Review: PACIFIC RIM, Monsters And Robots In A Near Perfect Spectacle

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
In stark, white text against a black background, the film spells out the core elements contained within. Kaiju, 怪獣, Japanese word for "strange beast", the trans-dimensional monsters that emerge from a "throat" in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. Jaeger, from the German word for "hunter", referring to giant, anthropomorphized mechanical devices built to combat the extraterrestrial threat.

Monsters. Robots. Two iconic adolescent elements beating the living shit out of one another. The rest is set dressing, for, at its core, we've got Kaiju vs. Jaeger, beasts versus mechanical brawn. This is toys-in-the-sandbox filmmaking, picking up the elements from youth and smashing them against each other. It's not subtle, and despite setting some of the action at the bottom of an ocean, it's not even particularly deep. Pacific Rim is, however, deeply cathartic, free from winking cheekiness or overt irony. This isn't a metaphor for global warming or the cold war, it's not a call for racial harmony or some subtle nod to world events. These are humans in giant robot devices forced to combat a series of escalating beasties intent on our complete destruction.

And because of this simplicity of purpose and elegance of execution, it's all kind of marvelous.

This is what happens when you give a visionary director who is fully in touch with his inner child an impossibly huge budget and practically free rein to do what he wishes. This is one of those excellent dream projects for a fanboy: What would happen if you give the earnings of a small city state to a visionary director to tell a story the way he wishes it told? The trailers make you think Michael Bay, but this film is in some ways far simpler, and in turn far more elegant in its execution. There's a laser-like purpose to the film, a seriousness that never drops into being sacrosanct or self-parodic. This is a film made by someone who takes monsters-vs-robots with appropriate levels of both awareness and awe, and has us share in this refreshingly un-cynical, and thus much more timeless, action adventure. This is Guillermo del Toro at his giddiest.

Free from overt reference, neither a comic book nor an explicit nod to innumerable films of the 50s and 60s (yet spawned by nearly all of them), Pacific Rim is both refreshingly new and comfortably familiar The film is also appropriately epic; there's an enormity to the film that's at times simply jaw-dropping. The "used universe" aesthetic that I first saw articulated with Star Wars is here on full display, no surprise given the extraordinary work done by John Knoll and the rest of the George Lucas-bred ILM team. This is a world of rivets and sparking welding devices, scratched metal and loads of preposterously massive doors. There's a heft to the crunching metal and bone that makes things feel, at times, enormous. Coupled with some excellent set pieces that hearken back to submarine bunkers, del Toro makes the events seem purposefully global.

The fact that any of this is believable is a result of the commitment from all aboard. On its surface, the "synchronized swimming" nature of the twin pilots of the Jaeger pilots should be a bit more awkward. Only in the light of day did I worry about the intense pressures exhibited upon fighting at the bottom of the ocean, wondering how certain devices would withstand the enormous pressures. Nobody in their right mind will take seriously a "science of Pacific Rim" presentation, for unlike other works that drape science or politics as a way of giving the sense of sophistication, del Toro and his team are wise enough to leave the film free from such distractions. This doesn't make the film anti-intellectual; it instead frees it up to be in some ways a work of greater purity, a focus of purpose that doesn't need to pepper half-baked ideas in order to seem more than it really is. This is escapism of the finest order, and if you embrace the work as such, you'll be in for a hell of a ride.

The cast, mostly drawn from various television projects, is up to the task at maintaining this tone throughout. I've adored Idris Elba for years, and he brings his intensity to the screen that in the trailers reeks of something overwrought, but in the context of the film is actually quite variegated. Every time I thought the scientist duo of Charlie Day and Burn Gorman was about to go off the rails into farce, I was reminded of the innumerable "scientists" that littered every B-movie, and found the ways they became integrated into the story increasingly plausible, once I let down my guard. The same can be said for Charlie "Yes he shows his abs" Hunnam, who does a plausible job as the troubled lead, along with Kikuchi Rinko (Oscar nominated for Babel) who injects some authentic Japanese wide-eyed elements into the film. Plus, of course, there's Ron Perlman, del Toro's lucky charm, more than living up to the bigger-than-life roles we've come to expect from him.

