In addition to directing films, Guillermo Del Toro has tried his hand at the video game market before, with a canceled project called Sundown, a Hellboy game, and the halted, developing Insane. You don’t have to watch Pacific Rim, his first directorial effort since Hellboy II: The Golden Army, for long before you see the influence. The monsters’ weak spots are indicated by bright glowing colors on sensitive body parts, and the more you see the robots fight, the more it appears that Del Toro and his team spent a great deal of time designing every attack, weapon, and special that each one can use. For those that have played Xenogears and Zone of the Enders, Pacific Rim will make you want to play them again. There’s a “boss battle” in here in which the goal isn’t to kill the enemy but just to survive until the game/movie decides you “won” and moves on with the plot. If oxygen levels get too low, it’s game over.
I called them “monsters” and robots,” but it would have been more accurate to call them “kaiju” and “jaegers,” the Japanese word that translates to “giant beast” (and also the name for the genre of films like Godzilla and Gamera) and the German word for “hunters,” respectively. But those multi-lingual terms are more than just homage to Ishirō Honda (to whom the film is dedicated); internationalism is a major theme—or at least a major detail—of Pacific Rim. In addition to the broad applications of national words, it is worth noting that this is an American film made by a Mexican filmmaker that takes place largely in Hong Kong, and a brief scene recalls the beginnings of Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and unemployment in post-World War II Italy in general. Still, if you expect any kind of comment or insight on globalization, American Exceptionalism, or race, you’ll be disappointed. This is largely just for show, and one would be hard-pressed to find any evidence that Del Toro (and co-writer Travis Beacham) wanted to engage critically with these issues.
Instead, Pacific Rim is largely about the fights. Picture big monsters going at it with Gundams that require two pilots and you’re right in the ballpark. That isn’t to say it is all fights, and in fact, the first half goes by with very little fighting at all. We quickly get the background on what kaiju are, how to stop them, the growing threat, an introduction to typically archetypal characters, and of course Hollywood’s new bread-and-butter, 9/11 evocation. This time it’s San Francisco, and although it’s gleaned over in a flashy bit of exposition in the film’s first few minutes, a split-second of Obama on the news after an attack makes Pacific Rim one with Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, and World War Z in this summer’s questionable cinematic recreations of 9/11. We learn that Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is a once-great Jaeger pilot who lost a brother but finds himself coming out of retirement years later for one final job, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, who you might recall from her Oscar-nominated role in Babel) is the love-interest and partner out of desperation (this isn’t Blade Runner, I promise), and the marshal (Idris Elba) is in charge of putting together a team to take out the kaiju, but also the protective de-facto father of Mako (see, the father-figure is a good-guy in this film!). There is also Charlie Day of Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Burt Gorman as rival scientists and comic-relief and a few other supporting characters. Once they do some talking and discussing and characterizing, it becomes time for the spectacular, special-effects laden, adrenaline-pumping fights. Those don’t disappoint.
But it’s hard to say the same about Pacific Rim as a whole. With internationalism running throughout, a scene where three dangerous jobs are offered to a crowd of poor, starving unemployed men, and a dense exposition to begin, the film wants to build a world bigger than the one it takes place in. Del Toro cut an hour from the film with the help of Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón, but he opted to chop character arcs down to their minimum requirements. The approach that I would imagine either of those directors taking (Cuarón in particular) seems more enticing: An even longer movie with less action, more world-building, and better characters, all in the service of fleshing out themes and creating depth. Move beyond character tropes, bring thematic weight to the concept of “the drift” (a way in which co-pilots connect their mindsin order to control the Jaeger, taking memories and emotions along with them), and show us the destitute world that is often-referenced but never truly created. The failed wall being constructed by the lucky few workers and the “Bone slums” of Hong Kong in which kaiju body parts are sold on the black market and the impoverished scrape by are ripe for exploration but frustratingly underused. Pacific Rim has the stakes but not the scope. If this were more Avatar and less King Kong Vs. Godzilla, it might feel more original (given that its script is far superior to Avatar’s). Instead, it’s another weightless summer blockbuster, albeit a well-paced, highly enjoyable one.
It’s easy to see how much the crew enjoyed doing what they did, and that’s why Pacific Rim works. The oversized beasts are fantastic; the fight scenes are exciting, the effects are awesome, the sound design is immersing. The script, despite cliché, is not heavy-handed or lazy. Dialogue serves as action far more than it does exposition. Characters grapple with and explore problems rather than being presented with them and then quickly solving it so they can move onto the next. Still, there’s a strong sci-fi film dying to burst out of the seams, and instead we get an homage-filled action flick. This may be a blockbuster with an original script, but it is not an original blockbuster. It passes 132 minutes with no problems, but unless a throwaway line about environmentalism satisfies you intellectually, that’s all it does, despite constantly promising to do much more.