Pacific Rim (United States, 2013)

July 11, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Pacific Rim Poster

Call it Godzilla (Toho version) on steroids. Or perhaps Transformers with a heart. Either way, there's no mystery what Pacific Rim is and, more importantly, what it delivers. It's the perfect summer spectacle, with giant robots pounding on monsters, monsters stomping on cities, and the kind of mayhem that only big theaters with big screens and big sound systems can truly convey. There's not a single original moment to be found in Pacific Rim's 130-minute running time, but that doesn't much matter because the familiar beats are conveyed with maximum expertise intended to provide a visceral experience.

The movie begins with a concise recap of what has gone before. Alien creatures called "kaiju" by the world media have arisen from a rift deep in the Pacific Ocean to wreak havoc on humanity. To counter this threat, the world governments band together to fund the "jaeger" program - giant robots piloted by two mind-linked humans that can go toe-to-toe with the kaiju. For a while, the jaeger gain superiority and the pilots achieve rock star popularity. Then things start getting tough. The kaiju become bigger and more dangerous and the frequency of their appearances increase. The jaeger are systematically destroyed until there are only four left. The program is de-funded and, led by Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), forced to go underground and work as a "resistance."

At the height of the war, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is an elite jaeger pilot but, after his brother is killed and his robot severely damaged, he disappears into obscurity. Now, with the world on the brink, Pentecost locates him and pulls him back into active duty. His robot has been reconstructed and upgraded. All he needs is a new co-pilot - something he finds in Pentecost's ward, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Their first trial run is a disaster but, when a pair of kaiju attack Hong Kong and disable the other three jaerger, there's no option but to send Raleigh and Mako into action.

This Hong Kong battle, which occurs about two-thirds of the way through the movie, is without a doubt Pacific Rim's highlight. It's an adrenaline-and-testosterone cocktail that fans of monster movies, robot movies, and high octane action films will swallow in a single gulp. This is bravura filmmaking that only top-notch, special effects-comfortable directors can choreograph. The thing that really makes this work, however, is the human element. There are people inside the robots and Pacific Rim never forgets that. In fact, it goes out of its way to develop and amplify the friendship/romance between Raleigh and Mako. Both are damaged souls searching for redemption and the chemistry between Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi is effective enough to make us believe in these two as friends and future lovers.

The primary difference between Pacific Rim and Transformers is easy to identify. For Michael Bay, Transformers is all about the "wow" factor. It's about explosions, robot-on-robot smackdowns, and cutting edge special effects. Everything else is an annoying detail, sometimes marginalized and often ignored. For Guillermo del Toro, the "wow" factor is paramount as well, but del Toro also cares about the other things: character development, relationships, narrative progression, and so forth. Transformers is an extended highlight reel; Pacific Rim is a complete film.

Pacific Rim is all about visuals so a comment or two is warranted about the presentation. The 3-D is, for the most part, used effectively but, as is often the case with this technology, there's an issue. About 75% of Pacific Rim transpires at night or deep under the ocean, where light is at a premium. 3-D by its nature diminishes the amount of light that reaches the viewer's eyes, and this becomes an issue. There are times when it's difficult to see what's happening in 3-D. Take off the glasses, however, and the action becomes clearer even as the image turns fuzzy. The trade-off isn't necessary in 2-D.

There are some pacing issues. The "comic relief" featuring Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as rival scientists is lame and distracting and has a smaller payoff than one might reasonably expect. The two actors play their roles broadly, aiming for laughs by being spastic and off-the-wall; it's not an asset. This subplot also gives a chance for the great Ron Perlman to make an appearance and, although Perlman is always welcome, the role is unnecessary. This is del Toro's solution to avoid things becoming too serious and it doesn't really work. Because as soon as the movie cuts away from Day and Gorman, it's back to citywide devastation and thousands of people dying. A throwaway shot of Newton's Cradle is more chuckle-worthy than fifteen minutes of the antics of these two.

Pacific Rim could be accused of an anticlimactic finale, but that's because the Hong Kong battle is so good that it can't be topped by what happens in the final fifteen minutes. So, in a strange way, it's more of a strength than a weakness. There are also some nice moments that have nothing to do with big-time special effects. One of the most memorable, human scenes features Raleigh and Mako squaring off in hand-to-hand combat to determine if she's worthy of being his partner. And just about everything with Idris Elba is solid… but that's only to be expected.

Pacific Rim shows what del Toro can do when given a big budget and free rein. It's not as thoughtful a piece as Pan's Labyrinth but it's every bit kick-ass as the two Hellboy movies. And, although it's a genre film with lots of pyrotechnics, it's not so stupid that it requires disclaimers to go along with a positive review. It's big, loud, and fun but doesn't leave the viewer feeling vaguely insulted about the filmmaker's opinion of who's watching. Del Toro's nearly fanboy-ish joy for the genre shines through but it's also apparent that understands how to make a good movie, and that's a differentiator between this and many seemingly similar tent pole productions.

Pacific Rim (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2013-07-12
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1