None of these are star-making turns, for the actors' roles are very much part of the main story. This is not a slight against the film at all, for the spectacle is (unapologetically) the core of the work. The performances help us care about the stakes, but the film unfolds for the most part in the smashing of metallic fists into the faces of giant beasts. Emotional flashbacks and general pettiness and masculine competitiveness are dressing for the core smash-em-up. The emotions exhibited are no more sophisticated than they need to be, fitting perfectly with the general tone of the film.

In the end, an audience may not be ready for something that lacks either irony or jingoism, a straight-up action film that calls upon the simplicity of childhood play. We've been conditioned to accept the trappings of the adult world in our adolescent fantasies, these elements rarely amount to anything more than silly contemporary witticisms ("whoops, my bad") or fortune cookie-level philosophizing (*with great power comes great responsibility"). Pacific Rim is at its best when we see fantastic fighting machines lumbering through the ocean waves, off to punch an enormous screeching beast atop the noggin. It's a film that doesn't need to be ironic or self-effacing to be terrifically effective. It's a film that needs, and provides in ways no film ever has, the spectacle of monsters battling giant robots.

On that level, as a spectacle free from dogma or expectation, reveling in the simplicity of purpose and beauty of the execution, Pacific Rim is near perfect.
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  • Tuan Jim

    Personally, I'm very happy that I was able to catch this screened in IMAX 3D during a short visit here to Sydney. It definitely feels appropriately epic in that format. Highly recommended!

  • Scott Dorian Dancer

    this is what i want when i go to the movies. movie magic. i sat there with large eyes and a smile on my face through 80% of the movie. rarely slows down and its far less kiddy then you think. ripping off the bottom jaw of a kaiju is not for kids. i have been a fan of giant robots for over 30 years so this was a wet dream for me. best popcorn movie of the summer. should not dissapoint.

  • Ramesh Ram
  • Ramesh Ram

    "Free from overt reference, neither a comic book nor an explicit nod to innumerable films of the 50s and 60s (yet spawned by nearly all of them)"

    Nonsense. (Johnny Sokko and the Giant robot" 1969 TV series. Direct unacknowledged lift.

    http://rameshram.wordpress.com...

  • knewsomething

    I really enjoyed PR, a thoroughly good ride though not a masterpiece. What bugged me were the Australian accents. I guess pretty much everyone has been annoyed at some point by bad versions of their native accent. I just don't understand why, in this case, they just simply didn't cast some aussies. There's surely enough of them in Hollywood. On the other hand, after the brutalising Russel Crowe has done to so many accents, maybe it's only fair for us to get some comeuppance? Expanding the audience by including an aussie Jaeger backfired for me. A minor gripe, admittedly.

  • Joseph Blower

    Disclaimer: I loved this movie. I watched it twice, back-to-back, in 3D.

    I loved the action and the spectacle. The battles, despite the one absurdity of giant robots fighting alien invaders had sense of realism that was rather unnerving. Everything but that (minor detail) was eerily plausible. I also liked the other messages found throughout. Mostly, though, I loved how it all came together as a kind of celebration of the value science and technology when coupled with human courage, ingenuity, innovation, self-sacrifice, individualism (when appropriate), and cooperation (when appropriate).

    It's the many minor messages within the movie that made it stand out from mindless summer action movie fare (which are fine, on occasion).

    First, what I like the most: I liked abiding theme of science and technology being tools for human salvation. There are literally no scenes without some object of human ingenuity in view. The giant robots are man-machine saviours that aid humanity in fighting against grotesque organic monsters.

