Movie Review: “Pacific Rim” (2013)

Yay! The apocalypse has been canceled! Wheee!…what?

It’s only the kaiju apocalypse?

Well, that’s a start.

This year’s Pacific Rim, a many-layered fairy tale written by Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham, and directed by del Toro, has something for everybody, but the first thing you notice, of course, is the effects.

This is only right and proper in a film dedicated to Ishiro Honda and Ray Harryhausen, both of whom passed away this year.

Most of the CGI sea monsters intentionally have a “man-in-a-suit” look like Honda’s Godzilla. And Ray Harryhausen would have loved to play with the small computerized figures on which the giant jaegers (hunters) and kaiju (monsters) were modeled:
 

 
Every single one of the many action sequences with these kaiju and jaegers in Pacific Rim is filmed with the same intensity and high production quality usually found only in the finale of ordinary science fiction movies…

…and then del Toro ramps it all up several notches higher in the finale. It’s breathtaking.

I hope that, before they left us, those two legendary effects men somehow had a chance to see at least part of the movie that continues their legacy superbly into the digital age.
 


 
Here’s how it looked to the rest of us:
 

 
Uh, guys? That’s “prequel.”

And of course they do…
 

Of course they do.  It's Wrath of the Gods style courting - different cultural values, but more on that later.

The kiss just comes later. It’s a cultural thing, real “Wrath of the Gods” stuff, but more on that later.

Now, before going on, you should know there are going to be a lot of spoilers.

It’s not heavy stuff – basically just a writer’s version of the Screen Junkies’ “pewpewpew” excitement – but do yourself a favor and watch Pacific Rim first, if you haven’t seen it yet. It’s even more fun, not knowing what’s going to happen in the next scene, because this movie also works as a drama.

As well, true to its roots in Fifties “B movies” like Them! and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it’s also about the vague and frightening things viewers from a specific era are carrying around deep inside them.

Yeah, Pacific Rim engages you on just about every level.

Character Arcs

Raleigh Becket is certainly the viewpoint character, but it’s difficult to empathize with him, if you catch my drift. (I have just given myself a time-out.)

Seriously, how much can viewers have in common with someone who has felt this much power…
 

"There are things you can't fight - acts of God.  You see a hurricane coming, you have to get out of the way.  But when you're in a jaeger, suddenly you can fight the hurricane.  You can win."  - Raleigh Becket

“There are things you can’t fight – acts of God. You see a hurricane coming, you have to get out of the way. But when you’re in a jaeger, suddenly you can fight the hurricane. You can win.” – Raleigh Becket


 
…only to fall so hard after being beaten by a greater power.
 
kaiju 1 jaeger 0
 
We react emotionally to Raleigh’s narration and progress through the story, but we can’t experience it with him.

All of us, however, would like to be Dr. Newton Geiszler. OK, he has no social skills whatsoever, and as a scientist has forgotten more biology and physics than most of us will ever learn, but Newt’s also proud of his kaiju tattoos and isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty (literally – he’s often elbow-deep in kaiju samples).

He’s spunky, too. While forced to work in the shadow of a genius – Dr. Herman Gottlieb, played to physical as well as intellectual perfection by Burn Gorman – Newt doesn’t let it get him down. He challenges Gottlieb constantly and doesn’t hesitate to mock him in front of the top brass, just as we wish we could act in similar real-world situations:
 

Gottlieb:  "Numbers do not lie.  Politics and poetry, promises - these are lies. Numbers are as close as we get to the handwriting of God."  Newt, it seems, begs to differ.

Gottlieb: “Numbers do not lie. Politics and poetry, promises – these are lies. Numbers are as close as we get to the handwriting of God.” Newt, it seems, begs to differ.

Raleigh’s role is pretty much confined to his jaeger (even the girl must join him in that context). Granted, that is a major part of this movie, but Newt goes on a journey.

He’s sent deep into the seedy side of Hong Kong, where he eventually confronts his greatest fear and matures into a gutsy guy who faces down Hong Kong’s criminal mastermind in order to get what he needs. He is rewarded when Dr. Gottlieb shows him some respect and joins him on a dangerous mission.

Now, that’s a major character arc, right there. But he doesn’t get the girl.

