There are a lot of “name-brand” summer blockbusters this year — Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, and The Lone Ranger — but few ideas new to the American mainstream. Into this darkness comes Guillermo del Toro, bearing Pacific Rim: a live-action realization of a classic anime fan’s every wet dream, brought to life by the Hellboy director’s impressive visual aesthetic. This may not be the best movie of the summer, but it’s a solid contender for the most awesome.
The back-story is dispensed with in a massive, sometimes clunky info-dump at the beginning: giant monsters — the “kaiju” — started appearing through a mysterious portal on the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and attacking our cities. Our existing defenses inadequate, the nations of the world decided that the most effective defense would be to build giant mecha — the “jaegers” — manned by a pair of neurally-linked pilots to wade out into the ocean for hyper-powered fistfights. Twelve years later even that strategy is faltering, and the jaegers mount a final effort to try to stem the increasing kaiju tide from their last stronghold in Hong Kong, the Shatterdome.
Let’s stand back and get some perspective here: the biggest Hollywood action blockbuster is centered around “kaiju”, an obscure Japanese loanword referring to giant movie monsters from nerd staples like Godzilla and Pulgasari. And these are opposed by giant mecha, sci-fi anime’s stock-in-trade, popularized in America by the likes of Robotech and Voltron. This is the Japanophile geek’s equivalent of those comic books that feature both Superman and Batman, and it’s the biggest thing going in mainstream movies this summer.
And for the really devoted anime fans out there, this movie reads like the closest thing we’ll ever get to a mainstream adaptation of the supremely weird psycho-apocalyptic series Neon Genesis Evangelion. We’ve got the mecha fighting the kaiju, the neural links, and even the psychological trauma, or at least motions in that direction. It’s different enough, though, to steer clear of the tarpit of movie rights A.D. Vision and Gainax have been fighting over for years.
The characters are, well, somewhat forgettable. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) used to be a Jaeger pilot along with his brother until a mission went bad and only he got out alive. He was really good, though, so the head of the jaeger program, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), seeks him out to pair him up with a new co-pilot in his old, refurbished jaeger. In the Shatterdome he meets up with other pilots like the hotshot Australian Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky), who butts heads with Raleigh right away, and aspiring pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who needs to overcome her own traumatic past.
The story, by Travis Beacham with Del Toro’s help, clearly wants to delve into their psychology more than it has time to, even with over two hours to work with. Other than the scale of seeing these fights on the big screen, this could have worked better as a television series much like Evangelion did. One episode can focus on Raleigh; another on Mako; another on Stacker. We’ve got an endless stream of kaiju, so there’s room for at least one big fight per episode, with something about the fight helping advance the characterization.
There’s also a pair of scientists: the uptight theoretician Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and the hyperactive neurobiologist Newton Geizler (Charlie Day) who help drive forward what’s going on with the kaiju since we can’t exactly listen in on monster conversations. They might have filled in more story-driven episodes, like Newton’s efforts to secure a brain from black-market kaiju chop-shop dealer Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman).
In a movie, all of this can feel a bit rushed and reduced to shorthand. The neural link mechanism is a nice touch Del Toro uses to show — not tell — us about Mako’s history, but even this can become a bit of a gimmick. The acting is less than subtle, but there are some wonderful character performances from Day and Gorman. And of course it’s always great to see Elba let loose as he does in his Agincourt speech. Ultimately, though, nothing can take too much time away from the fight scenes.
Which sequences are, in a word, spectacular. Big, bold, and brash, this is the red meat that twice-copied VHS tapes of animated action could never deliver. As action, there’s a little too much Transformers in them for my taste; lots of fast, audience-pummeling sound and light with little coherent sense of space. But, in a way, this is what anime action can often feel like. Besides, at least some of these scenes actually do some heavy lifting of the plot, not just container ships. And there’s lots of memorable, fan-pleasing change-ups from awesome to super-awesome, making for classic conversations about “the time when…” “yeah! and then…”, punctuated with punching and smashing sounds. If I sound snide here, I don’t mean to; this sort of visceral, adolescent satisfaction is why so many geeks came to love kaiju and mecha in the first place, and it wouldn’t be a proper tribute without them.
Among the audiences that see Pacific Rim, it’s certain to be a favorite. I’ve watched more than a few blockbusters, and it’s been a long time since I’ve felt such a palpable sense of excitement in a theater during a movie. The audience even erupted into cheers and applause at the post-credits bonus scene, louder than they did at any point during Man of Steel or Into Darkness. The only question now is whether mainstream audiences will buy into a blockbuster without fifty or more years of name recognition.
Worth It: for an anime or Godzilla fan it’s all but required.
Bechdel Test: fail.