The pitch of Pacific Rim is of a future war against giant monsters (“Kaiju”), fought by giant robots (“Jaegers”). It’s an idea quickly grasped by any demographic, whether in the toy aisle or on social media. Director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro has perhaps the simplest and grandest pitch of blockbusters: fantastical titans hitting each other. Yet with co-writer Travis Beacham and a staggering technical crew, he takes what is a fundamentally juvenile concept and delivers an exciting spectacle with enough heroic drama to motivate and justify its effects onslaught. This is not to set expectations for a rich character study, but the conceit of the Jaeger program allows for some development, including techniques that might go unnoticed.
The story then segues into standard plot material from different genres (including some direct references to famous precedents), as the kaiju attacks escalate and resources dwindle. The leader of the Jaeger program, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), develops a last-ditch plan of attack, and calls upon Becket and other pilots to help him. Thus we have a movie. Much of the rest of the story – aside from the battles, of course – is set at a deployment base, with Becket and other pilots having war-weary and ego-driven squabbles. What little we know of the other pilots (representing distinctive Jaeger craft from Russia, China, and Australia), and it’s very little, is because of these scenes – there’s little time in battle to reveal personality. Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) is the strongest role in the film, and one of the more powerful roles for a woman in a major picture like this in recent years. She is introduced as someone with intelligence and authority, and as she becomes more involved in the events that follow, her agency is independent of Becket. It’s through Mori’s story that we’re privileged to a beautiful and subversively paced sequence, and it’s no coincidence that during the end credits, Kikuchi’s title card image is of the backbone of one of the pilot suits. There’s a subplot featuring scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) analyzing kaiju behavior and anatomy, to better understand the foes, but it’s largely unnecessary, and Day, though clearly funny, has to shoulder the burdensome comedic relief.
Since Pacific Rim is about those epic fights, testaments to a vision carried out by an army of special effects workers, a few non-spoiler details follow on how they are staged. Unlike some recent tent-pole fare, not only does the 3D work well – the colors are even bright! – but the massive-scale thematic war imagery, evoking the nuclear attacks on Japan and the 9/11 attacks on Manhattan, shows consideration for civilians. Primary orders are to evacuate and protect those areas that were not already deserted. Given this, when some fights do reach land, the “catastrophe porn” that most blockbusters of this scope indulge in is nearly non-existent, and the audience can enjoy the enormity of the battles without feeling queasy about widespread anonymous casualties. As slight as their characterizations might be, these are actual heroes, not just causes of more destruction. Del Toro demonstrates expert pacing with his editors Peter Amundson and John Gilroy, allowing the personal moments to breathe so that the action set-pieces are more exhilarating. Most impressive technically, aside from the incredible work to create the kaiju and Jaegers, is del Toro’s control of scale and space with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro and production designers Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier. There’s visual context at all times: how the monsters and robots are matched up, how far they are away from back-up or civilians, and especially the actual fighting styles.
It would no doubt have been much easier to use generic, uniform motions, but these fights are as choreographed as any on film. The training or downtime fight sequences among pilots at the base supports this, and are a welcome analog inclusion. The sheer fact of huge robots and monsters hitting each other might engage most viewers, but there are distinctive offensive and defensive techniques that reflect character (pilots and kaiju included), and demonstrate how important The Drift is. The Jaegers fight differently from each other, and reflect some traditional styles of their respective nationalities as well. Without specifics, some Jaeger teams change up, and through drifting, it can be observed that the Jaeger itself then changes its approach and technique for the better, though this isn’t spelled out. (The drift is played for emotional effect, not for physical prowess.) This is significant, and may not be fully appreciated during opening weekend. A central theme of the film is putting aside differences for the greater good – again, somewhat of a cliché in team-centric action films – but rarely in those types of films do the characters’ physical actions change alongside their psychological resolve. Pacific Rim shows the devastation of war on a global scale – Becket remarks in the opening that only the terror of the kaiju prompted competing nations to cooperate – but it also offers something rather subtle and remarkable on the personal scale, about combining histories and being open to new approaches to a common problem.