Actress Rinko Kikuchi plays Mako Mori as a very repressed but strong woman who just does her thing in a strange and dangerous world. We see her most often in the presence of Stacker Pentecost, when she is very subdued, but even then her face is so expressive!

Del Toro films her first meeting with Raleigh like a love scene, and it works despite being set on the Shatterdome – only one of the many awesome names for people and things in this movie – in the midst of a cacophony of military-style hardware and transport and busyness.

We know from that point on that these two are the “will-they-won’t-they” characters. But there’s more to Mako Mori than being the love interest.

Image Source

As seen in Hero (2002). (Image Source – of course there are recipes)

By the way, I wonder how many other female viewers are just itching to respond to criticisms about the late appearance of Gipsy Danger’s sword.

Obviously Mako put that in while supervising Gipsy’s reconstruction, because she had been promised a pilot berth and wanted to use one. Sharp things are very much a woman’s weapon.

She didn’t tell Pentecost about it, and presumably all the technicians, etc., involved thought it was standard operating procedure and therefore didn’t mention it, so neither Pentecost nor Becket ever knew about the sword until it was needed.

Any woman tough enough to be named after a shark but existing in a world full of Shatterdomes and kaiju, where feminine initiative must struggle to fit in, would have done the same thing.

Why?

Vengeance!

Nine-year-old Mana Ashida, as little Mako, will wring your heart out.

Nine-year-old Mana Ashida, as little Mako, will wring your heart out.

Yep, Mako has a major character arc, too. Plus she gets the guy.

There are many other characters who also deserve discussion. However, I’m the part of the audience that Mako is meant to appeal to, and by gosh, it works!

Stacker Pentecost

Everyone snaps to when the many-titled Stacker Pentecost enters the room.

At the start of things, he’s a four-star American general, then a Marshall while in civvies, but under duress Newt calls him “Dr. Pentecost.” Pentecost himself describes his role as “a fixed point, the last man standing.”

Idris Elba is absolutely a strong enough actor to step into this intimidating yet gentle-hearted role through physical acting as well as dialogue. Perhaps the trickiest and ultimately successful nonverbal acting starts with the bo staff scene when Raleigh forces Pentecost to give Mako a shot at the co-pilot job and ends with Pentecost visiting Mako and presenting her with that little red shoe.

Nothing is said to explain what’s going with Stacker, though obviously he’s facing a difficulty, but we’re given enough physical cues for it all to fall into place once we discover the relationship between him and Mako Mori.

Stacker also has plenty of good dialogue. We’ve already seen a part of his “canceling the apocalypse” speech above, so here’s a screen cap of him giving a reality orientation talk to his co-pilot Chuck “the Jerk” Hansen, soon to be Chuck “the Hero” Hansen (that’s Daddy in the background at the focus of this beautifully framed screen shot).
 

Chuck:  Marshall, you know that was a great speech but how exactly are you and I supposed to match up in there? Pentecost:  I carry nothing into the drift.  No memories.  No fear.  No rank.  And as for you, why, you're easy.  You're an egotistical jerk with daddy issues, a simple puzzle I solved on day one...but you are your father's son, so we'll drift just fine. Chuck:  Works for me.

Chuck: Marshall, you know that was a great speech but how exactly are you and I supposed to match up in there?
Pentecost: I carry nothing into the drift. No memories. No fear. No rank. And as for you, why, you’re easy. You’re an egotistical jerk with daddy issues, a simple puzzle I solved on day one…but you are your father’s son, so we’ll drift just fine.
Chuck: Works for me.

Influences

Besides the general Fifties B-movie vibe, there are more references to Independence Day (1996) than just the rousing speech. And whenever a review of an action picture like this mentions colors, one immediately thinks of Yimou Zhang’s Hero.

In fact, I’m tempted to describe Pacific Rim in one sense as a Hero adjusted for Western values (plot coherency and positive outcome, for example), but this requires more thought.

One thing seems clear, though. Guillermo del Toro taps into some powerful late 20th/early 21st century events in order to reach the viewer on a gut level.

For instance, there are the kaiju.

In the real world, we all saw the sea rise twice in deadly rage in 2004 and 2011, when earthquakes caused horrific tsunamis.

