Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim is one heck of an underdog. I’m sure the pitch was fun. This movie could have simply been sold on “Monsters vs. giant robots”.  However, the risks of having no major stars, a crowded market, narrow marketing, and a new property makes this film a financial risk. In the United States, this movie has become a symbol of the state of the film industry. Its other opening week competition was a sequel (Grown Ups 2), and it faced a strong second week for Despicable Me 2 (another sequel). As the Lone Ranger found out, its trough to start a new franchise these days (and that wasn’t a new property).

Warning: This is a post-viewing discussion of Pacific Rim. If you haven't seen it yet, turn back now. 

For some reason, I wasn’t particularly excited to see this film. I likely fall into the camp of those who are desensitized by all the computer generated, effect-driven films (Transformers), and just wasn’t excited by the action. Wow, did Pacific Rim win me over. I loved the Kaiju and Jaegers, and found myself enthralled whenever they would battle. The fights were fantastic, and really surprised me at times. I was completely caught off-guard by the Kaiju’s wings, as well as the sword. Congrats to Pacific Rim for causing to me smile ear-to-ear with wide-eyed surprise. There were a few moments where I felt lost. I had trouble keeping track of how many Kaiju were in the final showdown. However, I would say that for the most part the battles were well choreographed.

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This really is a visual feast. The visual effects of Pacific Rim are top-notch. As with many movies that rely heavily on CG environments, the 3D also looked great. Guillermo del Toro did a fantastic job of creating a fascinating world for us to explore.  The political and cultural reactions to Kaiju threat are almost enough for its own spin-off film (perhaps a political thriller?). I found it fascinating to see a bit of how Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) harvests and builds a fortune from the remains of the Kaiju. As I understand it, much of the Kaiju items are borrowed from various stories in anime and other places. As someone who considers himself new to this genre, I loved it and found it to be fascinating.

I really appreciate the way that Pacific Rim respects the audience’s intelligence. We are thrown a lot of details that provide context, but it never felt like we were fed details unnecessarily. For example, lesser films would have dwelled on why Charlie Day’s character was being hunted by the Kaiju through Hong Kong.  We as the audience are led to the realization that the Kaiju can communicate with each other, the dialog just confirms it.

On the other hand, while I appreciated seeing the contrast between the early days of the Kaiju War and the end of it, I felt like world got smaller once we made it to The Shatterdome. While the audience clearly understands that the Jaegers are the last hope of humanity, the politics and public opinion had a more difficult debate. We didn’t really need to see the rest of the world celebrating, but it seemed strange that the salvation of humanity was not addressed. Also, I’m still curious who really thought the giant wall was a great idea anyway. There was so much left to explore. I’m sure it was the right choice to focus on the Jaeger resistance, and I can appreciate that there is much of the world left to explore in possible sequels.

Quick test: Can you name any characters by name? Not the actors, the characters. Anybody?

Here lies the problem I had with Pacific Rim. I didn’t care about the characters. I felt like I should, but didn’t. I couldn’t. The moments in battle were thrilling, I was fascinated by the world around our characters, but the few quiet moments of this film didn’t do it for me. I never connected with the characters. In the beginning, we are led to see the pilots as cocky rockstars, so we don’t care as much when Raleigh loses his brother. I felt the sadness of that moment, but the connection was dull and wasn’t strong enough to last another two hours.  Heck, Raleigh Beckets’s reaction to that was simply to give up. He went back on his own, and seemly wasn’t interested in avenging his brother. There was no major lesson learned.  I feel like I should have cared for Mako more, but she was a slightly interesting mystery with a boring revelation. I like Idris Elba, I liked every moment he as on the screen. I just didn’t care about him. Somehow, his sacrifice seemed hallow.  For all of the strengths of this movie, the writing really drug it down. To be fair, that dialog had to carry a lot of exposition. I just don’t feel like these characters stood for anything other than wanting to pilot a Jaeger.

This is a case where I think the movie could have benefited from another 15-20 minutes. Pacific Rim jumped so quickly through the setup, that I feel we could have spent time bonding with the Becket brothers before their fateful fight.  Perhaps spending a few more moments with the characters would have allowed me to understand and care for them. That said, perhaps the creators could have accomplished this if the movie was better written (particularly during those moments at base). Pacific Rim does so many things right, but I feel that has much more to do with the vision of Guillermo del Toro than what’s in the script. I haven’t read it. I’m no screenwriter. I’m just calling out where the movie fell short for me.

There may not have been any stars in this movie, but if the characters were memorable, this could have been a star-making film.

Also, I can let this movie get away with plenty, but the ending confused me. How did both Mako and Becket survive? I thought they needed a Kaiju to get through. Wouldn’t at least one of them die in the nuclear blast? Doesn’t it take a minute or two to make it through the rift? I thought at least one would die, or at least get stuck in the wormhole. When this happened in The Avengers, I had no expectation of Tony Stark kicking the bucket; but how in the heck did both lifeboats escape the Jaeger-bomb? This seemed like a forced way to prepare for the sequel. 

I understand that most blockbusters are imperfect. The Avengers wasn’t very deep, but we cared because we had time to connect with its characters (over several films).  Avatar took its time and played at the emotional heartstrings, but it doesn’t stand up to multiple viewings (for me). I don’t take issue with the story or dialog in Prometheus, but that is another contested film (that excels in world-building). I think Pacific Rim may be in a similar category. It is a thrilling spectacle. I just wonder how it will hold up over time. Sometimes these films maintain their joy and excitement (Avengers). Sometimes, we forget what we saw in them (Avatar).

It is unfortunate that it seems Pacific Rim didn’t get the marketing push it deserved.  I think Pacific Rim was surprisingly accessible, and should appeal to more than its core audience. Heck, doesn’t this film need a bigger audience to succeed? A film at half the cost can afford to be niche-focused. Doesn’t Pacific Rim need a mass audience to succeed financially? Perhaps not. I expect this will turn a profit, and that it will slowly build a following. It should play well on cable. I could see Pacific Rim 2 as one of the big sequels in 2016. If so, it will be the Jaegers and the Kaiju that draw the crowds.

Given my perception that awareness is low for Pacific Rim, I feel like I should be more forgiving that the trailer gave away too much. I’m not. I avoided reading about Pacific Rim, and only saw the trailers a couple of times, but I saw lots of Idris Elba’s character. I thought he was the main character. I just kept waiting for him to pilot a Jaeger.  I also had seen a number of moments from the battle in Hong Kong. I hate to continue to rag on trailers for spoiling moments in their films, but I find this really distracting.

Pacific Rim was a blast, and is a great summer move. I’m really happy that it is finding its audience. I’m sure this will continue to grow fans internationally, as well as in the U.S. I had a lot of fun watching this movie. I just didn’t care about the people in it. I have my issues with Pacific Rim, but I can’t wait to see it again. I bet this will get a sequel, and I hope it’s good. I’m not sure I’ll be excited about it, and I’m not sure where they’ll take this other than more Kaiju and more Jeagers (but is that such a bad thing?). In the end, I’m faulting a big summer blockbuster for not having enough heart. It may not be fair, but that was my reaction. As you can surely tell, I have conflicting opinions about Pacific Rim. I had fun and found it to be a good move. I just think it could have been a great movie.