In a way, Pacific Rim is everything we’ve come to expect from a modern blockbuster. It features fighting robots, makes a virtue of scale and features a square-jawed hero tangled up in action with a capital ‘A’ and several ‘N’s.
On the surface, this outline seems to conform to Hollywood’s current big-movie blueprint: a $200 million monster whose meaning and potential for expression is limited by a number of market maxims.
Firstly, that foreign audiences now outspend their American counterparts; secondly, that big, loud, effects-driven films with flat-packed storylines are better suited to international travel than subtext or sophistication; and thirdly, that instead of spreading risk with a range of budgets and approaches, studios are doubling down on tentpole releases that need half-billion dollar takes to enter profit.
And here is Pacific Rim – monsters versus robots. Watched in the right light, this could be Transformers meets Godzilla, right? Thankfully not. All of the above is true, but somehow, Guillermo del Toro’s movie responds to the challenges of the modern blockbuster by exploring and reflecting its peculiar context rather than streamlining itself stupid.
Let’s take the film’s treatment of heroism. The human pilots who guide the giant mechs safeguarding the planet from invading Lovecraftian superbeasts are the obvious stars of the piece.
But they can never act alone – the neural load of interfacing with these machines is too great for a single pilot, so the film introduces the idea of “the drift”, where the minds of two pilots are synched to become the mech’s left and right brains.
Collaboration is the key. Yes, it’s a pulled-from-the-air plot contrivance. But it’s forgivable, because it tables a notion of heroism that isn’t individualistic. Not that it doesn’t rely on said square-jawed male lead (in this case Charlie Hunnam) finding strength within himself, or putting on his super-trousers.
This group-effort theme is threaded throughout. Early on when Hunnam’s down-and-out Raleigh Becket is retrieved from dejected exile by a military surrogate father figure (Idris Elba) – a formulaic building block – he’s working dockside like a sci-fi Brando.
Elba convinces our hero to sign up for mankind’s last-ditch hope – which turns out to be a blue-collar resistance movement – a workshop working to maintain machines of war (ie huge stomping robots) after global governments have retreated into defeatist wishful thinking.
What’s interesting about this idea isn’t just that it shirks so many regular Hollywood tropes. It’s that it encompasses an unusually diverse international set-up.
Yes, Raleigh is white and handsome, but the other crews represent a very deliberate global spread. There are the brash Australians, rigid Russians, a team of triplet Chinese, and Raleigh’s potential new co-pilot Mako, played by Japanese star Rinko Kikuchi. The film makes a virtue of its market-savvy set-up.
The extended action sequences around Hong Kong might qualify the film for lucrative distribution in China (the fastest growing theatrical market in the world), but they also provide a welcome counterpoint to the USA!-ness of a movie like Independence Day, which was made in a different age entirely.
Mako’s mind-meld with Raleigh might ensure a prominent Eastern face to put on those Chinese posters, but it also works thematically, without skipping a beat. It reinforces the film’s underlying fusion of East and West that starts with the opening definition of the monsters, given the Japanese name ‘Kaiju’, and their mechanical nemeses, who take the German moniker ‘Jaegers’.
In other words, Pacific Rim is an object lesson in how to tailor your giant-robot movie for a worldwide audience while making a film about humanity and international relations. As such, it’s very much a film by Guillermo del Toro, whose combination of geek enthusiasm and cultural sophistication find a particularly elevated expression here.
Nobody else could make such a knowing film about a Japanese pop-culture phenomenon, or take such obvious glee in Ron Perlman hamming it up in a costume that renders him practically gold-plated – while referencing the classical art of Goya and Rodin.
And if you’re worrying that in light of all this the film doesn’t function as popcorn entertainment… relax.
The most thrilling part of del Toro’s epic is that the very things that set it apart from its peers – the steampunk style, the workers-of-the-world message – are what ensure its action beats are up there with the best. The sea-bound battles are dark, titanic bouts, the heaving waves giving awesome scale to each escalating encounter.
But this time it’s personal too; the fate of our leads is all the more emotionally compelling for depending on communal effort and sacrifice. It’d be a stretch to call Pacific Rim an intellectual movie, but it is a smart one, without ever reneging on its commitment to balls-out, bash’-em-up fun.
Or to put it another way, “it’s not just eye candy, it’s eye protein”, as GdT says in one of 13 ‘focus points’ (ie featurettes) – which amount to a big Making Of chopped into five-minute segments. There’s also a chat track that opens with GdT declaring that Pacific Rim “was made out of love”. You believe him.
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