Kaiju are also literally compared to hurricanes – an East Pacific term, though these storms are called by other names in the rest of the Pacific – and graded on a 5-point category system (OK, the humans don’t know about the Category 5 until near the end of the movie).

This definitely brings to mind the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and similar or worse catastrophes that have happened elsewhere in the lands ringing the Pacific Ocean.

There’s also a uniquely Asian mythological connection between sea monsters and tropical cyclones. I’m most familiar with the Vietnamese version in which a typhoon is really the arrival of a huge supernatural sea turtle. There must be something similar in Japan because Ishiro Honda uses that imagery in Godzilla to introduce his monster:
 

The American trailer starts off with the post-A bomb scenes. In the 1950s, American and Japanese audiences were very different from each other.

So, where is America in Pacific Rim? We’re not in any obvious and central role, though the sense of “out of many one” and the emphasis of technology, positivity and toughness that permeates the film is sublimely American.

I think the clearest reference to the world’s last superpower is in the final minutes of that remarkable 12-minute prologue before the film title first appears.

Having lived in those times, this sure reminds me of America in the mid-1970s, at the end of the Vietnam era: Those two Americans are totally absorbed in their own lives, with the rest of the world blocked out in a fog. The snow gives it an old-timey feel, like something viewed in one of those shakeable snow globes.

Then mankind’s great hope comes staggering out of the sea and collapses in front of them. The old man’s reaction pretty accurately sums up how it felt to me to be an American during the debacle days back in the 1970s. We were supposed to be unbeatable, and yet we failed.

Back in the movie, a wounded man in uniform walks out, obviously in shock. Like the best American citizens of the Seventies and subsequent decades, the old man rushes to greet and help him.

 

I love this scene.

Only then, after this final gut-wrenching conclusion of an epic 12-minute mini-movie does del Toro finally start the movie “officially” (and very briefly).

Here it is in its entirety, so you can also transition out of the painful scene.
 

In this sense, then, Pacific Rim is about all about America’s role in the Pacific after the Vietnam era. The good news is that it ends with us finding internal balance again. Raleigh’s final realization that “all I have to do is fall” (after that terrible fall he had earlier, shown above) leads to victory.

The rest of the movie’s characters are also from major countries around the real Pacific Ocean (except Canada, where this movie was filmed, per IMDb).

While the Russians and Chinese have jaegers, they are presented as stereotypes, unfortunately. The Chinese jaeger pilots don’t even have lines. The emphasis is on the Japanese and the Americans. Since the director is Mexican, I suspect this reflects the film’s dedication to Honda and Harryhausen, respectively, rather than any political partisanship.

However, American and Japanese national influences in Pacific Rim do extend beyond special effects.

Twice, major characters are given brutally honest and negative assessments of their work – the above scene with Pentecost and Chuck the Jerk, as well as one between Raleigh and Mako in which she, as project manager, tells him everything that’s wrong with him and why she doesn’t think he’s the right man for the job. Each time, the Westerner grimaces but accepts the feedback.

I don’t know a lot about Japanese culture but have read that this process is an important feature of it.

This sense of American/Japanese cultures confronting each other evokes deep memories of the “turning Japanese” concern in America during the late 20th century when it seemed that Japanese economic powerhouse of the day was going to catch us up and then surpass us. However, Del Toro turns it into a a complementary yin-yang dynamic that ultimately defeats the aliens.

I wouldn’t really want to try to delineate what’s yin and what’s yang in the movie, but the jaegers definitely are “yang.” Humans generally are both, especially Stacker, Raleigh and Mako, and probably Newt, too, although he seems to have some trouble finding his balance.
 

Granted, Newt had a lot going on his life just then.

Granted, Newt does have a lot going on in his life.

Anyway, the closing scene with Raleigh and Mako works with this yin-yang dynamic, as it’s definitely Japanese influenced but done in an American style with Mako jumping off her raft and swimming to Raleigh (not to mention the choppers).

The overall effect is greater than any of its components and it makes a fitting close. But why don’t they kiss? Well, that’s the Japanese way.

The first interracial kiss on screen?

In 1914, they had to say “I do” before they did.

