As a critic I don’t think I’ve ever been presented with a film that’s easier to review than Pacific Rim.
The high concept here is giant robots and giant monsters hitting each other. If that concept sounds like fun to you then you will love Pacific Rim because everything in this film that is related to either robots, monsters or hitting is absolutely perfect. If, however, that concept sounds kind of dumb and boring, then there is nothing in this film that is going to change your mind.
Pacific Rim tells the story of a world where giant monsters called Kaiju (the actual Japanese word for giant monsters such as Godzilla) periodically emerge from an interdimensional portal at the bottom of the pacific and wreak destruction in human cities. After being blind-sided by the first few Kaiju, humanity collectively gets our shit together and starts building giant robots called Jagers (the German for hunter) to stop them.
The film then flashes forward 7 years and we learn that whilst initially successful the Jager programme has started to become a problem. The Kaiju emerging are getting bigger and more frequent and the Jagers are losing fights more often. It is becoming too expensive to keep the programme running and instead the world is going to build a giant wall around the pacific to keep the monsters out.
The film then flashes forward another 5 years and we learn that the wall isn’t working either. The Kaiju are still getting bigger and getting even more frequent and neither our Jagers or the wall are stopping them. With only 4 Jagers remaining it’s up to a rogue military group based in Hong Kong to make a last ditch effort to take the fight to the monsters and end it once and for all.
There are is an awful lot to love about Pacific Rim almost all of it to do with the high concept and how well it’s executed. The Jagers are cool, they have distinct intimidating and memorable designs and are filled with all sorts of fun giant robot weapons like whirling blades, chest missiles, plasma cannons and other weapons I won’t spoil here. The monster designs are absolutely amazing (as you’d expect from Guillermo Del Toro) full of creepy and bizarre alien touches such as a tongue that opens up to reveal another tongue, and then another all glowing like a fibre optic Christmas tree.
The fight sequences are just brilliant too. There is one fight towards the end of the film (although not the actual final battle) that without hyperbole is one of the greatest action sequences I have ever seen, right up there with the Death Star trench run and the final fight in Avengers. Not only are they shot and edited beautifully but the action scenes all remember that a key to a good action sequence is risk and reversal of fortune. It can be fun for a short while to watch an unstoppable action hero wade through a horde of enemies but that quickly gets boring. Instead in a good action scene you genuinely feel that there is some chance that the character could fail and the fortunes of the hero and villain should switch so sometimes the hero looks like their winning and then suddenly the villain does. Pacific Rim not only nails this principle it absolutely blows it out of the water and each action sequence is punctuated with moments of such awesome inventiveness and surprise that I at times screamed out loud “no fucking way!” from the audience.
Also on the positive side is the score. Some have criticised the film for being far too loud and whilst I can understand that, this is a very loud film, I quickly acclimatised myself to the volume and I found the sound mixing and particularly the music (written by Ramin Djawadi the same guy that did the Game of Thrones opening) worked phenomenally well. I still have the main theme stuck in my head days later.
Oh the hell with it, this may get taken down soon but just listen to this here.
There are plenty of subtle references to existing mecha and kaiju films too for the fans such as designs that subtly echo famous film monsters (like a very King Kong-esque monster at one point) and even a plot point that I swear is a reference to the horrible American Godzilla remake.
If you are already a fan of Kaiu films, mecha anime or just like the sound of the concept you will love Pacific Rim.
However; it’s not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination, there are plenty of flaws here and they’re all on the non-robot, non-monster side of the equation i.e. the human cast. The fact of the matter is the human characters are just not particularly interesting. I’ve seen some very scathing reviews of the human parts of the film accusing them of being terribly acted and that all the characters are walking stereotypes. I don’t think the human stuff is that bad but it isn’t great. The acting in this film is pretty much fine, not great, not bad, but fine. The exceptions being Ron Perlman (who eats so much ham his scenes look like a barbeque restaurant) and Idris Elba who, shockingly, is just awful. I love Idris Elba, he was great in Thor and easily the best thing in Prometheus but he’s so stiff and lifeless in this film. I get that his character is meant to be stiff but even in moments when he should be letting the mask fall and showing emotion it feels like he just wanted to say his lines as quickly as possible and get off the set.
The film also has major issues with character development. Our main hero is Raleigh Beckett (played by Charlie Hunnam and as an aside everybody in this film has just terrible character names) has an arc set up involving his dead brother. We spend most of the first act talking about this and then absolutely nothing comes from it. Similarly our heroine Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) has a huge arc about overcoming her fear of the Kaiju that dominates the entirety of the second act and then gets resolved almost in a throwaway line. The only character who gets a complete story arc would be the irascible Australian Jager pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinksy) and he’s a minor character.
This is symptomatic of a larger pacing problem too. The film starts with a long expositional narration, then jumps forward 7 years, then jumps forward again 5 years effectively giving us two first acts. We then get a looooooooooong second act and finally the third act feels really rushed. With the amount of world building and exposition that needs to be done I completely understand why the film has two first acts, the alternative would have been to drop the audience in the middle of the story and trust us to figure out the past from context clues and I understand why they didn’t trust a mainstream audience to do that. I also understand why the third act was so rushed as it’s basically just one big fight sequences and every extra minute was likely another million on the budget to animate these monsters. Nonetheless whilst I understand the film maker’s choices the film is poorly paced.
And if it weren’t so poorly paced the issues with the human characters would be less of an issue. Let’s compare it to a film I review last week, 300. Now whilst these films have very different settings and budgets they function similarly in that they’re both action films and so their purpose is to present the audience with action and spectacle. To get this to work you do need stakes so you do need to establish the characters, the world, what the stakes are and make the audience care that the characters succeed so the character building stuff is a necessary evil to get to the hitting. Pacific Rim does the character building much better than 300, as it has (barely) more nuanced characters but it also spends an awful lot longer with those character whereas 300 rushes through the set-up to get to the good stuff as quickly as it can. 300 is a much more efficient film and if Pacific Rim either had better character development or cut down on the time spent with the characters in the second act it too would be a much more efficient and much superior film.
Because ultimately we didn’t come here for a character piece, we need just enough character stuff so that we care when robots start hitting Kaiju and Pacific Rim unfortunately gets this balance wrong.
There are other things one can criticise if you’re aiming to nit-pick, such as, the absolutely ridiculous science (somebody needs to explain to the scriptwriter what analogue means, hint unless you have a lot of reel to reel computer banks in it I highly doubt your building size robot with a holographic computer display is analogue) but giant robots are inherently bad science anyway, you’re either on board with it and choose to ignore it as a convention of the genre or you were never going to like this film anyway.
And really that’s my long and circular way of saying if you expect to like Pacific Rim than it has everything you wanted to see in it.