    (As an aside: I like nature. I was raised in a rural area, and I enjoyed camping. But make no mistake, nature can be brutal, and it is only human scientific, technological, social, and other developments that can keep the monster at bay. If you doubt me, try surviving alone and without man-made equipment for a week in virtually any natural environment. You may not be dead, but you'll almost wish you were. Where I live (just outside a city of 1 million), you’d be dead in less than 5 hours without winter clothing, six months a year. Nature can be subservient to us, but it must never again be our master. Precambrian humans had an average life expectancy of 31 years. Also, like the monsters in this movie, any number larger wild animals would kill a human without a second thought. A bear will rip a child to shreds. Wolves (prior to their gradual domestication by killing the more violent ones over the centuries), were a particularly large threat in Europe. An elephant will gore a grown man. And so on. **It is solely our scientific, technological, and social advancements made possible by an appropriate mix of individual initiative and group cooperation that keep the nightmare at bay.** The movie Pacific Rim acknowledges this. Unlike the technological luddism of, for example, the Terminator movies or Avatar [which both partially denigrate technology and science], this movie celebrates human achievement and progress. And movies could use more of that.)

    I liked that movie (unlike almost all American blockbusters) takes place in several locations, none of which are large American cities. The United States comprises about 5% of the global population, and it’s nice to see that represented in an American blockbuster. And how many times do you really want to see New York destroyed, for instance?

    I appreciated the message that both cooperation and individual initiative are prudent and necessary. The fight against (for instance, there are several instances of insubordination and deviations from military procedure, but they mostly involve serving the greater good).

    I liked the love story component. The lead man was not a handsome male Brad Pitt lookalike, and the female love interest was not the typical American supermodel of action flicks. Rather, she was an English-speaking Chinese national who models the very best traits of many females from that culture. She is polite and respectful, yet stands up for her beliefs non-confrontationally, and she is obviously intelligent. She is "equal but different" from the main male protagonist.

    I appreciated the cursory mention of the cause for the alien invasion: global environmental degradation, the (spoiler) reason for the alien invasion.

    Although there is much "apocalyptic porn" (hey, I like it too), the body count is actually quite low. While we see entire skyscrapers destroyed, because civilians are evacuated in shelters, the number of civilian casualties is less than 100. (Contrast that with "Man of Steel", which had a casualty count of six or seven figures).

    It was nice to see scientists portrayed are heroes. The two scientist characters literally risk their lives to test a theory and gain evidence that is crucial to a positive outcome. This world needs more scientists and technologists. Even the characters' stereotypical eccentricity is endearing: they have their foibles, but they are each aware of it. Sometimes, human foibles are unavoidable, and condemning people for (relatively) harmless quirks that they cannot change serves no purpose.

    I did like that movie avoids many Hollywood clichés (for the above reasons).

    If I had one complaint, it's that the movie is too short. It's 2 hours and 10 minutes. However, there is less action than I would have liked. It's not that there is too much "non-action" content. It's just that another 30 minutes or so of giant robot battles would have been swell.

    In short: see it.

  • SmilodonsRetreat

    I watched Priest on Netflix the other day. Pacific RIm is oscar quality compared to that movie. It's OK to just have fun in a movie sometimes.

    PR is a good show.

  • Juan Andrés Valencia

    Has anyone seen the 3D version? As far as I know it's a hybrid (CGI is rendered natively in 3D, everything else in 2D).

  • Not sure how you account for that - yes, it's in 3D, yes the 3D is excellent.

  • Bowser

    " This isn't a metaphor for global warming or the cold war, it's not a call for racial harmony or some subtle nod to world events...

    And because of this simplicity of purpose and elegance of execution, it's all kind of marvelous. "

    Alright. What's your problem with intellect ?

  • I don't understand the question.

  • MistaTMason

    Jason, you're generally one of my more trusted (and insightful) critics on the web these days, but I'm still apprehensive. From the clips and trailers (yes, I know they can be misleading), I just don't see how this can be any different than Transformers, or that monster at the end of Avengers, or a pretty version of that Mathew Broderick Godzilla. And frankly, after Man of Steel, I'm just a little worn out on the exploding city themed movies. At the same time, I love Del Torro and want to have faith in his film. That said, I know most critics are in love with Del Torro as well, and I tend to get the feeling that maybe people are giving him some kind of auteur pass, like saying splashing paint on a canvas is trashy by anyone until Pollack makes it art. With no offense intended, do you think you would be quite so supportive of the movie if it didn't have his name above it (or the always welcome Stringer Bell in it)?

