G-Fest has come and gone, so it’s time to dig back in with movie reviews! I’m gonna keep the G-Fest hype train rolling (sort of), with this month’s review: Pacific Rim. I got to see it opening night at G-Fest back in 2013, and watching it for the first time in a lavish movie palace packed with monster fans was one of my all-time favorite moviegoing experiences. It definitely doesn’t hurt that Pacific Rim is a big, crazy, fun, slam-bang, gee-whiz, pants-shitter of a spectacle film either. The movie definitely has some issues that hold it back from being a full-on classic (genre or otherwise), but don’t let the flashy visual effects, bonkers premise, or broad characters fool you: this is 100% a labor of love from director Guillermo del Toro, and it shows in virtually every single frame of the movie.
I’m gonna dissect this mo-fo and see what makes a modern monster movie tick! I also have a (mostly) baseless theory that Pacific Rim beat a similar movie to the punch and straight into development hell! So connect your brain to a monster’s, strap into a giant robot, and get ready to cancel the apocalypse!
Remember the trailer? If not, watch it here! The trailer does a decent job of setting up the movie’s unique world without giving everything away, though there aren’t really any big plot twists in Pacific Rim.
The trailer does show what a crazy feast for the eyes this movie is. Bright, bold, splashy colors (and not just teal and orange!), crashing waves, raging storms, bad-asses in futuristic space-suits, and best of all, big fuckin’ mechas body-slaming glowing, slobbering monsters.
The score by Ramin Djawadi is pretty great too. Here’s the main theme. It’s pretty rad, but I like “Canceling the Apocalypse” more. The mix of driving rock guitars and epic movie music kicks a silly amount of ass, is a little cheesy, and is earnest as fuck, so it’s absolutely a perfect fit for the movie. It’s easily one of my favorite film scores to come along in the last few years, and it all taps directly into the 11 year-old part of your brain that drew flaming skulls and that weird S on the back of your math notebook.
Djawadi was a new name for me, but you might be familiar with his work: he does the music for Game of Thrones. Appropriately enough he also scored the Clash of the Titans remake and the Thunderbirds movie.
On the other hand I was already a big fan of director Guillermo del Toro, starting with Blade II. del Toro has an amazing eye for cool and creepy design, like a more colorful, less campy, less Johnny Depp-filled Tim Burton, and he’s also a rock-solid story-teller. He’s handled everything from horror (Cronos, “The Strain”), to comic book movies (Hellboy), to strange and frightening historical drama/fantasy hybrids (The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth).
The glowing blue icing on the crazy monster cake was an interview he did with NPR like five or ten years ago. He talked about growing up in Mexico, some of the scary-weird shit his hyper-Catholic family did (like putting upside-down metal bottlecaps in his shoes to punish him), his filmmaking and writing methods (i.e. zillions of sketchbooks full of monster drawings and story ideas), and of course his influences and inspirations. But there was one quick thing he said that really signaled to me “Yo, you need to keep an eye on this dude.” He said that in his formative years, he “accepted Godzilla into his heart” the same way some people accept Jesus into theirs.
Guillermo’s such a quotable guy that his quip about Godzilla doesn’t even come up when you Google “Guillermo del Toro quotes.” All knob-slobbery aside, the point I’m making is that del Toro is pretty much the guy to get to make a giant monster movie. I’ve mentioned his commentary track for Pacific Rim in past reviews, and it really is sort of an impromptu crash-course on how to make a great kaiju movie. He’s got an innate understanding and a ton of passion for what makes this genre work. Pacific Rim is del Toro’s big dorky love-letter to the giant robot anime and kaiju movies of the 70s and 80s, and the end result is fucking crazy looking:
SHABAM! Holy shit! What could serve as the outrageous grand finale of another sci-fi spectacular is one of the opening scenes in Pacific Rim! One of the biggest things this movie does super right is that it uses the visuals as constant, silent story-tellers and world-builders. Of course they also serve the straight-forward surface purpose of looking bad-ass, but almost every detail pulls double duty nudging the narrative forward. Gipsy Danger’s spotlights look cool and help the pilots see their target, but they also work as in-universe spotlights, showing us the monster and the world around them without breaking immersion from the midnight typhoon they’re wrassling in. Speaking of, that pouring rain, crashing waves, and churning mist are very dramatic and set the scene, but they also give you a sense of scale: these bitches are huge. Like, almost as big as your mom.