Throughout Pacific Rim, there are close parallels between del Toro’s portrayal of the growing romance between Raleigh and Mako and the way Reginald Barker showed Tom Wilson and Takeo falling in love in The Wrath of the Gods, a movie set in Japan but filmed in America almost a hundred years ago.

In both movies, the two lovers get close physically. Just when you’re sure they’re going to at least hug each other, they break contact. This goes on and on, keeping the viewer on edge.

Del Toro also does it at the end of Pacific Rim and it works. Raleigh’s a man and therefore yang dominant, so if he kisses the yin-dominant woman under improper circumstances like these, it will spoil everything.

Of course, just on a social sense, we’ve also seen him use martial arts and heard him speak Japanese in that one scene, so we know he’s cool with her culture while obviously confident in his own. Everything is going to work out just fine for both of them.

Things were simpler in 1914, and yet more revolutionary. Moral values back in the day just required Barker to have his two lovers marry before he could film what was possibly the first onscreen interracial kiss ever.

Story Structure

So, summing up, we’ve got the highest of all stakes: the end of the world. Incredibly – no, actually, it’s very believable – politicians have cut funding for the only weapon that can save humanity. One man decides to take on the kaiju anyway and has the resources and guts to bring it off, but he needs the help of a combat vet with a bad case of PTSD. I want to see Mako Mori pilot a Jaeger, but the boss won’t let her. That’s so unfair! Raleigh and Mako – will it work? Raleigh and Chuck the Jerk are having a fist fight – this doesn’t help the struggle to survive against the kaiju. Newt’s got guts, but did he imperil the world by drifting with a kaiju? And how will Newt survive the dangerous streets of Hong Kong – he’s not Bruce Lee. Sure, he drifted with a kaiju, but can he cope with their human equivalent? OMG, there’s Ron Perlman!

We’ve got two movies here: an “awesome dumb robot movie” and an action adventure filled with interesting characters and their difficulties.

Only now can we see the true genius of Pacific Rim.

It should fail. There’s just no way you can combine those two things. And yet it works beautifully.

The biggest challenge obviously is getting the audience to follow the unfolding human stories in the midst of visually striking action scenes. Some techniques are straightforward – high stakes, boy meets girl, quick cuts to the reactions of the human pilots during kaiju/jaeger fights, go-for-the-gut emotional scenes, an inevitable but delayed bare-knuckles fight scene between Raleigh and Chuck the Jerk in the worst possible place, a doggie (seriously).

Those jaeger/kaiju fights are massively distracting, though.
 

I think del Toro uses a visual technique to make the audience comfortable with it all: he turns it into a ride.

Think about it – why do they slam those Jaeger heads onto the body that way? You certainly don’t connect up your computer like that – it could damage things. Well, the Jaegers have much more complex and delicate circuitry, just like the human nervous system. They should be easing it as gently as NASA technicians handle the spacecraft during construction.

Better still, the pilots could just climb into a head/cockpit that’s already solidly attached to the jaeger’s body.

It sure works well as an audience ride, though. Whoosh! Bam! We’re in.

Let’s call these visual clues “drops” and assume we’re riding them every time one is shown.

Drop #1 – when Raleigh and his brother are in position and ready to be joined to Gipsy Danger – is our first introduction to a jaeger. The drop is two-fold: the head drops down and slams onto the jaeger body and then helicopters lift the jaeger and drop it into the sea. Whoo, boy, what a rollercoaster of a fight follows that. Though it ends in tragedy, we now know that such drops mean a fantastic fight is coming up.

Drop #2 is different – it’s a shot of the elevator taking the major characters (and us) deep into the Shatterdome. During that elevator ride, Raleigh actually hands the mantle of main character over to Newt, I think. Newt tells Raleigh he’d love to see a kaiju, and Raleigh replies with a thousand-yard stare while he claps Newt on the shoulder and says, basically, no you don’t.

In the Shatterdome, we really get into the human side of things, but the jaegers are still present, just turned off (except for that one time when Mako almost kills everybody with the new Gipsy). There are no visual drop scenes of any sort but this interlude ends as Pentecost sends Newton out on his journey into the Hong Kong underworld. That’s a metamorphic “drop” we can all relate to, I suppose.

Drop #3 – Time for kaiju fights again. Just the helicopters are used now, dropping the Russian and Chinese jaegers, and eventually Gipsy Danger, into Hong Kong Bay. In the meantime, Newt is having adventures on land, including an encounter with a human “monster” in the familar and beloved form of Ron Perlman. We’re now interested enough in Newt to keep him in mind as we follow how things are going out in the bay.

Drop #4 – OK, this one is debatable, but I’d call it a drop because it leads to the first of several confrontations between a civilian and a kaiju in which the human survives. Newt goes down into an underground tunnel hideout and then gets isolated from the other people and loses his glasses. He recovers them but before he can put them on, the kaiju breaks through the roof. It seems to invite the kaiju scientist out, but he’s in full terrified human mode at this point and doesn’t move. The kaiju attacks, and somehow Newt finds his courage again and puts on his glasses. Still terrified, he stands still as the kaiju checks him out, and then the kaiju turns and walks away. (I like to see this as a parallel for the life situation where staying rational in the face of terrible danger can keep you alive, but it’s also true that at this same time the kaiju hears Gipsy Danger coming, and she’s armed with a shipping barge. An awesome fight ensues.)
 

We're still cheering for Newt because he stood his ground in the face of this.

We’re still cheering for Newt because he stood his ground in the face of this.

Drop #5 combines the head drop followed by the helicopter jaeger drop again. We know something awesome is coming up, but we are still unprepared for what del Toro now unleashes on us in this, the finale.

Let’s take a moment to talk about quiet things. Del Toro takes us on a wild ride, but he also inserts breathers, brief quiet scenes where we can reorient ourselves. One such quiet time is shown in the Screen Junkies’ trailer, where the huge jaeger fist sets a cradle of Newton’s balls in motion (nice touch and a subliminal reminder of the, uh, courage that the story’s main character is showing right now).

Another quiet moment is during a big fight in Hong Kong when the kaiju pushes the jaeger out toward the harbor but stops just as the jaeger’s heel hits a post on a dock, disturbing a bird. It’s a beautiful and necessarily brief pause.

Now, back to the uproar, and the last drop.

Drop #6 – Gipsy Danger, with Raleigh and Mako on board, falls through The Breach. It’s this iconic scene you’ve seen everywhere.
 
All I have to do is fall

The action is over and only the human story needs to be completed. Now something can finally go UP – quiet little life pods. And so we get to the guy and the girl floating around on the sea, where they don’t but they most definitely do.

Summary

Pacific Rim is an enormous fun, and it’s a very, very good movie, too.

My only criticisms are minor ones. We don’t really need to know the ultimate fate of the Ron Perlman character, for instance. However, del Toro obviously likes working with him. Is there a “Hannibal Chau, supernatural bad/good guy” movie in the future?

Another point. Raleigh specifically mentions he was using a jaeger in 2017 – ha! We won’t have this technology then…oh, wait. We already do.

Also, it would have made more geologic sense to put The Breach in the middle of a tectonic plate because no one really knows for sure what causes intraplate activity. On the other hand, a “fissure between tectonic plates” is really just a fault zone or a spreading center (which is what they seem to be showing in the movie), and that grates on anybody with even a little earth science knowledge.

The filmmakers probably knew that and yet were forced to put The Breach close to land.
There’s literally nothing out in the Pacific Ocean to be endangered in a high-stakes survival struggle between us and the aliens…or to be smashed in a spectacular jaeger/kaiju fight.

Such things require witnesses to be endangered and to, well, witness. Even in the mid-ocean encounter off Anchorage at the start of things, there had to be a fishing boat in the area; otherwise, it would have just been a bunch of meaningless distant noise.

Well, I can’t call Pacific Rim the best movie of 2013 because it’s the only 2013 movie that I’ve seen. My tastes run more toward the ancient end of things – the “best of the best” moves that have stood the test over time.

I do believe, though, that some day Pacific Rim will join the ranks of the best of the best movies ever. Given the progress on virtual reality right now in the real world, it also will win kudos for its predictions of future technology (that won’t involve monsters or mechas of mass destruction).

Did I mention it’s also a lot of fun?
 


Edit: Scientific American actually did a two-part series on this movie’s rocket punch and underwater nuke blast.



Categories: movies, Random thoughts

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