimentary music.

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It is, after all, about giant robots punching fucking monsters.

I’ve mentioned that Pacific Rim is more of an ensemble than your typical heroic narrative. While it’s true that this movie’s logline could be “former pilot comes back for one last job with a rookie copilot and his old commander”, the focus is spread too evenly among the various characters for Hunnam’s Raleigh Beckett to be much more than the anchor around which everything else flows. Everybody’s doing solid work, but there isn’t much in here that’s going to make you have some revelation about Charlie Hunnam’s talent. In fact, he’ll probably come out of this looking like a random leading man guy. Hunnam’s a major talent, but I guess we’ll have to stick with Sons of Anarchy to see it. For now.

Beyond the core trio of Hunnam, Elba, and Kikuchi, there are several actors playing secondary roles of varying importance. Most important are Newt (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman). They are supposed to be this semi-comic duo of odd couple scientists. It works sometimes, mostly when Day gets to mock Gottlieb’s intense and cringey self-importance. Gottlieb really feels like a Del Toro character, but I don’t think his stuff works as well as it should have. Day fares better, getting to channel a lot of the enthusiasm and excitement that Del Toro obviously feels toward the Kaiju. He’s a Kaiju enthusiast, Newt is. He has tattoos of them on his arms and knows more about their anatomy than anyone. He’s also the first to Drift with a Kaiju brain, a desperate attempt to find out more about them and why the Breach only goes one way. According to Del Toro, the sequel idea he and Beacham have revolves around the consequences of Newt’s interaction with the Kaiju brain. This is also hinted at in the movie, where it’s a possibility that the Kaiju attack Hong Kong specifically to get at Newt.

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The other Jaegers are super iconic.

Newt’s investigating takes him to Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), the most eccentric character in the movie by far. A flamboyantly dressed Kaiju “parts” dealer, Hannibal is there to enhance the stylized world of the movie while also reinforcing the reactive context society has developed toward its giant monster status quo. Hannibal is a character that perfectly encapsulates the sense of fun first, seriousness later sensibility that Pacific Rim is infused with. He is a very silly character but silly in all the right ways, a claim you can accurately make about the entire movie.

Turns out, this is super important to the overall plot of the movie and the key to Stacker’s plan to get a nuke through to strike back at whatever’s out there. Annoyingly, Pacific Rim does a bunch of expository telling (where it usually shows everything) about the “master” aliens that clone and grow the Kaiju as a way to wipe out civilizations they want to harvest. Sound familiar? It should. It’s the exact same premise as Independence Day and one of the very few places where Pacific Rim errs on the side of laziness. Oddly, having Charlie Day deliver all this exposition in a rushing, hysterical ramble seems like a sly acknowledgement that it isn’t all that important, it isn’t why we’re here, and who cares because JAEGERS AND KAIJUS.

But even Stacker’s plan echoes Independence Day perfectly. To be fair, other recent movies have done the same Trojan Horse thing. Oblivion and The Avengers both have basically the same endgame. Of course, quibbling about these movies sharing elements is small potatoes as long as they do it well. Pacific Rim does do it well and the climax of the film is great, if less amazing than the Hong Kong sequence where the spectacle truly peaks.

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Day’s shrieking, tweaker style mostly works for the movie.

It’s hard not to get caught up in the love and enthusiasm that went into the design of the movie. I would have liked a deeper story and maybe a second pass on some of that cornball dialogue, but ultimately that’s asking for a different movie than the one that got made. More than anything else, Pacific Rim is a movie that makes you want more. Whether it’s more amazing fights with giant monsters, more crazy pilots and their iconic mechs, it’s just about more of this world and setting. Pacific Rim is the perfect boilerplate for an entire universe of stories, ideas, and merchandising. I’m not sure if it will catch on the way it deserves to, but it’s got the potential to be sure.

It also serves as a nice light-hearted fantasy about coming together to fend off environmental disasters. There’s a stapled-on quasi-environmentalist message in the movie. During a particularly bad infodump, we hear that humans have basically terraformed the planet for the Kaijus’ overlords by wrecking the environment. This is just goofy, yes, but what really comes across well in Pacific Rim is how humans have to work together with ingenuity and a spirit of cooperation (instead of competition) to combat the big stuff like earthquakes, hurricanes, famine, etc. The Kaiju are a nice metaphor for the recent environmental disasters, and the movie acknowledges this when Raleigh tells the audience that being in a Jaeger feels like you can fight a hurricane and win.

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A hurricane is easy mode. Free-falling from 50,000 feet though? That’s what separates the pilots from the chassis scrubbers.

As a closing note, I want to return again to the tone of Pacific Rim. This is a cheerful, light-hearted movie in a sea of ironic detachment from the classic earnest sentimentality of Big Damn Heroics. This summer has been good to us, with even the mixed bags turning in some really great ideas and spectacle (Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness) but hampered by self-seriousness, short cuts, and overly convoluted plot lines. If I can connect Pacific Rim and the enthusiastic joy it inspires to any other movie so far (that isn’t an animated film), it would be Fast 6 which shares the same enthusiasm, simplicity, and love for you, the audience.

This is not a movie for cynical people. It completely ignores its own vulnerability to cynicism and just rolls out the corn because corn on the cob is goddamn delicious. There’s particular breed of self-avowed geek that will sit back in their chair and scoff at the “physics” of a science fiction fantasy movie with 100-foot tall robots fighting monsters from another dimension, but go home and play a board game where dragons and elves live in a cyberpunk dystopia or like Dr. Who which makes fun of its own tendency to throw up a middle finger at suspension of disbelief (hand-wavey timey-wimey). There’s a disconnect between being able to just enjoy a fantasy for what it is and trying to hold it up to some imagined standard of cherry-picked realism that only exists as a construct we call up when we don’t want to like something. I suspect that people like this are nursing wounded hearts from the large number of big spectacle movies that remind us of everything we love about the possibilities of science fiction and fantasy, but fail to deliver. It’s Star Wars Prequel Syndrome.

Pacific Rim is like Speed Racer in all the best ways. I never got to review Speed Racer but the power of that movie was near to mind when, about 20 minutes in, I realized what Pacific Rim is. If you let it, this movie will take you to a very special place of awe and jubilation.

And if anybody argues with me I’m just going to show them this:

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It’s practically Jubilation: The Movie.

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