Those techniques are used and expanded on throughout the whole movie, and they make unbelievable ideas seem like something that could really happen. Little details like car alarms going off, cargo containers full of merchandise, water droplets sticking to the “camera” lens, they all keep you convinced that super-mechs and monsters could actually run, jump, and battle, physics and gravity be damned.
One of the biggest inspirations for Pacific Rim’s bombastic visual style isn’t a classic mecha manga or an old Toho monster-mash, but fine art. Record scratch?! That’s right, specifically “The Colossus” by Francisco Goya:
Swap the huge dude with a robot and replace the cattle and horses with cars and junk and you practically have a still from the movie. The raging storm, murky skies, the frenzied movement of the people below, and a macho monster ready to rumble; it’s all very grand and operatic and goes back to what del Toro calls the “romance” of monstrous titans doing battle. Not lovey-dovey romance, but the other older, vaguer definition everybody kind of forgot: “a quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life.”
It’s an idea that extends from the monsters all the way down to the humans that populate the wild world of the movie. Pacific Rim doesn’t have generals, captains or even pilots, but rather marshals and rangers: western ranks instead of military ranks. They’re no longer an army, they’re the resistance. You can hear the jingle of spurs when rangers walk around in their drift-suits, and super robot Gipsy Danger even moves with the swagger of a John Wayne gunslinger. In his commentary, del Toro states flat-out that Pacific Rim’s story structure is based on sports movies (though you can certainly make an argument for Independence Day as well). They pulled inspiration from everything except what del Toro calls “army recruitment video aesthetics” and “car commercial aesthetics.”
Okay, okay, I could talk about subtext and themes in Pacific Rim all damn day (if you’re like me and love reading about that shit, check out this Wikipedia page). Let’s run through the actual film! The movie opens with Jaeger and Kaiju definitions, officially bringing “kaiju” into mainstream pop culture consciousness. “Monster” of course works just as well, since they mean the same thing, but kaiju is a convenient shorthand for referring specifically to ginormous Godzilla-ish creatures and the movies they star in.
We’re treated to a terrific montage that sets up Pacific Rim’s crazy world. About 20 minutes into the future, Earth is attacked by its first-ever kaiju, and we suffer heavy casualties stopping it. As more massive monsters maraud mankind, we all band together to create “monsters of our own”: giant robots (jaegers) that are operated by a pair of mentally-linked pilots. We start not just surviving, but thriving, basically getting cocky and comfortable with being a race of robot-driving, monster-fighting ultra-pimps. Kaiju (and jaegers) become action figures, late night talk show punchlines, and pop culture touchstones instead of harbingers of planet-wide doom. This is all covered extremely effectively with a mix of fake and real news footage over the course of just a couple minutes.
Unfortunately, that crackerjack montage is narrated by Charlie Hunnam, who is just the worst. He’s like, shockingly bad. Now if everyone else laid out a thick layer of cheese like Hunnam it would at least seem like a choice and I could understand that, but no one else plays it so cornball and hacky. All the other performances range from serviceable (Rinko Kikuchi, Max Martini), to straight-up great (Idris Elba, Charlie Day), and they’re all 100% earnest. I’ve never seen anyone specifically mention Hunnam’s clunky performance in reviews or online, so I wonder if it’s just me? He’s going for some kind of folksy, salt-of-the-earth, seen-it-all bad-ass, but I just can’t buy it. I wonder if that’s just my brain’s subconscious way of not being convinced by his American accent (homeboy is Englisher than tea time during a cricket match on Boxing Day). It must not be a problem for most audiences, because tons of people have big fat boners for “Sons of Anarchy,” and del Toro cast him in the upcoming haunted house flick Crimson Peak. Whatever it is, I either get used to him or stop caring about a half-hour in, because everything else just fucking rocks.
