Pacific Rim: Giant Robots vs. Giant Monsters

Pacific Rim is a movie that delivered exactly what it promised: giant robots fighting giant monsters on the eve of the apocalypse. It’s not great drama, it’s not mind-bending storytelling, it is giant robots fighting giant monsters, with enough story to keep the whole thing moving forward.

The depth in the movie comes from Guillermo del Toro’s obvious love for the kaiju genre. There are a hundred echoes of earlier Japanese-inspired monster movies and television, be it Godzilla, Voltron, or yes, even Power Rangers, all of which will thrilled my my inner 12 year old (who loved nothing more than an epic Godzilla vs. Mecha-Godzilla smackdown.

The movie’s skyscraper-sized monsters aren’t the results of radioactive fallout — instead they come through an interdimensional rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. When they first appear the attacked Pacific coastal cities, smashing landmarks like the Golden Gate bridge and ravaging metropolises before finally bring brought down by desperate military forces.

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

The world unites to combat the kaiju threat by creating Jaegers, giant robots that can take on the attacking monsters. The robots are so huge, and so complicated, that it takes two mind-melded human pilots to run them.

Brothers Raleigh and Yancy Becket are two of America’s finest, and as the movie opens we see them charging off in their Jaeger, the Gipsy Danger, to fight a monster threatening the Alaskan coast.

((minor spoilers))

Flashfoward a few years. Raleigh Becket is now a washed up Jaeger pilot. The monsters have grown increasingly powerful. The Class 1s of the early days have given way to regualr assaults by Class 4s. The world, wearing of war, has decided on a policy of containment instead of combat and begin walling off the coastal cities of the Pacific Rim. At the same time they wind down the Jaeger program, leaving only a few of the robot warriors to defend the planet

Those few, however, have a plan. They want to take the fight to the kaiju.

“Today at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time. We have chosen to believe in each other. Today we face the monsters that are at our door, today we are cancelling the apocalypse!” — Stacker Pentecost

I went into Pacific Rim wanting one thing: epic fights between giant robots and giant monsters. I spent many a Saturday as a kid watching the classic Godzilla movies on WPIX 11 in New Jersey, and I loved watching Voltron (lions or vehicles, either was fine). As I grew older, I discovered Robotech and Battletech, and I’ve always wanted to see these mechs transformed into a live-action movie.

Although not human piloted, Transformers had a chance to do this, but failed. Despite some how earning enough to spawn a three-movie franchise, Michael Bay’s Transformers were a mess of steel, gears, and amorphous metal. The films combined messy visuals with idiotic plots and moronic dialogue, and were a disappointment in every iteration.

I’m not saying Pacific Rim is high art, but it succeeds where Transformers fails. While I have a few friends that felt Pacific Rim’s battles were as muddled as Transformers, I disagree. I found it easy to track the action, and while I would have appreciated a few more widescreen shots to take in the full spectacle of Jaegers battling kaiju, I was never disappointed.

The movie has a surprisingly consistent mythology that builds on itself at every turn. In large part this is because it doesn’t try to ask the big “why are we here?” questions like Prometheus, and thus doesn’t need to worry about falling into any plot craters as a result. Instead focuses on its giant monsters, their evolution (in size and numbers) over time, and research into how to stop them.

The characters are thin — we get backstory for some of them, like washed-out veteran Raleigh Becket, his rookie co-pilot Mako Mori, and her surrogate father (and marshall of the Jaeger forces Stacker Pentecost — but most, like the Chinese and Russian Jaeger teams, are done with broad strokes.

Someone else hit on this in another review (sorry, I don’t remember which one) but the thing that strikes you about the movie is how well it builds on itself. Each fight sets up the next one, but without repeating itself. Fists not working? Then use rocket-accelerated fists. Falling from a ridiculous height? Use your forward stabilizer thrusters. Got a monster pummeling your face? Use the same thrusters to encourage it to get off of you.

The city fights were the same way — they start off with robots simply beating on monsters with their fists, both smashing into buildings as they do so. In subsequent fights though the terrain becomes a weapon, with the Jaeger Gypsy Danger picking up an oil tanker and using it to batter a Kaiju. This itself was a call back to an earlier training bout between Becket and Mori.

After watching movies like Prometheus (which I’ll be reviewing later on during Monster Week), Pacific Rim’s internal consistency was refreshing.

The monsters themselves were a lot of fun. All share a vaguely reptilian look, each has its own distinguishing features (Leatherback was gorilla-like, Otachi has a massive tail, Knifehead has a rhinosaurous-like had and is a fast swimmer). I don’t want to spoil the fights, but many of these monsters also have special abilities that ensure each fight is unique. Combined with the Jaegers own evolving tactics, and you’ve got fights that always entertain.

My only real disappointment with the film came from the Chinese and Russian teams. They had very little dialogue and mostly stood in the background while others talked. We see them in only one battle, and it’s a short fight at that. Given how well Pacific Rim is doing internationally, having a Chinese Jaeger with a more prominent role could only have helped the film. As is making the two major Jaeger teams American (though half the team is Japanese) and Australian makes it a little too Anglo-centric for movie based in Hong Kong.

It’s a minor quibble. Pacific Rim gave me exactly what I was looking for, and did it well. I wish more people in America would see it; this is one monster movie that deserves a sequel.

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