(Update: As a special note, a good buddy of mine has published his own review of this film on his website.)
Pacific Rim is a robots-versus-monsters masterpiece that’s more than just a special-effects blockbuster. With surprisingly effective characterization and no-detail-spared production values from start to finish, this is a movie that succeeds at more or less everything it sets out to do, which was far more than I’d expected a movie in this genre to even attempt.
Canceling the apocalypse
A startlingly powerful opening tells the story of the Kaiju, gigantic beasts who emerge from an underwater rift to wreak colossal amounts of havoc on coastal cities (with believable cinematic presentation that evokes real-life natural disasters and wouldn’t look out of place in a newscast), and of the Jaegers (from the German word for hunters), enormous robots commissioned as man’s primary line of defense. The Kaiju aren’t invincible, as an exciting scene involving fighter pilots and Jaegers shows us … but man grows cocky, and the Kaiju learn.
They quickly become a respectable and formidable villain, sweeping through not only defenseless cities but also the Jaegers themselves, making the commission program lose credibility almost as quickly as it loses pilots. Jaegers are controlled by creating mental bridges with their pilots, and the overwhelming, potentially fatal stress of one person acting as pilot, means that two (sometimes but not often more) must share the duties of commanding their giant robots. In other words, if a pair of individuals can’t get along, they can’t stay synchronized, and their fighting ability suffers. The catch is that these mental bridges are a two-way connection–they also give each pilot access to the memories, hopes, and particularly fears of the other, setting the stage for a bunch of extremely quick but very well done flashbacks that do a great job of developing a number of characters, sometimes without even having dialogue.
It is here that Pacific Rim innovates by telling a story where personal development and cooperation are not simple assets so much as life-and-death needs; any viewer who’s ever seen a giant-robot story where the pilots tended to come with various personal issues and tragic backstories will find a film that acts as something of a deconstruction of that concept without becoming too complicated. If a person has so much stress on his mind, the question is not simply, “Can he fight?” but, “Can he work together with others?”
To fight monsters …
After the Jaegers start falling, one of the humans’ few remaining ideas is to build a giant wall, and it doesn’t take a history student to see when and how that will go wrong. Needless to say, that plan doesn’t last very long, but it serves as a necessary background detail for one of the Jaeger pilots, still recovering from experiencing the horrors of war firsthand. That pilot turned construction worker, Raleigh Becket, is neither a perfect hero nor an idiot, knowing what it feels like to lose those close to him in combat, as well as what it means to keep from making foolish decisions either in the name of cowardice or bravado. (He and the movie around him seem like they’ve watched more than a few monster movies of their own.)
The Kaiju, by this point, have crushed nearly all of humanity’s massed defenses, and if you think one “hotshot” pilot will be nearly enough on his own to turn the tide, you’ll want to think again. Man’s arrogance got him into this situation (this is a setting where reducing giant monsters to toys, understandably in light of the circumstances, are a sign of hubris), and while Raleigh is more than just some immature teenager who simply needs a bit of slapping together in order to function as part of a team, he and his fellows have some growing up to do, not just for their own sakes but for everyone else’s. The Kaiju themselves have a believable motive–not necessarily justified but still “understandable”–for their rage against humanity. They’re not just mindless beasts, and they’re smart enough to work in small groups just as the pilots do. (The group size scaling throughout the film is gentle, but the result is that the Kaiju feel smart enough to be a more than reasonable threat without being utterly unstoppable–that, or coming across as weak, in the slim case that man finds a way to wipe out several Kaiju at once.)
The pacing of the battles and of the rest of the film is spectacular, as the movie makes plenty of time throughout in order to showcase its central giant-robot fights without ever making the vital character development or the simple yet wonderfully executed plot feel neglected by comparison. The story values the viewer’s time, keeping random joke scenes to a minimum, and viewers who came to see this movie for the sake of as many special effects as they can handle will have every reason to be pleased. This is not a film that saves all its good tricks for the end, nor is this a film that reserves the bulk of its action for one area and the bulk of its characterization for another (one of the few issues I had with Marvel’s otherwise spectacular Avengers film), as it’s more than capable of juggling the two elements and displaying them almost alongside each other.
Go big or go extinct.