After the montage we see Hunnam (Raleigh Becket) suit up for a monster rumble with his brother (Guy who Dies). Pacific Rim takes the time to show us this whole process: a creepy centipede-like steel contraption locks into their spines, yellow goo fills their helmets, GLaDOS provides the computer voice that guides them through set-up, and the giant robot’s head drops a hundred feet down a set of rocket-rails to lock into its body. It’s cool, it gets us into the world, shows us that their job is bad-ass but also weird and deadly, and since we’ve seen everything that goes into it, there’s no need to walk through the whole thing again later.
Becket and Cannon Fodder Loved One walk Gipsy Danger out into the raging, stormy ocean off the Alaskan coast, flanked by tiny helicopters (providing us with diegetic light!), to do battle with the unrepentantly awesome-looking kaiju Knifehead. Official sources say his distinctive head is based on real-life (but no less insanely ugly) goblin sharks, but I think there’s gotta be at least a little bit of Gamera’s old foe Guiron in there too:
After all this set-up, a mech fist-fighting a ferocious space mutant is every bit as satisfying and visceral as you could hope for. Gipsy Danger is cool, Knifehead is cool, there’s a fishing trawler being battered around in the waves below and Anchorage is on the line. The visuals are crazy and exciting, but grounded with simple, accessible stakes.
The death of Not Main Character and Gipsy Danger’s failure signal the rise of more powerful monsters, pushes Becket to quit the force (I assume there’s a deleted scene where he turns in a gigantic gun and badge), and leads the comically inept world leaders to put all their faith in building anti-kaiju walls while dismantling the Jaeger program. Becket finds himself working on one of the useless kaiju walls, and we get a glimpse of civilian life in the Pacific Rim world. Mobs of people desperately fight for work doing wall-construction. It’s a miserable, dangerous position that only has openings when somebody dies. Oh yeah, they’re also paid in food vouchers instead of money.
They also let slip that only the super-rich can afford to live inland, safe and far away from the monster-prone coasts. It’s a quick couple details that flesh out the world, but also skew surprisingly dark and satirical for this otherwise light, popcorny, blow-’em-up flick. Moments after that little reveal, TVs are flipped on to show the hungry, freezing, pissed off workers live news coverage of a monster gleefully plowing through an “impenetrable” kaiju wall in Sydney.
The scene also introduces us to Striker Eureka and its pilots, veteran Herc Hansen (Martini) and his son, cocky douchenozzle Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky), who dramatically swoop in and kick that monster’s ass, even though they had just been laid off.
Not long after that, the bad-ass head of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Elba) convinces Becket to give up his self-imposed exile and join the last few working jaegers in Hong Kong for a final stand against the kaiju. Of course he agrees and is flown out to their base, the radly-named Shatterdome, where we meet most of the remaining primary characters: the reserved and serious rookie Mako Mori (Kikuchi), the tattooed “kaiju groupie” Dr. Newton Geiszler (Day), and the prissy, vaguely creepy mathematician Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman). We also see the other two jaegers and their pilots, who are all of course pretty bad-ass.
Since Becket’s original partner is all kinds of dead, they hold a series of bo-staff sparring sessions to find somebody who can roll with his combat style and hopefully form a strong enough mental link to pilot a jaeger together. After shredding through his pre-selected contenders, he calls out Mori and they fight. Their match is intentionally shot like a dance or even a love scene, on a set with lots of warm colors and dimmed light.
And while there’s certainly some sexual tension between them, we’re thankfully not forcefed a shoehorned-in romance subplot. Even at the end of the movie, they forego the stock big damn kiss and opt instead for a heartfelt hug and headbump. Instead of lovers, they seem to just become super close friends, and it’s a refreshing change of pace for a Hollywood action-adventure.
After Becket and Mori’s romance battle, we get to see Newt do the unthinkable and plug a homemade drift console into his brain and the partial kaiju brain he has glorping around in a big glass tube. The lab is awesome, with old school Frankenstein style props galore. It’s crazy and fantastical looking, but it’s also lived-in and tangible. It’s also split right down the middle with a big yellow line, sitcom style, because Newt and Gottlieb bitch at each other like an old married couple.
