“I saw a pre-screening of Pacific Rim yesterday and it’s easily one of my favorite movies of all time.”
That tweet from Kanye West is what made me interested in seeing the movie. Prior to this, I had no strong feelings about it one way or the other. I’m sure I probably would have eventually gotten around to it, since many of my friends had been building excitement for it and as the release date got closer, there was a lot of talk about supporting the film because it’s an “original” concept, brought to the screen by director Guillermo Del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth). Maybe this was just desperation at the realization that the movie was probably going to lose out to the sequel to a lame Adam Sandler comedy, but I can’t help thinking that most movies don’t get the “see it because it’s original!” push that this one did. It’s doubly strange because it’s not actually that original at all–in fact, the unoriginality is sort of what drove the rage against Sandler’s movie, because Hollywood analysts had already predicted that Pacific Rim would lose the battle of the box office receipts despite the seeming mass appeal of its premise: giant robots fighting giant monsters. The fist-shaking argument questions why essentially the same premise makes hundreds of millions when it’s Michael Bay and Transformers, whereas this beautiful, unassailable art loses out to some dumb slob making fart jokes. Ticket sales and the classlessness of the viewing public aside, which is it? Is Pacific Rim striking, original art… or is it just Michael Bay by way of a more respected filmmaker?
Before I answer that question, let me give you a sense of what we’re dealing with here. The movie opens in the year 2020, seven years after the first sighting of what have been dubbed kaiju. Kaiju are huge monsters from another dimension which enter our world through a “breach” at the bottom of the ocean. They’re easily four or five times the height of skyscrapers, and their only goal seems to be destroying mankind. Humans, in response, created what they call jaegers, equally massive robotic men which can fight the alien creatures. The battles consist of these clashing giants leaping on one another, slamming their fists down on the other’s skull, knocking their enemy down. It’s almost always done after night has fallen, most likely a way to disguise the extensive CGI necessary to create these monstrosities, but it also does a good job of adding to the tone. I did appreciate that this isn’t a case of a “good guy” fighting a “bad guy”, since it’s questionable whether the kaiju can be understood as having any sense of morality at all. Instead, it’s more like giant robots fighting the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park. It’s not about who wins; it’s about who survives. In that way, there’s a tension added to the battle scenes even as the fights themselves play out fairly conventionally. It’s kind of amazing that I can call two giant beings crushing buildings and swinging at each other with ocean liners a “conventional” sequence of events, but nonetheless here we are. On the human side of things, jaeger operator Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) is asked to return to service for one last all-or-nothing mission after losing his brother in a lost battle five years ago. It’s a difficult request because a jaeger is controlled by two people who drift together, a literal mind-meld that allows them to share memories, sensations, actions. When his brother was killed during battle, Raleigh lost a part of himself and has been traumatized since. Oh well, suit up! Raleigh is pressing to get a woman named Mako (Rinko Kikuchi, Babel) to be his co-pilot for this mission because they’re drift-compatible, but his commanding officer (Idris Elba, Prometheus) is opposed.
I’ve seen some praising the movie for making Mako a strong female character: she is shown to be as adept as Raleigh at hand-to-hand combat and joins him in piloting the jaeger that will save the world. Furthermore, they don’t have a traditional romantic arc, only insomuch as they don’t kiss on-screen. But really, Mako’s not such a strong female character. When she first enters the jaeger, she screws up and nearly kills everybody by losing herself in an awful memory. Later, she overcomes this (suddenly), and basically fades into the background. The action sequences from this point forward are led by Raleigh–Mako may as well have not even been there. Further, Hunnam isn’t a very good actor and could not carry the film on his own. His line reading reminded me strongly of Keanu Reeves, kind of flat and lacking the resonance that could make scenes feel a bit more real, a bit more intense. There’s a suggestion that the human story would be about heavy themes like trust and forgiveness, given that Mako is held back from becoming a jaeger pilot on account of her need for personal vengeance against the kaiju, and, more importantly, because the drift process requires both pilots to be totally open with each other. Yet the character dynamics made possible by this science fiction conceit are almost entirely glossed over, a colossal mistake.
Even the film’s supporters aren’t going to spend too much time arguing about the effectiveness of the human story. It’s more about the clash of the titans, the awe-inspiring fight sequences. Matt Zoller Seitz quotes Roger Ebert in his praise of the film, calling it first and foremost an experience, plus “a triumph of art direction, set design, cinematography, special effects–and imagination.” They get right to the heart of it over at The Dissolve: ” [I]t delivers on the promise of its premise. Giant robots. Killer monsters. Wrestlin’ picture. Whaddaya need, a road map?” I don’t disagree, really. The action sequences are effective and entertaining for what they are. I left the theater thinking, okay, fine, this movie is not bad. I enjoyed it. The stuff with the human characters is way under-developed and the monster battles are somewhat pedestrian, but it’s exciting and I had a good time when I was in it.
But then I keep coming back to the initial question. If I didn’t know who made this film, and wasn’t going in thinking that it was the greatest film ever made (as per Mr. West) or that it deserves to be seen and praised because of its auteur director–or even better, if I honestly thought that it was directed by Michael Bay–would my gut be telling me three or three-and-a-half stars? I gave the last two entries in that series 1.5 stars each. Is Pacific Rim really so much better than those movies? I suppose this movie is more economical; it doesn’t run around in circles the way that Bay’s plastic toy extravaganza did. And there’s less in the way of annoying side characters invented for comic relief or female objectification. And perhaps most importantly, Del Toro’s film doesn’t match Bay’s self-satisfied seriousness. So yeah, it’s safe to say that Pacific Rim is better than Michael Bay… but even so, I’d hesitate to call it an original work of art. My initial reaction upon leaving the theater was probably closest to the truth: I liked it. It’s fun, in the moment, but nothing substantial. It’s just good times.