There is not a single section of this film where its budget, surely quite high, ever feels misused or underutilized. Pretty much every single scene and environment in this movie looks amazing, from a crowded, rain-drenched, and utterly enticing Hong Kong (did I see a dead Kaiju’s ribs used as decoration?), to an incredibly detailed Jaeger hangar that brings to mind memories of the Rebel hangar in the first Star Wars film. Even the mess hall is nicely built, just one example of many where the story doesn’t cut corners or special effects in order to save money, even when the current focus of a scene happens to be on the humans. Plus, all that food looks delicious. Crucially the Jaegers and the Kaiju both look convincing, and the Kaiju designs are especially amazing, with particular praise belonging to a sort of land shark and to an especially awesome creature that deserves to be left unspoiled. Again, you’ll usually be seeing several members on both sides at once in a battle, and handicap matches in the Kaiju’s favor are awesome yet painful to watch.
The soundtrack is also incredible throughout, with Ramin Djawadi (yep, Game of Thrones) delivering a wonderful variety of pieces that know when to evoke emotion and when to let go of it all and rock. This music easily at least matches the quality of Steve Jablonsky’s wonderful Transformers score, even as the vocal songs in the end credits weren’t my cup of tea, though they weren’t Djawadi’s work to begin with. The audio itself more than makes up for the occasionally silly but sincerely delivered dialogue, as the explosions, punches, and monster roars are every bit as amazing as I could have asked them to be without quite damaging my hearing.
But even as this film excels in its many sights and sounds, the movie’s most special moments are its truly human touches, such as when Raleigh and a prospective copilot wind up in conflict, thus endangering their ability to synchronize their behaviors and cooperate. Or when another promising individual works to develop strong yet professional bonds, even as her unproven abilities and emotional responses to past events are something of a liability that she too must overcome. Or when another set of character interactions becomes an unlikely yet touching sort of familial relationship. Without spoiling who precisely is involved, one of the film’s most powerful and heartbreaking moments is a flashback of one of the characters to childhood, wherein the young child cries at the sight of a ruined city–and of the Kaiju who created it and isn’t done. I shudder to think what had to be done to get the child actor to cry so well, but that’s just another of this film’s emotional strengths: Pacific Rim is a movie full of personal chemistry and relationship building, where healthy interactions lead to genuine respect and trust, not to cheesy romance or sarcastic “buddy” situations, and that emphasis on the humanness of its star characters–they’re more important than the robots or the monsters, remember–makes this film well deserving of a place of admiration even as it’s more than willing to have plenty of fun.
The battles could hardly be more awesome if they tried. The Jaegers have few ranged weapons, focusing primarily on close-quarters options, which become an issue against Kaiju with their own biological self-defense mechanisms. (A notice for parents, with a very minor spoiler alert, is that while the Kaiju bleed acid, said acid is sometimes bright blue and seemingly luminescent. While there’s a lot of it shown, it looks more like fantasy-nature lighting than blood.) A nice bonus is that the Jaegers are shown to be quite heavy: I recall watching fight scenes in another science-fiction movie where giant robots didn’t make the ground shudder when they collapsed or hit something, but that’s never a problem here. Expect your teeth to rattle, on land and most certainly not on land, and be excited. There’s even a neat little martial-arts fight that actually feels relevant because of its character-establishing context, and it only goes on for long enough to make its point. Also, a robot uses a boat as a club at one point, and that’s not even the most awesome thing in the movie.
The supporting cast is very diverse, and you will know each unique individual by his deeds and demeanor, whether you know his name or not. The commanding officer who does things by the book to the point of excess and isn’t always skilled at gaining others’ admiration, whether they respect his orders or not. The dueling scientists with very different personalities and plans. The shady black-market dealer who’s gotten his hands on some particularly valuable items. All of these people have a meaningful role to play–some of them have valuable lessons to learn about cooperation as well–and all of them tend to be hilarious. And all of them do their best to make this a movie that celebrates giant robots without ever forgetting the people inside them or the people those people are trying to save (usually, most of each in their own odd ways).
It’s twenty-five hundred tons of AWESOME.
Pacific Rim is a ridiculously triumphant story that turns everything it touches to gold, with a logical and self-aware story, strong heroes, strong villains, an amazing soundtrack, fantastic and well distributed special effects, generally great pacing, and more than enough fun and excitement from beginning to end and everywhere in between. This is a movie that is more than worthy of being watched on the biggest screen and the loudest speakers you can find, because that kind of epic setup is what a movie like this deserves, and a movie like this is what we deserve.
… Was that sound I heard after the end credits what I thought it was?