    Also, because I'm sure I will crack and see it no matter what, do you recommend 2-D or 3-D? I usually really hate 3-D, and I'm particularly skeptical with all of the shadowy footage I've already seen potentially being blacked out with those glasses and the awful projection. Yet, Del Torro said 3-D was the way he recommended... and hopefully not out of contractual obligation.

  • I always recommend 3D, even if it's kind of a disaster. :) Still, in this case, I do highly suggest seeing it in the 3D version, it's a highly immersive setereographic presentation, with very little in the way of gratuitous in-your-face moments meant to take you out of the moment. So, yes, for a myriad of reasons - authorial intention, quality of presentation, even on purely aesthetic grounds, this is a spectacle deserving of the biggest damn screen you can throw at it, and the 3D does add significantly in a number of scenes, while others it's so seamless that you forget that it's there.

    Plus, your words are very kind, thanks so much.

  • MistaTMason

    Do you always recommend 3-D because you actually always enjoy it more (even on some of the post jobs)? I've only seen three or four movies in it and my eyes have always been strained. Having to wear those dark glasses on top of the dark lens on the projector always makes it seem so murky to me. It also creates a blurring effect that, to me, undermines the point of HD. Even in that trainwreck called "Prometheus", where I thought some of the immersive effects really did work, they were constantly overshadowed (pun intended) by a feeling that I was losing so much of the production design in the darkness that 2-D viewers were able to see in their theater.

  • There's a very long discussion to have (one I've not yet managed to have the gumption to craft into a longer article) about "native" vs "post-convert" 3D. There are so many myths that are slowly deflating, but some still persist.

    If you look at my HFR article, or even my recent interview with the STORM SURFERS 3D guys, you'll see I touch upon some of this.

    Bad projection will kill a film, regardless of what kind of glasses you're wearing. If you have access to a decent theatre with appropriately calibrated systems (and, for lack of a more subtle aggrandizing plug, know where to sit in a theatre (http://filmfest.ca/the-quest-f... then you're usually seing exactly what the director has timed the film to look like.

    I'm assuming you saw ALIEN more times on an LCD than you have on a theatre screen - Ridley's original film was all about shadows masking the elements, the fact is that Prometheus was appropriately graded. In fact, the 3D was I think one of the few exceptional elements of that film.

    But, yes, much, MUCH longer conversation to have... For now, go see PACRIM, give it some of your lucre, and I hope that you enjoy the hell out of it.

  • MistaTMason

    I've never seen Alien in the theater, but I certainly get where you're coming from. That conversion to perfectly clear detail, away from the original artist design, is one of the major issues I tend to have with the conversion of old films to HD (almost like Ted Turner converting Casablanca to color). I'll keep an eye out for an extended piece you write about 3-D. And I do appreciate you taking time to reply to comments. It certainly allows more depth to be taken from the article, and gives some of us an outlet to have an intelligent discourse on movies (because outlets for that can be strained here in rural West Virginia). Your level of involvement is a good way to keep cinephiles following your work.

  • Kurt

    People are definitely giving the marketing/trailers/anticipation a pass due to the del Toro branding amongst filmnerds and cinephiles. I doubt the same people would give the final film a pass for that reason...

  • ...if anything, my skepticism ran higher. I've seen plenty of GDT's films that didn't work for me, some that I actually destest (ie, theatrical version of MIMIC, and, no, haven't bothered to watch the redux). That said, there's plenty of gushing to go 'round. I'd hope that my articulation about spells out what truly works in this film, despite any prejudices, just the way that me hating, I dunno, most of the previous works of another director would still allow me to take in the film while watching in as receptive a manner as possible.

  • arturo

    Going to check it out this weekend, can't wait, and by the end of the year i will own this movie on Blu Ray so i can watch again and again and again...

  • jah p

    WOW! Another great review for this film. I'm really hoping this movie does so well, at least Transformers type numbers that will not only warrant a sequel, but opens up the door for more kaiju themed movies, in which I've been dying to see a Monsterpocalypse movie! Great review Jason.

