While Gulliermo del Toro’s monster masterpiece, Pacific Rim, is hardly a work of Shakespearian splendour, it is also not the braindead blockbuster monstrosity that many purported it to be.
Granted it has all the trappings of the latter – cardboard-cutout characters, an overly-earnest seriously-intoned opening narration replete with cliches about “great threats”, and the “world pulling together, pooling resources”, an inspiring speech before the climax that is clearly intended to rally the spirit but ends up sounding comically overdone, and a predictably bombastic, somewhat implausible ending – but then they are the tropes of the genre and you would be a fool not to expect them to be front and centre in some capacity.
The surprising thing, and yet not so surprising since del Toro is a masterful director with a knack for subverting cliches and genre over familiarity, is that many of them manage to come across as less hackneyed that you might expect them to.
They don’t of course escape the prison of well-worn tropes entirely but they are burnished up enough by the screenplay written by del Toro and Travis Beacham, and the Spanish director’s knack for spotting a fresh angle when none may be seen, that the film manages to sidestep ever-so-slightly being just another blockhead summer movie with little to recommend it.
In a July 2012 blastr.com article recounting the director’s triumphant presentation at that year’s San Diego Comic Con, del Toro confirmed that he had wanted to make a movie that was fresh and new, even as it drew on the kaiju and mecha genres that heavily inform it:
“If things happen [references to movies like Gamera and the Godzilla movies], they happen because they’re being made by people who love those genres. But I didn’t want to be postmodern, or referential, or just belong to a genre. I really wanted to create something new, something madly in love with those things. I tried to bring epic beauty to it, and drama and operatic grandeur.”
And in that he somewhat succeeds, if even the movie ultimately fails to transcend its genre forebears.
Set in the early 2020s, when humanity is losing a battle with monstrously-destructive alien interlopers called Kaiju, large, loud instinct-driven monsters that emerge from a glowing rift in the depths of the Pacific Ocean, despite developing equally massive Jaeger mecha controlled by two pilots working as one linked by a neural bridge that unifies their minds, Pacific Rim focuses on the closing days of the war when the battle is all but lost.
All that stands between mankind and utter annihilation are the last four humanoid Jaegers of various vintages, piloted by a United Nations of crews, all of whom succumb in some fashion till the only hope for a war-weary humanity is troubled ex-pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and a woman imprisoned by a tragic past Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who,naturally enough rally and come together as a team, falling in love along the way of course, and save the day.
So far, so cliched.
And yet somewhere in this overly-familiar tale and it’s unsurprising character types, are nuggets of originality, and emotional truth, that catch you completely unawares.
Becket for instance, while cocky to a degree, is not recklessly so, nor is he a prisoner of his past to the degree that his anger and despondency render him such flawed anti-hero that you really don’t care if he lives or dies.
The script by del Toro and Beacham invests this much-used bitter archetype with an unexpected maturity and emotional self-awareness, leavening out the cliches with the sort of qualities you would a real person who has dealt with much grief to have.
While he is hardly a well-rounded, fully-formed person, he is far more alive and real that many similar heroes in many similar films, and you actually want him to succeed, rather be swallowed up in a sea of his own self-loathing.
Or eaten by a kaiju, a fate suffered by one of the minor characters who is swallowed up, rather comically it must be said, during an attack on Hong Kong.
Mako Mori too, while imprisoned in a reasonably-standard straitjacket of her past’s making, is given a searingly emotional backstory that powerfully focuses on the loss of her entire family during a Kaiju attack many years earlier.
The actress who plays the younger Mori, Mana Ashida, brings the blinding terror of losing your entire world in a split-second of monster-filled horror to such vivid life, drawing you so completely into that tear-soaked nightmarish scene, that you can’t help but be moved by the trauma of her loss.
It recalls del Toro’s previous work in Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and The Orphanage (2007) where he powerfully brought to life the emotional trauma faced by vulnerable children, in situations that took them far beyond their ability to process or cope.
While this emotionally-resonant memory, which Raleigh witnesses while he and Mori are neurally linked, thus sharing each other’s memories, is manifestly powerful, it unfortunately fails to ultimately have much impact on Mori as an adult, or the story as a whole.
Even so, in and of itself, it grants Pacific Rim the sort of humanity and gravitas I did not expect it to possess, even in modicum.
Other attempts at creating memorable characters or relationships aren’t as successful, such as the rather half-baked father-daughter relationship between the head of the whole Jaeger war effort, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and Mako Mori – he is the Jaeger pilot who rescues her after her parents die – but points to del Toro for at least being unwilling to settle for wholesale, across the board cardboard cutout characters.
Where he fails is coming up with anything that is even remotely original narrative-wise.
But perhaps that is an unfair criticism since what characters like Becket and Mori underline is that you can’t expect a movie like Pacific Rim, which is tremendously entertaining if you submit to its apocalyptic blockbuster raison d’être (and you should if you’re going to have any hope of enjoying it), to fully transcend its roots, no matter how hard you try.
It will always be captive to what came before it, despite del Toro’s engaging and valiant attempts to invest it with characters that at least have some emotional substance to them, and aliens that, belatedly at least, are given some sense of being more than mindless baddies, so you might as well surrender yourself to its overwhelming avalanche of cliches and be done with it.
You are going to get Shakespeare or Sorkin and expecting to will only lead to pointless angst.
Frankly I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would.
Yes the been-there-seen-that air to Pacific Rim did grate many times, but del Toro brings just enough humanity, warmth and originality to the movie that it manages to stand acid-spewing head and shoulders above the usual blockbuster fare, proving that in the right hands even well-worn tropes can get back some of their sheen, and entertain us still.