Of all the phrases dragged out during the summer movie series, the most risible to me is that one should “turn off your mind.” I can’t stand either the idea popular entertainment is inherently stupid, or that it should be OK for the makers of blockbusters to forego character or story to entertain. Even still, I can understand people resigning themselves to that mindset. It gets difficult to avoid as the summer wears on, and more movies come and go that try to overwhelm with spectacle and emotional angst to distract from their lack of actual story. They get caught between the extremes of Michael Bay (all the explosions, none of the character development) or Christopher Nolan (brooding, dark, joyless heroes). They’ve lost the magic classic adventure movies like Star Wars and the Richard Donner Superman had, where they were filled with plenty of visual stimulation while presenting actual fun characters who aren’t weighed down with agita.
Pacific Rim is amazing, and welcome for finding that rarified ground. Guillermo del Toro’s monsters vs. robots spectacular practically thrums with his love of classic Kaiju movies. It’s built from a fan’s understanding of the archetypes and revels in the excesses of the genre. Everything is outsized; the set design, the special effects, the score and performances are all dialed up as far as possible. The movie is populated with characters with names like Stacker Pentecost. When Ron Perlman’s Hannibal Chau strides into frame, with his capped gold teeth and gold tipped shoes he’s clownish, and completely appropriate.
Everything flows straight out of the premise. A breach between dimensions deep beneath the Pacific Ocean allows giant monsters dubbed Kaiju to cross into our world and proceed to destroy everything in their path. To combat these monsters the various nations create Jaegers, 25 story tall robots piloted by a neural link between machine and man. The link is so powerful it requires at least two minds working together across what’s known as “the drift.” Controlling the Jaegers is too taxing for one mind, so sharing the load is necessary.
The drift also means that Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother and co-pilot are in each other’s minds when Yancey is killed during a Kaiju attack. Raleigh quits the Jaeger program, and moves to helping build the walls humans begin constructing to defend against the more powerful monsters that start coming through. This is all prologue, setting up how the human race initially managed the threat, then began losing. The main plot picks up with the aforementioned Pentecost (Idris Elba, who commands the screen) bringing Raleigh back to the Jaeger program as they prepare one last-ditch gambit to save the planet.
There’s no time wasted with Raleigh debating whether he can or can’t get back into a Jaeger, which is so refreshing. There’s also nothing inherently unique about Raleigh. He’s chosen because he’s the most familiar with the controls of one of the few remaining Jaegers, not some special snowflake fulfilling a destiny. It’s simple and efficient which, under the bombast of the visuals, is exactly the setup the story needs. Two plus hours melt away, as almost no time is spent on the existential hand-wringing that’s come to define so many action movies. There are some moments where Pentecost is reluctant to allow Mako Mori (the phenomenal Rinko Kikuchi) to serve as Raleigh’s co-pilot, but those are dispensed of rather quickly. He knows there is a greater good at stake, and so he casts aside doubt quickly. Just in terms of that mindset, the last time I can remember a movie with characters who thought that way was Apollo 13.
Which is another strength. Pacific Rim doesn’t dwell on the action beyond it’s core characters, even when we see how the people still living in the coastal cities experience this reality. We see the warning systems and safety bunkers. We even see a cult devoted to worshipping the monsters, and a biologist who’s fascination with the creatures has extended to getting tattoos of them. Guillermo del Toro and the screenwriter, Travis Beacham, spend just enough time away from the main characters to establish the reality of this world without getting bogged down with too many subplots.
For example, the way they handle the relationship potential of Mako and Raleigh. Rather than shoehorn a sexual side to their relationship, we barely see the first sparks of the attraction between the two. The impending threat of attack is never far, so the story concerns itself with their preparation for battle. The respect and admiration that develops between them is believable, and in keeping with the film’s steadfast focus on addressing the Kaiju. From that perspective, she’s as intelligent and battle ready as any of the men, without being either over-sexualized or stripped of her gender.
That last point and the earlier one about Apollo13 sum up what satisfied me so much about Pacific Rim. For the entire running time, everything was focused on Kaiju versus Jaegers. Every decision related to how humanity would fight back, with nothing wasted or forced. Everything here was lean, distilled down to just what was necessary to tell the story and keep the audience entertained. I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s for twenty years now, and as long as he keeps his storytelling as efficient and effective as this was, I expect to be a fan for many more.