I’m pretty biased because I was already a Charlie Day fan, but Newt steals this movie. Day’s big break was playing the mildy insane, partially illiterate wild card (also named Charlie) on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” but in Pacific Rim he’s sort of like an edgy Rick Moranis, and he nails it. By drifting with the monster brain he gleans some vital information about what the kaiju really are, but he damn near sautées his brain in the process. While Stacker and Gottlieb get answers from Newt, Mako and Becket’s first practice-drift goes so thoroughly tits-up that they both get sucked into her worst, most terrifying memory.
Mori’s childhood memory is intense and frightening, boasting a mood much closer to Gojira than “Voltron.” As fun as the citywide smackdowns are, it’s nice to see del Toro and his multimillion-dollar toybox depicting straight-up monster horror. Little kid Mori wanders the dust-strewn, empty streets of Tokyo alone, and the silence is punctuated by the distant, car-rattling stomps of a gigantic crab-monster stalking her somewhere in the murky smog. It’s all tense and eerie until Stacker swoops in (the only ranger besides Becket to ever pilot a jaeger solo) and saves her, revealing that they’re not just mentor and protege, but adoptive father and daughter.
From the get-go (the nations of the world banding together to build jaegers) Pacific Rim proudly champions Ishiro Honda‘s old theme of “The Brotherhood of Man”: the idea that in a time of planet-wide crisis, the only thing that could save humanity is our ability to stop bitching at each other and band together as one united global family. Stacker and Mori’s relationship is a small, cool variation on that theme, but it’s extrapolated out to the entire cast with the added twist that a world-saving hero isn’t necessarily a buff bad-ass or even someone you can get along with. Newt and Gottlieb are dorky scientists who put aside their differences and risk their lives to get the vital info the jaeger pilots need, Chuck stops being a douche and sacrifices his life so Becket and Mori can close the breach, we constantly see support crews helping the jaeger pilots, and even a legendary crime boss and black market kaiju organ dealer helps out in his own shady way.
It’s a really cool take on one of my favorite motifs, and it also ensures that the “people parts” between monster fights are never boring. There’s plenty of drama in the Shatterdome after Becket and Mori’s disastrous test run, and while they’re getting into verbal and fistal fights, Newt’s out dweebing it up in Hong Kong to track down Chau. del Toro’s post-kaiju Hong Kong is a visually and narratively rich world. It’s like Blade Runner on molly:
The Bone Slums (haphazard shanty-towns built up around a giant monster corpse) are a super clever idea, and drive home the heightened reality the movie takes place in. We get a brief but detailed peek into the seedy underworld of kaiju organ dealing: kaiju bone powder is sold as a bogus pee-pee-enhancer, and even monster poop fetches a decent price as an ultra-potent fertilizer . We also get a quick glimpse at the eerie cult of kaiju-worshipping monks that have built a temple in the dead monster’s skull. It’s a hyper-detailed, colorful, and interesting world, so it makes a compelling setting for:
Pacific Rim’s multi-stage, mid-movie moneyshot. As super-nerd Gottlieb calculated, the breach poops out not one, but two, count ’em two, city-smashing serpents, and they also happen to be the two biggest, baddest bitches on record. Other than your mom.
As Becket and Mori have proved to be unreliable turd-chompers, Stacker keeps them on the bench (sports movie parallels) and sends the Russian and Chinese jaeger teams out to intercept the kaijus with the Aussie team patrolling the coast. The Chinese jaeger Crimson Typhoon and the Russian jaeger Cherno Alpha are distinct and rad as shit. Typhoon is bright red and gold with three arms (since it’s manned by a team of triplets), equipped with tons of blades and rocket boosters to help it (relatively) zip around and pull off crazy acrobatic maneuvers. Cherno is a huge bulky dieselpunk beast with a head like a nuclear cooling tower and big ol’ punchin’ fists, complete with what look like electrified brass knuckles.
Of course, the kaiju are no slouches either, and these two in particular are my favorite creatures in the movie. Leatherback is a lumbering reptilian gorilla with massively muscular arms, an EMP emmiter on his back, and a big beer belly that says “yeah sure I might be a fat fuck but I’m way too strong for you to give me any shit about it and keep all your teeth or the general shape of your face.”
