2013’s sci-fi/fantasy epic Pacific Rim was something of a risk. That’s something of a rarity these days, with most big-budget movies being sequels or new iterations of established, well-worn IPs. Pacific Rim, on the other hand, was new; an entertaining action film not based on a comic book and not part of any existing narrative universe. Although the central conceit of giant robots fighting monsters/aliens is familiar to older viewers thanks to the likes of Godzilla, director Guillermo Del Toro wanted to re-envision this neglected genre for modern audiences and bring it to a new generation. Pacific Rim was a qualified success at the box office and had a mixed critical reception, but thankfully a sequel was finally greenlit and will appear next year. That’s a good thing in my view, because Pacific Rim is an outstanding film, and one of the best action films of the last decade.
Pacific Rim is set in a near-future Earth devastated by attacks from giant monsters called Kaiju which appear from a dimensional rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. To combat the threat, mankind devised giant robots called Jaegers; they’re piloted by humans, but the “neural load” of piloting one means the job has to be shared between two pilots. This introduces an important aspect of teamwork, meaning the film doesn’t just focus on the genius of individual pilots, but instead has a more democratic focus on co-operation and working together to overcome a terrifying foe.
Indeed, the general mood and timbre of Pacific Rim is quite progressive and inclusive. Del Toro makes a point of avoiding the gung-ho, glamorized version of the traditional military which is familiar from most conventional blockbusters, to the point that the film barely features any conventional weaponry at all. While the film features an enormous amount of jaw-dropping destruction of major cities, it’s emphasized that for the most parts these cities have been evacuated; so the cost is mainly in bricks and mortar. The script is clear that what is ultimately at stake in Pacific Rim is the survival of our species, but because it doesn’t show lots of people dying, it largely succeeds in keeping the tone relatively light and upbeat. It’s a refreshing take on things.
The visual design in Pacific Rim is absolutely spectacular. The Jaegers and Kaiju look incredible, but the pilots’ armour also looks tremendous (and the film features arguably the most glorious pair of shoes ever designed). The fight sequences between the giant behemoths are a joy to behold, and a reminder of what a powerful and invigorating medium cinema can be at its best. 3D cinema seems to have had its day, but Pacific Rim is a movie which benefits from being seen on the largest screen available, and in 3D if possible.
Pacific Rim manages to have its cake and eat it by combining stunning aesthetics and action set-pieces with a solid script and poignant and sincere human drama. The central character, hotheaded pilot Raleigh, is appealing and benefits from actor Charlie Hunnam’s good looks, humour and charm. But over the course of the film the supporting cast are given a surprising amount of development. Hunnam has good chemistry with Rinko Kikuchi, who plays Jaeger pilot Mako and who has an endearing and entertaining crush on Raleigh. Idris Elba is great as Stacker, the head of the Jaeger programme and therefore Raleigh’s boss as well as Mako’s surrogate father. Apparently Del Toro wanted Tom Cruise to play the role at first (which would have been awesome), but Elba has the presence and authority to pull it off. Unlike many people, I’ve not been a huge fan of most of Elba’s work since The Wire, but this is one of his best roles.
The icing on the cake is that Del Toro associate Ron Perlman gets a predictably entertaining cameo as Kaiju organ-trader Hannibal Chau. But even someone like Raleigh’s at-first irritating rival Chuck, played by ex-Eastenders actor Robert Kazinsky, becomes more sympathetic once you understand his motivations. The script features much more depth and compassion than your average summer blockbuster or superhero film, and it’s a real joy to watch from beginning to end. It might not be the most sophisticated or intellectual film around, but it achieves everything it sets out to do, and what it aims for is actually quite ambitious. Pacific Rim showcased a different approach to the summer blockbuster, and shows up how limited, negative and cynical most of those films are. I wish more films were brave enough to use the approach Del Toro deploys here, but at least there’s going to be a sequel – and here’s hoping it matches the heart and spectacle of the original.