The 10th anniversary of director Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 “Kaiju vs. Jaegers” blockbuster, Pacific Rim, came and went this past July. Despite being constantly busy, the Oscar-winning director did promise something special to celebrate his beloved film. Lo and behold, October gave audiences another chance to watch Idris Elba and crew cancel the apocalypse, as a few showings took place, including a packed house for a screening during Beyond Fest at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, CA. Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham were on hand for a Q&A following the film, but more importantly – this film is still a lot of fun.
Now, putting this upfront – I’ve been a huge fan of this film since it was announced at San Diego Comic-Con in 2012. The notion of Guillermo del Toro following up Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (both masterworks for different reasons) and coming out of his whole ordeal with potentially directing The Hobbit movies, only to go and direct a movie about giant monsters fighting giant robots sold me pretty easily. It only helped that the movie turned out as good as it was. Do I care whether that’s the general consensus held by all? Of course not, but having watched the film again for its 10th anniversary (and many times in between), there is something to say, once again, about how good audiences used to have it.
An opening battle off the coast of Anchorage shows us this right away. Following an exposition dump to get the audience up to speed (featuring the gravely-voiced American accent by Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket), there are a series of shots to show us the inner workings of how to get implanted into a Jaeger, followed by a colossal fight between Gipsy Danger (one hell of a giant robot name) and a Kaiju codenamed “Knifehead.” At a time when we take so much of the awe and spectacle of these impossible sights for granted when it comes to today’s huge-budget blockbusters, del Toro gets why this should feel special.
These massive creations have weight. They have interesting details that can be observed. What the film lacks in faster-paced fight scenes, it makes up for by acknowledging that the suitmation techniques featured in Toho’s Godzilla movies have remained popular for good reason. As this initial fight plays out, the film establishes the toll it takes on the pilots to go after these Kaiju. By the end of the fight, while Raleigh manages to take down the beast, he’s lost his brother (a reminder that each Jaeger requires two pilots to share the load in commanding these machines).
Looking at the supposed flaws, it’s the same general things some tend to focus on. The plot is generic, (some of) the characters are flat, and perhaps even the visuals are called into question, which is nuts, but I’ll get back to that. Regarding the first two areas, I don’t think it’s ever been more apparent that del Toro knows what he’s offering up as far as staging the film as a clear riff on Top Gun (and Hoosiers, by his own admission). On top of that, whether or not one enjoys what the actors bring, characters like Raleigh Becket, Robert Kazinsky’s Chuck Hansen, or Burn Gorman’s Dr. Hermann Gottlieb feel pretty deliberately handled like stock characters lifted right out of a comic book.
I’m not saying this washes away all notion of criticism or that the film is misunderstood, but I believe del Toro is a smart enough filmmaker to realize he’s not one to get specific results by accident. There’s a shorthand that comes with relying on simple character types. However, there’s another layer here – it’s all enjoyable nonsense. Sure, there are established stakes and two better developed characters I specifically haven’t mentioned yet, but so much of this movie relies on purposeful nonsense that one can’t help but smile at. Bold and very earnest choices are made to lean in on the absurdity of it all, whether it’s a scene where a group of construction workers moan at the fact that a giant wall turned out not to be the way to stop giant monsters from rampaging through cities or the very unnecessary grudge held between Iceman Chuck and Maverick Raleigh.
Other moments are purely for silly geek pleasures that can be enjoyed by teens and adults in the right mind frame. Look at Charlie Day’s Kaiju groupie character, Newt. He and Gorman’s Hermann are pure comic relief, but Pacific Rim sets up a major subplot around Newt linking his brain with a Kaiju to figure out their plan. During this time, he meets up with another classic del Toro creation for Ron Perlman – Hannibal Chau. This is a man defined by sunglasses, a switchblade, and gold-plated shoes. Throughout all of this, Newt travels through the very colorful Hong Kong setting that speaks to how much like a comic book movie this plays as. Given how devoid of personality and color so many comic book movies willingly choose to be, this is a giant relief by comparison.
