“We are canceling the apocalypse!” Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) tells a team of giant robot pilots and the technicians who service them in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, as they head off to mount a final stand against the enormous monsters, or kaiju, who have endangered humanity’s continued existence. The apocalypse seems terrifyingly real, and the cancellation of it proceeds with considerable style. But while Pacific Rim is an awful lot of fun, part of the reason so many of those of us at home are rooting for the movie to succeed financially is that, in the past, del Toro’s set the bar for himself higher than this.
Pacific Rim packs most of its social context into a twenty-minute introduction that explains the arrival of the kaiju through a portal in the Pacific Ocean, starting with an attack on San Francisco, the creation of the jaeger program as a defense mechanism after conventional jets and tanks proved too slow at taking down the monsters before they did too much damage, the rise to celebrity of jaeger pilots, and the decline of the program after the kaiju showing up got bigger and more dangerous. Spending more time on this part of the narrative, or even making it the subject of a first movie in a franchise, would have made for a stronger movie, and not just because watching the governments of the world come together to build giant robots (especially ones that involve an emotionally rich mind-meld between pilots), and seeing humanity win its first victory against terrifying alien invaders makes for some pretty spectacular story material. Fleshing out the origin story would have required Travis Beacham and del Toro to think through some of the movie’s concepts more clearly, like the idea that world leaders (not to mention defense contractors) would abandon the jaeger program in favor of building a border wall, an approach that proves even less effective at keeping out skyscraper-sized monsters than undocumented immigrants trying to enter United States through Mexico, or that, having repeatedly failed to bomb the rift through which the kaiju arrive on earth, scientists might have investigated why those efforts went wrong.
It also might given us more time with the characters who meet up in Hong Kong for the jaeger pilots’ last stand. There are some nice comic-book images of the Wei Tangs (Charles, Lance, and Mark Luu), triplets who pilot a three-armed jaeger, and Kaidanovskys (Robert Maillet and Heather Doerksen), a man and woman of indeterminate relationship but strikingly similar haircuts who pilot an old-school robot together, but little sense of who they are as people, what they see when they enter each other’s minds, and what they bring to the masses of machinery that have made them stars. Dueling scientists, the fussy, mathematician Gottleib (Burn Gorman) and the tattooed, flamboyant biologist Geiszler (Charlie Day), are sketched broadly but without the kind of depth that del Toro brought to his supporting casts in the Hellboy movies.
Where the movie does better is with its main characters, Raleigh Becket (Sons of Anarchy‘s Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Raleigh begins the movie as a veteran jaeger pilot who quits the program after a matchup with a kaiju goes badly wrong, leaving him with memories that aren’t his own from his co-pilot. He meets Mako when he’s recruited back into the program by Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba)–Stacker’s assistant, Mako badly wants a tryout as a jaeger pilot, though the older man keeps holding her back for reasons of his own. But when tryouts to find Raleigh another co-pilot produce no suitable candidate, Mako gets her shot. The scenes where Raleigh gets lost in Mako’s memories with her is among the most effective in the movie, and it’s a reminder of what might have been if the movie had adjusted its timeline to make for more character development.
But it’s still exciting to watch Mako get to step onto the stage and be as good as she’s capable of being. Part of what made Hellboy so strong was the way it handled Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), a woman who was so afraid of her own pyrotechnic abilities that she’d resigned herself to spending her life in a mental institution, rather than risk trying to master her skills and face the possibility of a slip. Even as he’s introducing his male main characters, who in both Hellboy and Pacific Rim arrive with their powers fully realized in a departure from the origin story beats of most superhero films, del Toro often reserves some of his most potent moments of joy for the moments when women take decisive action themselves. Watching Liz and Hellboy kiss while engulfed in her blue flames, or seeing Mako hold her head high when we see her suited up as a jaeger pilot for the first time is an important reminder that men aren’t the only people who get to experience the heady feeling of recognizing their full capacities.
In spite of these flaws, it’s still manifestly worth seeing Pacific Rim for its outrageously innovative monster design, and what are manifestly the most exciting action sequences of the summer. So many action movies rely on the same ingredients, deployed in differing proportions, at different speeds, and from a variety of angles: the punch, the explosion, the bullet. Just as he has a gift for making monsters, del Toro has a particular talent for making violence visceral, often through penetration, whether Karl Ruprecht Kroenen (Ladislav Beran), the Nazi assassin from Hellboy, is wielding the same sort of knives that he’s had turned on himself, cutting away facial features and organs to transform himself into a deformed toy, enormous monsters with the power to remind us that human bodies are just bags of blood, ready to be skewered on a tentacle, are crossing over from other realms, or Hellboy is using his own horns to stab Rasputin or getting speared by an elf prince.
In Pacific Rim, the kaiju enact that sort of horror on a grand scale, easily punching through boundaries between inside and out. It’s one of the few movies to make effective use of 3D, more to communicate scale than to make audiences shrink back in their seats as things get flung at them, and the sheer size of the jaegers actually makes the clashes between them and the kaiju more anxiety-provoking. If these beasts can punch through a jaeger’s armor and snatch out a pilot with ease, penetrating those massive metal bodies as if there’s nothing to it, and digging into underground bunkers like they’re flipping over leaves, then it’s hard to think of unprotected humans as anything other than smears of meat paste on the sidewalks of cities as vulnerable as stacks of Jenga blocks. The jaegers bring terrific robot design and distinctive fighting styles to the mix, though, and moments that have been featured heavily in the trailers, like a robot hauling a container ship down a container ship, or a jaeger deploying enormous swords from its arms, have even more impact in context.
It’ll be intriguing to see if Pacific Rim‘s box office performance earns it a sequel, for which del Toro reportedly has plans for even more metal-crunching action. If he gets to move ahead, I hope he and his collaborators recognize that they’ve built themselves a set of concepts that have as much impact in our hearts and minds as in our guts.