Not enough blockbusters these days seem to really love their own material, or at least it rarely comes through on screen. Christopher Nolan was so conflicted about the Batman mythos that he drained most of the fantasy from it, and JJ Abrams seems determined to reduce Star Trek to a generic space adventure. Directors like Guillermo del Toro are vital because they choose stories and genres they adore and fight for them to get made. His love of mecha anime and giant monster movies like Gojira is so obvious watching Pacific Rim that it stands apart from the cautious mega-movies that prefer to play it cool. If nothing else, see Pacific Rim to watch a blockbuster that feels like it’s made for its own sake rather than for a focus group.
The story pits near-future humanity against the kaiju, giant creatures entering our world through a dimensional rift on the Pacific Ocean floor to attack coastal cities. With all other options exhausted, gigantic robots called Jaegers have been built to fight them. When a plan emerges to end the kaiju threat for good, former Jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) is brought back into the fold, where he has to help the inexperienced Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) learn to pilot alongside him.
Pacific Rim exists for epic monster battles, the kind that cinema has always attempted but never fully realised. Now they finally have been, but Del Toro’s imagination and exuberance make them fun and wondrous rather than mean-spirited orgies of destruction. He even trusts his story and mythology enough to bring us in partway through, and doesn’t fixate, Nolan-style, on how the kaiju phenomenon would make sense in our world. Instead, they’re here, we need to fight them, and we have the means to do it – that’s it. In rejecting the fad for painstakingly rationalising the fantastic, Pacific Rim looks as lavish as other tentpoles but doesn’t feel like a product marketed to the broadest possible audience.
Unfortunately, the characters are too bland for us to truly care about the stakes. Raleigh isn’t saddled with insecurity or struggling with questions of destiny, which is a nice change, but nothing fills that vacuum. He’s reasonably humble and compassionate, but that’s it. A flashback to Mako losing her family in a kaiju attack resonates, but otherwise she’s a stock figure, as is Idris Elba as their boss. Their father-daughter relationship falls flat too. Although played by terrific actors, the characters are functional but unmemorable. Having passion for your material doesn’t necessarily lead to satisfying characterisation.
So Pacific Rim‘s rich world and battle sequences are its drawcards. The impact of the kaiju war is conveyed elegantly with finely observed details and off-hand references rather than awkward exposition; a lot of care has gone into the world-building. The action is spectacular, but the editing is still too rapid and the lighting too dark for what we’re seeing to soak in, even though we’re spared the impressionistic camerawork of the Bourne films and Man of Steel that only allows you to glimpse what’s going on. In Pacific Rim, you see a lot, but not as much as you hope to.
Pacific Rim may not tick all the essential boxes, but it’s the work of a director who loves genre and understands how to execute it on film. Despite some significant issues, its heart is in the right place, and that counts for a lot.