  • I can't see any way this thing's making TF numbers, there's just not the same caché for it. As I tweeted, I frankly don't care if it makes a dollar - I got to see it, and hopefully those of you interested in it go and see it. I leave such vagaries to studio execs, for me I'm just happy they had the ball bearings to make the thing in the first place.

    I certainly won't begrudge its success, nor be surprised if it proves to be a hard sell for a general audience craving GROWN UPS 2.

  • reaganisking

    Favourite quote from the review that pretty much sums up what I'm hoping for:

    "Monsters. Robots. Two iconic adolescent elements beating the living shit out of one another. The rest is set dressing, for, at its core, we've got Kaiju vs. Jaeger, beasts versus mechanical brawn. This is toys-in-the-sandbox filmmaking, picking up the elements from youth and smashing them against each other."

  • boom

  • Viet_Cong_Nurse

    It's spectacle because it's the freaking summer. The movies with depth don't come out until school season starts. You guys should know that by now.

  • Kurt

    That's kind of a letdown if Spectacle is the main draw here, and there isn't much in the way of 'heart' or 'character' in the mix. This pains me as we've seen nothing BUT spectacle in summer tentpoles for over a decade.

  • Ignore Kurt, he doesn't like nice things... :)

    Kidding aside, this is glorious in its spectacle, and hopefully viewers will go in with appropriate levels of openmidedness to images of wonder and awe, instead of being swayed by what often are superficial bits of philosophy or politics that try to somehow make the work feel more "adult" while simply coming across as bloated.

    I'll take purposefully spectacular over dreary and pedantic any day.

  • Snoop Lion

    I'm holding out for a dreary and pedantic blockbuster. Oh, hello Superman

  • Kurt

    Why not have both spectacle and brains? As a moviegoer, i want both.

  • Snoop Lion

    I need to get me one of those "Mod" tags.

    Re the comment, I was obviously kidding, although have never been looking forward to Pac Rim. Constant fanboy worshipping has killed any enthusiasm I had for Del Toro.

  • Hiroaki Johnson

    I'll probably get flayed for this... But I don't think good storytelling/character work has ever been Del Toro's strong point. It's especially egregious in his larger Hollywood movies like Hellboy 1 and 2.

  • *slowclap*

  • Chris Bob

    This is why I'm holding out on "Elysium" being the surprise of the summer.

    "Pacific Rim" looks fun -- but that's all this summer has been. I want something that provides both spectacle AND brains.

  • ThisGuy01

    There's nothing wrong with spectacle when it's honest. If you're holding out for 'Elysium' being some kind of amazing, intelligent sci-fi masterpiece I don't know if you're going to get that. The movie looks amazing & is probably going to be a great rollercoaster thrill ride but I can't see "Elysium" being about anything more than "the 99% live below their means & suffer on Earth while the 1% live well beyond reasonable means & live on a giant spaceship".

  • Chris Bob

    Well considering "Elysium" was in-production before the whole Occupy/"99%/1%" terminology was even coined, I think that's a credit to the director's ability to foresee the future. However, I didn't say I was expecting a sci-fi masterpiece ala "2001" -- but I fully expect it to be the best and most intelligent film of the summer.

  • ArbeitMachtFries

    i share your hopes for Elysium. but I expected nothing more from Pacific Rim than the jaw-dropping spectacle of monsters vs. machines led by Elba's intensity which sounds like what del toro has delivered!

  • we'll see just how different it is than OBLIVION. I'm not holding my breath, but I go into all these things with appropriate levels of trepidation.

  • Chris Bob

    Understandable, my man.

    But if there's one thing to Neill Blomkamp's credit, it's that he's much more visually and technically gifted director than Kosinski. While I don't place a whole lot of stock into test screenings--at the very least--they went over very well for Sony last year. So, we'll see what happens.

    After how great "District 9" turned out to be, I swore I would watch anything Blomkamp makes. This might be superlative praise to the highest degree, but I truly believe he just may be the next James Cameron. He certainly has that same attention to detail in terms of design, action and world building.

  • jah p

    I agree Chris, Blomkamp is far more visually talented than Kosinski.

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