With all this in mind, there is still time for stronger performances and ideas to back them up. Idris Elba and Oscar-nominee Rinko Kikuchi do not need to do a whole lot to accomplish what’s required, and yet they give it their all, as del Toro clearly cherishes Marshal Stacker Pentecost and Mako Mori most. For Elba, he’s a commanding actor who gets to provide the big Independence Day speech and dominate scenes just by reactions (That “Don’t ever touch me again” moment was an improv of his own creation). As the alliterative Mako Mori, Kikuchi taps into what it means to be just as capable as the stock male lead and what it is to have unresolved trauma surrounding a Kaiju attack.
One of the film’s most memorable sequences (that doesn’t involve awesome robot bashing, which I haven’t forgotten about) features a young Mako viewing an invading Kaiju as a terrifying monster. Del Toro doesn’t shy away from the kind of imagery that easily fits in his more dramatic pictures, as we see a little girl in a blue dress and red shoes isolated in a city block as a ravaging creature tears buildings apart to chase after her. Relating that to her cerebral connection with her co-pilot strengthens the film’s internal logic regarding how Jaegers work and themes built around bonding, teamwork, and compassion.
Granted, when the film isn’t showing flashbacks of a traumatized child or relishing in the details of hypermasculinity and how it informs most of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, there’s all the rocket punches, monster throws, and more that speaks to these big action sequences. I mentioned how the visuals have been called out to some degree. That must come from the presence of rain and the fact that most of the fights are set at night. That’s usually seen as a sign of cost-cutting measures, and that’s not wrong here. Even with a blockbuster budget, del Toro could only do so much with what he’s working with. Fortunately, the director is very good at understanding this aspect of filmmaking. Using these settings to his advantage, there’s never a lack of clarity in what’s taking place.
All the water in this film helps ground this world in some kind of reality (the choice to only have camera angles that make some sort of sense also helps with this). Seeing all the rushing waters fall off these creatures as they charge through oceans or move through these rainy areas only stands to emphasize how large they are. While the sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising, made it a point to set nearly all the battles during daytime without any actual weather, it came at a cost. Much as I think that film is mostly fine… the weight and power of those machines was mostly nullified, which was a true shame. Where that film ended up coming across as one of the most expensive Saturday morning cartoons I had seen, the 2013 film wants the spectacle to really feel as though it earns that word.
One of the most iconic images is watching Gipsy Danger walk between buildings up to a Kaiju (Otachi), dragging a ship behind it to help it beat up this monster. It’s a great way to enter a fight, and it’s a high point of the film, which features multiple stages of battle, including the surprise use of wings to take things to the sky. If the one-liners are too corny or the viewer is just not into the over-the-top bravado of Hunnam’s role, so bet it. However, I’ll still take giant Kaiju/Jaeger battles over so much of what we see at this budget level any day of the week.
The notion of “what if” may always remain as far as what could have come next for this franchise. As has been reported recently, it was apparently an outrageous reason as to why del Toro did not go on to direct the sequel (it involved a studio not making the deposit for the filming stages in time). Of course, if things played out differently, we may not have also gotten The Shape of Water in the same way it arrived. Ultimately, the first film did what was needed to be a success, with positive reviews and enough global success to earn that sequel. The ‘Uprising’ was less impressive by most standards, and another film is unlikely. However, an animated Netflix series, graphic novels, a theme park ride, and other extensions of this original brand certainly show a lot of interest was generated by this creation.
There’s a clear appeal, and I like that it comes from various avenues introduced in this film. There are the unique Jaeger designs and the different Kaiju, of course, but that goes along with having a diverse cast full of personality, and all the elaborate pieces that define this universe – something del Toro is very good at doing (and have I mentioned seeing these colossal fights!). We may not have seen all of what del Toro had developed for the sake of eventually realizing in the Pacific Rim world, but he was at least able to deliver a sizable portion that brought a good-sized ruckus to movie screens back in 2013. Late in the Beyond Fest Q&A, del Toro lets out that this film should be re-released in theaters. As far as I’m concerned, that would absolutely be a benefit for all, and, as a way to upset some of the more plain efforts of recent times, totally in line with the rock & roll attitude of Del Toro’s vision.