Guillermo del Toro is an interesting choice of director for a colossal summer blockbuster about giant robots and sea monsters, but if you think about it, it’s a completely appropriate choice.
He enjoyed commercial success with Blade II and Hellboy, brought visual splendour to the big screen with Pan’s Labyrinth, and received international critical acclaim for the Devil’s Backbone. Del Toro has a distinctive visual style that works in both small scale, intimate horror movies and huge summer blockbusters.
In the near future, an inter-dimensional rift has opened at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and huge alien monsters known as “Kaiju” have begun rampaging across cities on the Pacific Rim. The nations of the rim have put aside their differences to combat the alien threat and build “Jaegers”, massive Kaiju-fighting mechs. Each Jaeger requires two pilots who have to know each other intimately for the “neural handshake” to be successful. Most Jaeger pilots are sibling- or parent-and-child teams.
Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) was a Jaeger pilot with his brother until his brother was killed in a Kaiju attack on Alaska. Five years later, the Jaeger program is being wound down after several defeats by new, larger Kaiju. The Jaegers’ commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) persuades Becket to return and team up with new co-pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) for a final Jaeger attack on the source of the Kaiju threat, the Pacific rift.
It sounds like standard summer action/sci-fi blockbuster, but it is in the execution that this film excels. Both the Jaegers and the Kaiju are beautifully realised, with attention paid to the tiniest detail of how they walk, turn and fight. The film takes place on an epic scale which del Toro emphasises with his photography. In one especially impressive scene a Jaeger picks up a ship to use as a club to beat a Kaiju; this should give you an idea of how massive we’re talking. Note that this film is certainly worth seeing in IMAX to fully appreciate how enormous the Jaegers are.
In the hands of a less talented director, this would just be a film about special effects but del Toro puts a human story at its heart. Charlie Hunnam conveys Becket’s loss and self-doubt effectively and makes his new-found confidence believable after he teams up with Mori. The neural handshake is an effective method of characterisation, as we see different aspects or the characters’ lives when their thoughts mix inside the Jaegers. When Becket is transported back to Mori’s youth and sees her parents die in a Kaiju attack, that’s Mori’s back story effectively filled in one scene.
The film has a lot of strong performances, Rinko Kikuchi conveys the pain of her character’s loss convincingly, and Robert Kazinsky is excellent as Becket’s cocky Australian rival Check Hansen. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman put in a good turn as a pair of scientists working on the Jaegers, and there is a great addition in the cameo by Ron Perlman, of Hellboy fame, as a dealer of black-market deceased Kaiju bits. However, the stand out performance has to be the always-brilliant Elba, who delivers the film’s most stirring speech with Shakespearian gusto as he bellows ‘We are cancelling apocalypse!’
Aside from pure ‘Robots and monsters are cool’, one of the story’s key themes is cooperation. The Jaegers are built around the idea of working together; they are manufactured by the nations of the world pooling their resources, and must be operated by two warriors fighting as one.
This is not a surprising or new theme from del Toro, who has explored fascism in Spain in previous films, though characters setting aside national and cultural differences to come together against a common evil is always good to watch. My main criticism of Pacific Rim is that it focuses too heavily on the American and Australian Jaegers, relegating the Chinese and Russian Jaegers to minor supporting roles.
Pacific Rim is beautiful to watch with amazing visuals and gorgeous character design, and as much attention is paid to the villain’s appearance as to the heroes. This is one of those films that really could have gone either way, but in the hands of del Toro and his excellent cast it could just be the best film of the summer.