I was 12 when Independence Day came out in 1996, and it had so many things that appealed to 12 year old me. It featured alien monsters, massive cinematic destruction, stunning effects, explosions and lots of action. I imagine that if I were 12 years old today, Pacific Rim would seem to be right up my alley. It’s got alien monsters (technically transdimensional monsters), destruction and explosions and stunning effects. But, I like to think 12 year old me would have left Pacific Rim with the same sense of dissatisfaction that 29 year old me has.
Pacific Rim tells the story of humanity’s fight against Kaiju, giant Godzilla-like creatures that appear from a dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and wreak havoc on the cities that border that body of water. The film actually begins 7 years after the first attack, as Earth has joined together to fight back by creating Jaegers, equally giant robots controlled by two pilots who join their minds together in order to handle the mental load required to operate the machines (they call the process “drifting”). We’re introduced to the brother team of Raleigh and Yancey Becket, a pair who likes to disregard orders and instead follow their conscience, who pilot a Jaeger called Gipsy Danger. Unfortunately, during an attack, Yancey is ripped from the damaged Jaeger (and ripped from the mind of his brother as the drift is severed), and Raleigh barely manages to defeat the Kaiju and pilot the Jaeger back to shore.
All of this merely serves as a narrated prologue before the film jumps ahead another 5 years. The Jaeger project is being abandoned as ineffective, with the remaining four machines being redeployed to Hong Kong for a final six month tour while the nations of Earth build a giant wall around the Pacific, which they think will protect them for good. But the commander of the Jaegers has a different plan, one which will destroy the portal once and for all. For that plan to succeed, however, he’ll have to resurrect Gipsy Danger, now outdated, and find a crew to pilot her. He rerecruits Raleigh, and searches for a pilot to pair him with, all while struggling to continue defending the planet and to plan his final assault.
If you’re still reading, kudos, because that’s a lot of setup required to get the audience up to speed on the context of Pacific Rim. In many ways, the film feels like the final episode of a TV series, with the first third of the movie being that “previously on…” narrated intro that comes attached to the beginning of every TV episode. There’s nothing wrong with a long or complicated backstory, but it feels like Guillermo Del Toro had more in his head than he had time to show onscreen. As such, the film feels underdeveloped.
In fact, being underdeveloped is my biggest complaint about the film. Del Toro, who wrote and directed the film, spent so much time crafting the look and feel of the world that he seems to have forgotten a lot of other necessary stuff. Every Jaeger and its pilots get named in ways that seem to appeal to action figure collectors, despite these characters getting basically no development beyond that. Each Kaiju gets a name, too, though with the monsters they’re mostly indistinguishable from each other. I’m a pretty big geek, so when I say that the movie seems written to appeal to people geekier than I am, you’ll get what I’m talking about.
The characters really suffer as a result of this. The movie is in no way short, but it seems like no time was spent giving the characters any depth. The acting is all fine, but every character seems to simply fill a role, while never seeming human. Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), as the “hero” of the film, is supposed to be suffering from what happened to his brother, but we’re barely given any time to appreciate his pain. The commander, played by Idris Elba (whose career seems to be continually rising), gets the big speech, makes the hard decisions and still gets to play the hero, but he’s the same sort of character we’ve seen more compellingly in countless other films. There are a pair of nerdy scientists and a black market Kaiju organ dealer played by Ron Perlman, all of whom are entertaining to watch but not interesting enough to care about. Only Mako, a potential pilot match for Raleigh, caught my interest. She’s played by Rinko Kikuchi, who impressed everyone in Babel a few years ago, and she constantly gives the aura of layers underneath.
I do have to praise the effects and the design of the film. It’s clear that a lot of time and money was spent getting the look of the film just right, and it really pays off. The sets and costumes are stunning to look at, and the design of the Jaegers is intricate and convincing. If you can get past the insane engineering on screen (I dare you not to laugh at the helicopter rigging they use to lift these machines), the Jaegers are convincingly created. It seems almost plausible, especially when compared with something like Transformers. Of course, there’s no explanation as to why Jaegers are a more effective weapon against the Kaiju than conventional weaponry, but you have to just accept some things and run with them in a movie like this.
The effects are simply gorgeous. The battles, which roam from underwater to the streets of Hong Kong are beautifully lit, choreographed and staged. They may be destructoporn, but they work a lot better than the recent destructoporn that bogged down the endings of Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness. I can appreciate cinematic destruction as its own end much more than I can when it’s simply tacked on the end of a film in a way that makes no sense. But as visually interesting as the battles in Pacific Rim are, they’re never particularly exciting because we never really care about the people inside these great machines.
I brought up Independence Day on purpose, of course, because I feel like it’s an effects extravaganza that still holds up today because of the characters it created. All of the protagonists in the film are dealing with relatable issues, and each feels like a unique individual. The performances go a long way to help that, of course, but the writing is what sells it. It is in no way a masterpiece, and it’s absolutely cliche, but Independence Day always feels like a story about the characters that’s full of action, not a story simply about action.
The same can’t be said for Pacific Rim. The movie hits many of the same broad emotional strokes (and some specific story beats) as Independence Day, yet it’s clearly a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters. It needs to have characters in order to advance the plot, but that seems to be their only purpose. I like to think that 12 year old me would have been disappointed by Pacific Rim for that reason, because he loved the character moments in Independence Day far more than he did the effects. I feel like current 12 year olds deserve better than they got with Pacific Rim. It may be absolutely amazing to look at, but it’s pretty hollow inside. Given the fact that Del Toro made Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies just makes the offense that much worse.
Note: There seemed to be an odd mix of reactions in my crowd. During the battles there was a good deal of laughter, of the “Oh my god this is so awesome!” variety, which I expected. But I also heard some sniffing that I swear could only have come from someone getting emotional at what was on screen. (Longtime moviegoers know the sort of sniffing I’m talking about. It’s very different from someone who simply has a cold.) I’m curious if anyone out there felt a real emotional connection to the film, and why? Just because I didn’t doesn’t mean that someone else couldn’t. We all have different tastes and different experiences. If Pacific Rim hit you emotionally, please share why in the comments. I’d love to hear from you!
Note 2: I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Ellen McLain voices the AI of the Jaegers. Her voice will be familiar to anyone who has played either of the Portal video games, as she voices the rogue AI, GLaDOS, in those games. It makes me wish we could get a Portal movie.