If you transported monster-punching blockbuster spectacle Pacific Rim to any summer movie season in the 1980s, you’d have created a generation-defining cinematic experience, one that would flourish in the nostalgic reckonings of today’s 30 and 40-somethings. This is the year 2013, however, and Guillermo del Toro’s live-action love letter to technology and nutty Romanticist painters is just noise; one of a dozen movies creating a cacophonous summer movie season.
Thus, my expectations were low, but specific. Pacific Rim, I thought, didn’t have to be the best or the smartest. It just had to deliver $20 worth of monsters, robots, punching, and Ron Perlman, without letting anything else get in the way.
Wonderfully, marvelously, Pacific Rim nails this target, although even that wouldn’t be notable if this year’s crop of summer blockbusters weren’t so infuriatingly stupid. In only the past few weeks Star Trek Into Darkness, World War Z, and Man of Steel have all failed in their attempts to tell an engrossing story worthy of their subjects. Star Trek delivered a carbon copy of the previous Starfleet smash-em-up, World War Z turned a bright, multifaceted, already-movie-ready novel into grey paste, and Man of Steel combined a callous regard for its subject with story choices that seemingly came out of nowhere. (If you’re my super-powered son and I am standing in the path of a tornado YOU FUCKING SAVE ME.)
In this context, Pacific Rim is bright and uncomplicated. It doesn’t throw you out of its narrative or leave you hoping that the sequel is better. (Spock and Kirk are finally going to explore alien planets maybe!) It advertises delicious science fiction carnage and delivers. It’s not striving for commentary on humanity, technology, or our indomitable will to something something something. It just wants to see a sword the size of a building slice Godzilla in half. And it wants to look good doing it. Which it does.
Aside from the straightforward nature of Pacific Rim, del Toro and the actors make several smart choices in crafting the unfolding story, fashioning certain action movie tropes to the world of Pacific Rim in order to keep you engaged. Here are some of the more notable aspects of that effort. Spoilers ahead!
1.) Pacific Rim serves as its own sequel.
Before the movie title even comes up you are given the story of how we went from the world of today to a world where monsters (kaiju) have decimated our cities and made us a worldwide civilization that focuses on defense via giant robots (jaegers). You see the escalation step by step, how our culture adapts to it, and you’re introduced to the main character during a lengthy kaiju fight. The entire sequence is so joyful that when it abruptly turns you’re gutted. The movie then starts with the battle already waged and with the war at its lowest point. Because Pacific Rim has already run through all the usual action movie scenarios in its first 15 minutes its premise continues to seem fresh.
2.) There’s no forced romantic subplot!
You have no idea how happy this made me. There is approximately one (1!) woman in the film with a speaking role and in any action movie this usually means she’s there to Get Rescued and fall in love with The Hero and oh my god is that ever boring.
Instead, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) is there to become a jaeger pilot and inflict as much trauma on the kaiju as they have on her. (The two flashback sequences that illustrate her history with the kaiju are very well done, intense, and chilling even though you’re already accustomed to the monster’s carnage at that point.) Her story parallels nicely with the film’s hero Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who is also struggling with kaiju trauma from the beginning sequence in the film. The two eventually become jaeger piloting partners, and while there is absolutely some weird sexual tension on display, their relationship is allowed to grow organically. The best part is that even by the end of the film they haven’t kissed, giving you the sense that their story continues long after the credits roll. Did this cartoonish movie just give me a realistic relationship? YES!
3.) All of the stock characters get other things to do, making them more fun to watch.
The Stern General There To Lead Us To Victory (as played by Idris Elba) also has a father/daughter storyline with Kikuchi. Plus, for the majority of the movie the only reason there are jaegers to fight the kaiju is because he’s single-handedly keeping them running. His obligatory troops-rallying speech at the end, heard in the trailer as the doofy “We cancel the apocalypse!” line, is nicely underscored by the fact that those listening to Elba’s speech have no idea he’s about to kill himself.
The Super Nerd (played by Charlie Day) doesn’t at any point use the term “hack the [blank]” and is extremely proactive in his mission to break into a kaiju’s mind, leading us to a terrific interlude involving Ron Perlman as kaiju black market kingpin Hannibal Chau. The Bumbling Scientist (played by Torchwood’s Burn Gorman in his first non-evil role ever, probably) has an intense and often unconstructive rivalry with the Super Nerd. Oh, and the Cocky Antagonistic Pilot Who Ultimately Respects The Hero In The End? He dies!
4.) It pulls an Independence Day in the best way.
Pacific Rim has a lot in common with 1996’s Independence Day but perhaps the strongest similarity is how both movies solve their alien problem. In order to close the rift between worlds, a jaeger has to go down to the rift at the bottom of the ocean, hide inside of a kaiju carcass, and detonate a nuke inside the passageway between worlds. The rift aliens even look like the ones from Independence Day.
And that’s fine. One of the cooler things about Independence Day was the implication of how the events of that movie would change how the world functions, and it’s the same with Pacific Rim. The brief glimpse we get of the other side of the rift just leaves you wanting more, and the entire movie becomes about closing the rift before the really scary shit can come through. There’s an intelligence behind the kaijus and your mind unspools as you imagine what that intelligence might do next.
5.) The fights are so fun you forget how bad everyone seems to be at their jobs.
Seriously, the jaeger and kaiju fights make no sense. The jaegers fight in the ocean a lot, so what are they standing on? Kaijus can be brought down by artillery, so why make huge machines that have to be in close physical proximity to a monster? Why not make a huge machine that can hover just out of range, firing everything? How do the jaegers get to the monsters so quickly? Why would the kaijus be sent on a predictable schedule anyway? Where are all the resources for building and maintaining jaegers and jaegar facilities even coming from? Why aren’t the jaegers totally remote-controlled? How can a jaeger survive a nuclear explosion but not some gnawing from a kaiju jaw?
And so on. If you think about the mechanics of Pacific Rim then it falls apart. But the fights are so fun and quick that you don’t want to question the reality that the movie is presenting. You just want that robot to choke the monster to death with a purloined strip of highway.
That is, in essence, Pacific Rim: an exceptionally loud, kind of dumb action movie that focuses on being really good as an exceptionally loud, kind of dumb action movie. And solely because of that, it stands head and shoulders above the good majority of blockbuster fare this season.
Chris Lough is the production manager of Tor.com, pretended to be a kaiju at Trader Joe’s, and ended up under a pile of nectarines.