Pacific Rim’s heavy-metal mash of monsters and robots

There has never been a better movie about giant robots battling giant sea monsters


A scene from 'Pacific Rim' / courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

For various reasons, including Toronto’s attempt to host a world-class flood, I’m late to weigh on Pacific Rim. And by now I can’t help but notice that the critical consensus is pretty solid. Most everyone seems to agree that this spectacle of giant robots battling giant sea monsters is the summer’s most bracing action blockbuster, with flourishes of painterly beauty that elevate it from its commercial genre. Certainly it’s an indisputable fact that there has never been a better movie about giant robots battling giant sea monsters… if you like that sort of thing. After sitting through so many gladiatorial battles over the fate of the civilized world in recent weeks, maybe I’m just suffering from apocalyptic burnout. But I found more to admire than to love about Pacific Rim, as hard as I tried to like it. Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth)—who shot the movie  in Toronto, and has embraced the city as his second home—composes this behemoth with evident passion and artistry, as an old-school monster geek who finally got his chance to work a vast canvas. But for this critic, trying to review it is like trying to review a Rush concert. Not that I’ve ever been to Rush concert. But you get the idea. Though it left me nonplussed, I can see that Pacific Rim is a cut above the standard-gauge heavy-metal blockbuster, with less cynicism, more soul, a wealth of visual detail and a desperate pulse of intelligence beneath the mayhem. But it’s still profoundly silly. I’m sure a 12-year-old boy, or a 32-year-old fanboy, would feel differently. The movie wasn’t made for me. So I’ll just offer some anthropological notes from the bleachers, and try to give credit where credit is due.

Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim (Kerry Hayes/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Offering a change of pace from aliens and zombies, Pacific Rim‘s sci-fi scenario finds humanity at war with a monumental breed of sea monster called Kaiju. Obviously there’s only one way to combat these creatures, and that is to create equally monumental robots called Jaegers, each powered by a pair of pilots who merge their brainwaves via a neural bridge called The Drift. We’re talking about robots the size of 25-storey skyscrapers. Iron Man, eat your heart out.

We are near the end of the war. Mankind is beginning to lose hope. The robot army is downsized, and the world’s fate comes to rest on the shoulders of a washed-up American pilot named Raleigh (Charlie Hunnan), a renegade who’s coaxed back into battle; and Mako (Babel‘s Rinko Kikuchi), a Japanese trainee awaiting her baptism of fire. They make a cute couple. He’s sworn off The Drift (“I’m done with having someone in my head.”) But after meeting Mako, and losing a martial arts duel to her, he’s all too eager to be in her head. Not that there’s any hanky panky in the The Drift. This is a movie on a higher mission.

Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' / courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Much of the earnest dialogue from the largely no-name cast is corny and clichéd. But Iris Elba (Thor, The Wire) brings impressive gravitas to the role of the pilots’ commander, an African Brit of imposing stature with the portentous name of Stacker Pentecost. Ron Perlman, in shades and a plum velvet smoking jacket, makes a meal of his role as Hannibal Chau, a black-market pirate who runs a Chinatown chop shop dealing in body parts from the sea monsters (Kaiju bone powder apparently leaves Viagra in the dust.) In a movie rife with  references, Perlman blithely flicks a knife up a man’s nostril in one scene, mimicking Roman Polanski’s stab at Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. The Pacific Rim repertory also features a campy pair of rival mad scientists studying monster flesh in a lab that could have been designed by Cronenberg—an impulsive Yank (Charlie Day) and a hyper-rational Brit (Rob Kazinsky). Put everyone together and you’ve got a clanking steampunk coalition with a United Nations pedigree.

Ron Perlman in 'Pacific Rim' / courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The robots are like grunge Transformers, Olympian bots each with their own national character—America’s Gypsy Danger, China’s Crimson Typhoon, Russia’s Cherno Alpha and Australia’s Striker Eureka. Inside them, the pilots, armoured in muscle suits worthy of superheroes, lock themselves into their cockpits, as if clicking ski boots into bindings. For all the talk of the neural bridge, we don’t get much sense of how that works in combat. The robot interiors are like engine rooms, where it’s hard to tell what’s really going on. The spectacle lies outside, in the set-piece combat scenes. Much of the action is shot in dark, rain-swept vistas, in unremarkable after-market 3D. The monsters are mutant creations, each a greatest-hits hybrid of creatures from Dark-Ages demonology, Japanese sci-fi and the Alien franchise. So you end up with a hammer-headed minotaur dragon with a Godzilla gait and a shark mouth spitting purple acid—electromagnetic fire that will fry the robots’ digital circuits. Good thing the old trusty American Gypsy robot, powered by a nuclear reactor, is analog, thus immune.

The whole tech thing left me a bit bewildered. It’s strange that this future society can build such sophisticated robots while the helicopter designs haven’t changed one iota. But I know you’re not supposed to quibble in a steampunk universe. Hey, even the super-advanced Krypton warriors were dressed like medieval knights. The main event here is a funhouse MMA battle between super-ego robots and super-id creatures, with a splash of tender sentiment between bouts. Even if a little intelligence is a dangerous thing, I suppose we should be grateful for whatever we can get in a Hollywood blockbuster, especially one forged right here in Toronto, whose condo-walled waterfront could use a few sea monsters.

This is my last review for a while. I’m taking a month off and hope to return mid-August with fresh eyes.


Pacific Rim’s heavy-metal mash of monsters and robots

  1. Darn….and here I was hoping for your review on Sharknado. LOL

  2. I saw Pacific Rim this afternoon and left well entertained. It’s nice to look at and not so silly as to be off putting. I am a fanboy however so DYODD.

  3. Love the last remark on Toronto’s condos.

  4. 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 in a non-confrontational manner, 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.

    • I liked your comments, I too enjoyed it. I was also shocked at how realistic it felt after you got over the premise (giant robots are our “only” defence). I watched World War Z right after… and felt that the stakes were not nearly as high (I suppose logically they were the same)

  5. Just wanted to point out that Rob Kazinsky is the name of the actor that portrays Chuck Hansen in the movie (the bratty “rival pilot”), not the stuffy English scientist.