We’re already halfway through the summer, and I can barely count on one hand the number of movies I’ve really enjoyed. Maybe I still haven’t gotten over the fact that last year was a mind bogglingly great year for movies, but I’m still feeling really bummed out by what we’ve gotten so far in 2013. I liked Iron Man Three and Furious 6 a lot (did not review the latter, but it’s a ton of fun, go see it), Monsters University was funny, and I even enjoyed the messy insanity of The Lone Ranger, but none have really captured that special joy of going to see a big, crowd-pleasing, spectacle in a packed auditorium. We haven’t had anything in the grand tradition of The Avengers, Inception, or Harry Potter, and it’s been something I’ve been desperately craving.
Well, if you’ve been feeling anything like I have, go right now, and go see Pacific Rim on the biggest screen with the biggest crowd that you can. Really, just go. This review is largely unnecessary, just go out and see this movie!
I’m only half-kidding there. As much as I want to gush about this movie this is one of those films that could be damaged by reading a review beforehand. I’m not going to spoil anything in the technical sense of plot developments or narrative turns, but this is one of those movies that you really should just commit to seeing and then allow it to unfold on screen without any prior knowledge. Part of the joy of this movie is allowing yourself to be swept up in the world it’s creating, and I’d rather not upstage Guillermo del Toro’s fantastic work by telling you about it out of context. Like I said, I’m not putting a spoiler warning up on this review, but just know that it’s better not to read this one until after the fact.
With that being said, Pacific Rim is the best time I’ve had at the movies all year. This feels like a legitimate watershed moment – a movie that is at this very moment creating a whole new generation of filmmakers. Sitting in the theater, watching Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to the films that inspired him, made me feel like I was eight-years-old again watching Star Wars for the first time. The movie is filled to the brim with wonder, that special quality that can’t be forced, can’t be faked, that can only come from a work of passion. It sounds absolutely cliché, but it made me feel like a kid again. For actual kids seeing this movie, I can only imagine how it will affect them. Twenty years from now I’m fairly confident that some of our greatest filmmakers will point back to this film as the movie that made them want to make movies.
The premise of the film is that a portal between dimensions has opened deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, and out of that portal have come Kaiju, monsters the size of skyscrapers. Conventional weapons took days to bring them down, so a new weapon was created: the Jaeger program. Massive mechs that can go toe-to-toe with the Kaiju, piloted by a pair of humans sharing a neural link. Unfortunately, the rate of the Kaiju’s appearance continues to escalate, with monsters taking down our Jaegers faster than we can build them. After years of this war, things look grim, and humanity has decommissioned the Jaeger program, instead opting to construct a massive wall around the nations bordering the Pacific Ocean. However, Stacker Pentecost, commander of the Jaeger program, puts together a team of the four remaining Jaegers to take one last stand against the Kaiju.
One of the primary ways Pacific Rim succeeds is by creating a world that feels rich and vibrant and alive. By bringing us in at the end of this war, Guillermo del Toro is able to show a society that has been forever changed by the appearance of 300 foot monsters. There’s cultish religions that worship inside the bones of dead Kaiju, there’s a black market industry that has capitalized on the selling of Kaiju remains, and there’s five generations of Jaegers that have been created to fight the Kaiju. This is a world that feels like it has endless possibilities for new stories to be told, much like similar world building series like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. It’s a world that you want to spend more time with, to explore stories of characters and histories of events. This level of world building is a hard thing to accomplish, but del Toro pulls it off masterfully.
Del Toro also manages to achieve an incredible scale to the whole thing. This movie feels HUGE, when you witness the Jaegers battle with the Kaiju you feel every blow, you look up in awe of these massive creatures and you forget you’re in a movie theater. There’s one particular battle that takes place in and around Hong Kong during the mid-point of the film, and I looked on with bated breath, eyes wide as saucers, and witnessed something that was pure movie magic. Guillermo del Toro has an amazing ability to make a movie look significantly more expensive than it actually is, with $60-80 million films like the two Hellboy movies looking as if they cost $150 million each. Now that he actually has a huge budget to play with, the results are nothing short of incredible.
The weak link in this movie is, unfortunately, the thin characterizations. Most of the characters in the film are painted in very broad strokes, and the protagonist especially is just sort of generic. That said, generic isn’t always a deal breaker, after all, Luke Skywalker is sort of the definition of generic hero (at least in the original Star Wars) and yet he worked in the context of the film. In a lot of cases, the same applies here. You’ve got these broad, almost cartoon-like characters, and it sort of fits into the context of this big, over-the-top world. Idris Elba is great as the grizzled war veteran, Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are very funny as a pair of scientists researching the Kaiju, and Ron Perlman is, as always, a treat as a shady black market dealer. The film creates characters that are genuinely likable, if not always emotionally deep, and that’s more than you can say for the likes of Transformers.
The heroes in this film are also legitimately heroic. Unlike many of our current mopey-faced reluctant heroes who spend half of the film “resisting the call,” the characters of Pacific Rim are wonderfully dedicated to old fashioned heroism. These are people who come together and risk their lives, not for personal gain, not for some impassioned vendetta, but to stand up and defend an ideal that is larger than they are. It’s somewhat surprising that in a summer with Superman, Iron Man, and the Lone Ranger, a movie about giant mechs fighting giant monsters is the most optimistic and the most kid-friendly blockbuster released so far. If you have kids that are between 8 and 13, this movie will be huge for them.
I’ve never really had much exposure to Kaiju films (something I intend to remedy), but Guillermo del Toro’s love of these films comes across in every frame of Pacific Rim and it’s absolutely infectious. The film ends with a dedication to “Monster Masters” Ray Harryhausen and Ishirō Honda, and I can’t think of a better tribute to two icons of cinema who have captured the imaginations of millions. Pacific Rim has its share of problems, but it rises above them to be one of the most thoroughly entertaining movies of the year. This is a film that BEGS to be seen in a theater with a huge crowd. I really do believe that like the works of Harryhausen, Honda, Spielberg, and Lucas, Guillermo del Toro’s work on Pacific Rim will inspire generations of filmmakers to come. I sadly wasn’t around in 1977 for Star Wars, nor was I there in 1981 for Raiders of the Lost Ark. However, I’m thrilled to say I was there at 7:35 opening night for Pacific Rim, and I can’t wait to see how it affects the landscape of filmmaking.