by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)
Kaiju is Japanese for “strange creature.” It’s also come to define the genre of films that Godzilla fall in; films where a massive monster rises from mysterious origins (typically the depths of the ocean) and wreaks havoc on the unsuspecting populous. It’s a genre that’s had its fair share of representation throughout history and on Mystery Science Theater 3K, but has been somewhat lost on most audiences as of late. That changes now, thanks to Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a veritable feast of monsters, robots and the cancelation of the apocalypse.
Jumping into a movie like Pacific Rim, there are a few things you need to know. Thankfully, the first few minutes get you up to speed with the events leading to the film itself. Essentially, Kaiju appeared, modern day weapons were found to be largely ineffective and the countries of the world united to create the Jaeger program, offering viewers the giant robots they so badly craved. If Kaiju means “strange creature,” then Jaeger means “giant fighting robot” (it’s actually German for “hunter”).
What follows is a back and forth between the last chances for survival on the part of both combatants, with the stakes offered up being Earth. Jaegers get so efficient at fighting that they manage to force the oncoming Kaiju into submission. There are a few amusing scenes of society chronicling this arrogance by mocking the Kaiju in various ways. Everything looks promising for Earth, until they learn the hard way that the Kaiju aren’t content to simply lie down and give up. They adapt to the Jaeger techniques, eventually presenting an even graver threat than originally offered up.
Del Toro has always showcased a dizzying sense of imagination and Pacific Rim is no exception. He knew exactly what type of movie he wanted to make and made it. The awe inspired by the varying Kaiju is pretty breathtaking, matched only by the brute presentation of the Jaegers. It’s as much homage to the Kaiju movies of the past as it is a look towards the future of science fiction. Of course, that vision wouldn’t be possible without the magnificence of the special effects on display.
Part of the charm of past Kaiju films was the low-budget aspect of them. Godzilla featured a man in a rubber suit terrorizing a model city. Pacific Rim is the exact opposite, offering up gorgeous battle sequences pitting Jaegers against Kaiju. The movie looks so good that the assault on your senses refuses to let up, ensuring that your attention is always held rapt. It’s a little ambitious to say the film is a watershed film for CGI in movies, but it does feel like Transformers and Lord of the Rings. Both film franchises seamlessly blended CGI into everyday life and made it look good; Pacific Rim makes it look better.
Kaiju are terrifying, both in size and demeanor. Seeing the Jaegers give you hope that humanity may live to fight another day. What’s sort of unfortunate though is a lot of the fighting is a little too close, which doesn’t really afford the viewer the chance to fully embrace what they’re viewing. Add on top of that a seemingly persistent thunderstorm with torrential downpours and there are some parts of the fight that are missed. It’s not enough to detract from the overall enjoyment of the film, but you do wonder if it would have been better served to have the focus back off just a little bit.
At the heart of the film though is, well, an attempt at actual heart. The hero Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is a former ace Jaeger operator forced into early retirement after a battle goes horribly wrong. That battle offers up a way to both open and advance the story, as it showcases the growing ferocity of the Kaiju as they surprise a previously prepared Jaeger force. It also lays the groundwork for the core of the Jaeger fighting in the Drift. Jaegers require two pilots to “drift” together, which gives each access to the other’s mind. While this allows them to operate the heavy machinery in tandem, it also presents struggles in control; if one traumatic memory slips through in one, both could go down and half the Jaeger becomes inoperative.
Raleigh’s retirement hinges on the drifting, as he’s hesitant to drift again thanks to the toll it’s taken on him. Enter Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a young and vengeful woman who lost her parents to a Kaiju that beset Tokyo years earlier. The two of them eventually learn to overcome both of their bad memories and become a tandem unit. This is more or less the recurring them through the film. Everyone seems to have a dance partner in life, whether it’s a brother/brother, father/son, father/adopted daughter or even two lifelong colleagues. Del Toro seems to indicate that there’s a kindred spirit that–when tapped–can lead to truly great things.
The star of the film (besides the Jaegers and Kaiju) might be CO Stacker Penetcost (Idris Elba), a sharply dressed military man who eschews the uniform but maintains the authority. Elba handles the role very well, offering up a man paying for the Jaeger program with his life slowly ebbing away. He commands the screen in every scene he’s a part of and it’s not just because he’s usually yelling at someone. He serves as something of a fixed point for all the characters to gravitate towards. It’s refreshing to see him; when he’s on screen, you get the strange sense that everything will be resolved.
Considering the film throws out the line “don’t get cocky kid!” gets thrown out within the first ten minutes, you know you’re in for a treat. Pacific Rim doesn’t disappoint on the awesomeness scale, offering up healthy portions of action and giant robots fighting monsters. It’s got a plot that’s credible and–while it won’t win any Oscars–gives you something to emotionally grab hold of while you’re been shook from your seat. All in all, it’s an incredibly enjoyable film that is what it is: a Kaiju film with steel behemoths fighting them to save humanity and offering no apologies for all the large-scale brutality.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars