Screenwriter Travis Beacham, working on a script to be developed with director Guillermo del Toro, was walking along the Santa Monica Beach when he had visions of an epic battle between a giant robot and a giant sea monster occurring on the shoreline. When that initial project with del Toro was scrapped, then, Beacham decided to flesh out that robot/monster battle into a greater story of surviving after great loss, intimate connections between disparate people, and, of course, massive robots beating up on massive sea monsters.
Pacific Rim, the resultant collaboration between Beacham and del Toro, takes place in the 2020s, when giant mysterious monsters known as Kaiju have appeared through a teleportation “breach” underwater in the Pacific Ocean. These monsters begin to attack major coastal cities, killing thousands of people, until the world unites to create giant robots called Jaegers, controlled simultaneously by two pilots, to combat the attacks. The story then focuses on Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who retired after his brother was killed during a Kaiju fight but is brought back five years later for one last-ditch effort to save mankind.
Since the focus of the film is mainly on the Jaeger and Kaiju battles, the first question is how well does the film manage such intensely special-effect-laden scenes, and the answer is: brilliantly. With a whopping budget of $190 million, del Toro and his team were able to hire special effects gurus Industrial Light & Magic (Star Wars, Star Trek, to name a few) to create insanely detailed and well-executed robots and monsters. It’s clear on the screen that not a cent of that $190 million was wasted.
As such, the Kaiju fights are easily the best part of Pacific Rim, and luckily the film packs its screen time with as much of them as possible. They’re exciting to watch and full of excellent character designs for the Jaegers (rocket arm, anyone?) and Kaiju. The film itself draws heavily on the pre-existing genres of mecha (giant robots – think Transformers) and kaiju (Japanese monster films – think Godzilla) and thus manages to exist both as a love letter to those films and wholly deserving new entry in the canon.
Unfortunately, the parts of the film that are not just robot fighting monster are in turn immediately the weakest moments in the film. Del Toro has said that about an hour’s worth of material that better explored all of the characters’ arcs was cut in order to keep the story down to its bare minimum, but as a result, each attempt at dramatic backstory feels truncated and vacuous. Some, particularly Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba)’s recurring nosebleed, should have been excised entirely to make a much tighter film.
The character with the biggest flaws turns out to be the main character himself, Raleigh Becket. Although he is given the most complicated arc to struggle through, that of experiencing his brother dying while connected in a Jaeger, Charlie Hunnam plays him flat and uninteresting to watch. Judging from his performance, most of his direction must have been to just stand in the corner and look “serious.”
Fortunately, this is made up for by the introduction of Mako Mori (Rink Kikuchi) halfway through the film. As a young girl, Mako watched a Kaiju destroy her family and her hometown, and she now returns to exact her revenge. It’s refreshing to see a strong female character who isn’t sexualized and doesn’t only exist as a love interest for the male protagonist. Although it was intentionally cheesy, her “this is for my family” line immediately before slicing a Kaiju with a giant sword sounds directly out of a classic anime and is one of the best lines in the entire film.
In the end, it’s difficult to evaluate Pacific Rim because the film isn’t exactly yearning for any intellectual analysis. There are parts of the dramatic elements that work well and parts that fall laughably bad, but all of that is instantly forgotten the moment a giant Jaeger appears on-screen to battle a monstrous Kaiju. Pacific Rim is a film that appeals not to the mind but to some baser animal instinct, and in doing so, it becomes the most basically fun film in theaters so far this year.
Overall rating: 4/5