This is one of those movies that shouldn’t exist. It’s too expensive for an unproven property. It’s too silly for a wide audience. It’s too risky to put in the hands of the director of Hellboy. Pacific Rim should have been a creative and financial failure of epic proportions and it probably would have been if it were not for the giddy passion-infused vision of Guillermo Del Toro and numerous uncredited script rewrites. Instead of repeating all the same mistakes as other big Hollywood spectacles, this film gave us a story worth watching, appreciating, and rewatching.
Of course, no film of this type should be expected to please everyone. Although the average cinema goer would probably lump this together with another recent and very profitable sci-fi franchise (which shall not be named as not to lend it legitimacy), Pacific Rim is anything but that special brand of lowest common denominator inanity. Although it may seem to share a similar visual makeup , inflated sense of scale, and core concept, the differences couldn’t be greater.
Please don’t mistake me for saying that Pacific Rim is high art. It is not. What it is actually is a more rare animal, one almost unheard of in massive productions like this. It is something rare enough that we don’t have a good name for it: a self-aware unpretentious non-pandering genre film that doesn’t pretend to be more than it is, yet achieves its purpose with so much joy and clarity that it’s turns a central premise which should naturally devolve into stupidity into a much more earnest human story.
Let’s talk about all the things that Pacific Rim absolutely got right.
Careful World-Building and Set-Up
Most movies of this nature start with the conflict right as it initially arrives. Everything is fine and then a monster appears to shred that world to pieces. Wisely Pacific Rim begins 8 years after the attacks begin. This is not a movie about monsters attacking. It is a movie about a world where monster attacks are normal. And that is far more interesting.
We also don’t just see robots fighting monsters. We see glimpses of how it affects the economy, international politics, and the crews behind those machines. We see what it’s like to run for your life to an underground shelter and what it’s like to be a lost little girl during a Kaiju attack. We hear ineffectual politicians on television promising that the Wall of Life will protect them and then later hear how people should flee to the Safe Zones that we know, of course, cannot keep people safe. We meet the scientists that study these creatures. Best of all, we see the shady underworld that gathers around the fallen corpses to harvest organs, bones, and other tissues for a profit. We learn that even the Marshal makes deals with these guys to keep the Jaeger program afloat. Pacific Rim gives us the real deal, not a half-baked jumble of ideas buried under flashy battle sequences.
Relatable Human Characters
I won’t tell you that Pacific Rim has incredible deep and memorable characters. But I will argue that these feel like real characters with real motivations and a real stake in what happens in the Kaiju war. Stacker Pentecost is unbreakable, forceful, expedient. Mako is determined, respectful, aggressive. Raleigh is wary, hopeful, unpredictable. Supported by a pair of argumentative scientists and cohorts of stone-cold pilots, these people function coherently as well as dramatically. Although they might not provide deep currents of Shakespearean pathos, neither are they mere cardboard cutouts .
How many visual effects-driven films like these do you watch where you can even remember who was in them, what they wanted, and how they changed? These characters are more than archetypes, and if they are not much more, should we not be thankful that they did not attempt to be? They are human characters designed to fulfill their function in an utterly make-believe story. Casting issues aside, I’m not you could ask for much more. If the human aspect didn’t work and the characters were not grounded in some kind of relatable reality, there would have no reason to root for the giant robots. That is why so many other films of this type utterly collapse on a story level and why this one doesn’t.
Expertly Planned Plot Turns
This movie follows all the rules of tense plotting. Everything from each Kaijus’ arrival following through to the subsequent battles are about establishing equilibrium and then upsetting that equilibrium. It works as follows:
A Kaiju appears and heads toward a populated area (SAD)
The humans send a Jaeger in response (HAPPY)
The Kaiju knocks over the Jaeger (SAD)
The Jaeger punches the Kaiju in the face (HAPPY)
The Kaiju is barely hurt by the punch and roars (SAD)
The Jaeger loads its plasma cannons (HAPPY)
The Kaiju rips off the arm with the plasma cannon (SAD)
The audience screams in terror.
This fine balance of give and take, creating expectations and shattering expectations, creating new expectations and twisting them around, all build toward an exciting sense of simultaneous discovery and terror. The Jaeger has elbow rockets! But the Kaiju has a tail! The Jaeger has a sword! But the Kaiju has an EMP! But the humans have an analog Jaeger! But the Kaiju can fly! But wait, the Jaeger has a sword!
At the beginning of the film Raleigh is sent in against a Kaiju and it’s the first ever category 4. He loses his brother and his Jaeger. His next battle years later he is sent in against two category fours at the same time, the first ever double event. Also, Mako is possibly unstable in the drift. Against crazy odds, they win. And in their next battle? They now goes in against two category fours with a surprise addition: the first category 5 and the first triple event. This is the constant escalation of stakes, difficulty, and danger. It’s called sharp plotting.
The people who watch this movie and tell me there’s no story are overlooking the essential narrative logic at play. The people wrote made the story knew what they were doing and you can tell. That is exactly what makes this film so much better than that “other franchise”.
The creative team refused to make the same scene twice. All three of the major fight sequences have a totally different setting. The first battle takes place entirely at sea somewhere off the Alaskan coast and ends with Gipsy Danger collapsing in the snow. The second battle starts off near the shoreline of Hong Kong and then moves into downtown Hong Kong and then heads into the atmosphere. The third and final battle is fought deep under the ocean near the rift between worlds and concludes with a sneak peek of the alien world on the other side.
In addition, we get a few glimpses at the devastation in San Francisco, Manila, Sydney, and Tokyo. This a global threat, irrespective of national borders or political alliances, and so it is presented as such. We never have to see the same place twice nor the same type of battle twice. No shortcuts were taken here and it pays off in the finished results.
A Clearly Stated Theme
So many movies like this don’t even attempt to make any type of rational or moral statement. Instead we get a bunch of self-absorbed spectacle. But Pacific Rim insists through its story on saying something. Is it deep? No. Should it be? I don’t know. But there is a coherent and intentional message, and it’s simple yet effective in a manner that so many crappy movies are not.
Here it is: people of different backgrounds can come together to overcome the big challenges that can come at anytime and strike anywhere. This is not a recruitment video for the armed forces and more unnecessary wars. It’s Marshal Pentecost and his rangers, not General Pentecost and his robo-marines. It’s about togetherness, not militarism.
We don’t know when the next financial crisis, the next tsunami, the next earthquake, the next terrorist attack, the next genocidal dictator, or the next civil war is coming. But togetherness, cooperation, and personal human connection offers us hidden strength. It helps us become resilient.
The prime metaphor for this is the neural connection of the Jaeger pilots. Two pilots who physically cannot operate their machine without the other. They need each other to fight Kaiju. They can’t just work together, they must become absolutely in sync with each other. They must open themselves and experience each other’s hopes, fears, memories, and traumas. If they can’t do that, they fail. Simple yet effective.
Co-workers don’t have that level of intimacy. Neither do close friends, family members, or even lovers. People don’t have those type of connections. We hide from each other. We run from each other. Yet that connection is exactly what is needed to fight the monsters.
You can tell me this is a dumb movie, but I assure you it’s only as dumb as you want it to be. If you come to see robots and monsters and nothing else, you can walk away satisfied with whatever you think you saw. But if you care about thoughtful storytelling, about coherent theme, about meaningful narrative decisions, about expert moviemaking, and about things that might actually have applications for this messed up world we live in, you could do far worse than watching Pacific Rim a couples times.