Leatherback’s a turbo-pimp, but his partner Otachi is Pacific Rim’s best monster, and one of my favorites to come along in a while. Otachi looks very cool and boasts some rad abilities, but more importantly she(?) thoroughly embodies one of del Toro’s best philosophies as a horror director. del Toro goes into this idea in the commentary, but I’ll lay out kind of a Cliffs Notes version.
In horror movies, audiences want to see the monster. But the director only wants to show the audience a little taste, because the audience’s imagination will fill in the blanks and mentally create something scarier than anything the film crew can come up with. And if you show too much of the monster, it becomes boring or even worse, reveals a bad special effect or goofily unscary monster design. This is a huge part of why movie monsters always lurk in the dark, in the rain, in the fog, or whatever is moody and visually obscuring. But del Toro and friends get around that with a loophole! Make your creature undergo continuous changes! This keeps the audience on their toes, and can even give the filmmakers reason to show the monster: “Look at what this crazy fucker is becoming now!”
My favorite example of this methodology is also one of the earliest ones I can think of: 1979’s butthole-tighteningly terrifying Alien. The titular space-beast goes from face-raping scrotum-spider to a fist-sized, rib cage shattering teeth-penis to a shadowy 7 ft tall skeleton-insect with a razor-whip tail and a mouth within a mouth. And even in that final stage, Ridley Scott makes sure to put the alien in the dark and pose it in weird positions, and play around with its movements so you can never quite figure it out.
Otachi follows this formula beautifully. Despite the best efforts of all three acting jaeger teams, they get utterly thrashed by Leatherback and Otachi. Out of options, Stacker sends Mori and Becket off in Gipsy Danger in the hopes they won’t Tubgirl themselves again on their way to save the day. When Otachi first makes landfall she’s probing Hong Kong with her long, crazy glow-in-the-dark tentacle tongue, tasting around for Newt (they’re mega-pissed at him for mind-melding his way into their secret plans). She drops this when she detects Gipsy Danger, and instead starts puking neon acid everywhere. Gipsy tears out her goo-gourd, so then she gets stabby with her prehensile claw-tail. Gipsy Demolition Mans her tail, so then she unfurls fucking wings and carries their robot ass into low orbit!
After all that, Becket and Mori manage to spectacularly dispatch the beast and (somehow) survive the fall… but Otachi still isn’t done! As Chau’s team frantically start harvesting organs and attempt to pull out its heavily protected brain, they report strange rumblings to him. Chau assumes it’s nothing and tells them to keep working, but a mini-Otachi bursts out, killing randoms and making a big sloppy beeline right for poor Newt!
The creature is undeveloped and dies shortly after, but it’s a great final zinger before Otachi gives up the screen. It’s also a deliciously demented way to give Newt and Gottlieb access to the freshest kaiju brain possible, allowing them to team up and do one last big monster brainscan to get the missing data they desperately need. This whole middle section is by far the best part of the movie, it’s where everything is hammering away on all cylinders. It houses all the best, most action-packed eye candy, but it also features plenty of human drama, with the Aussie jaeger team stranded on their powered-down fighting machine and Newt running for his life around Hong Kong. It’s also the sequence that features jaegers and kaiju rampaging around a psychedelically colorful city, and it’s every bit as satisfying as I could have hoped for. If the movie ended with Otachi’s death, I would have been perfectly okay with that.
And while that would have left us on an adrenaline-soaked high note, there is a story to finish telling, despite what snobbier reviewers will tell you. If we’re using Independence Day as a guide, Stacker’s famous “cancelling the apocalypse” speech pretty much mirrors Bill Pullman’s iconic pep talk in ID4. Using del Toro’s sports movie comparison, this is when the coach/team captain/sensei gives the ragtag team/lone underdog the inspiring soliloquy they need to hear before facing off against the “evil” team/opponent.
More parallels in the final act: the humans use surprise kamikaze tactics and stealthy trickery to ram a nuke right up the aliens’ wormhole (just like ID4). If you prefer the sports movie analogy, the good-guy team’s star players are benched due to injuries, so the rookie and the washed-up pro have to utilize a difficult/trick play to score the winning goal.
The final showdown also reminds me of Gojira’s eerie finale. Both take place undersea, and both are noticeably simpler and more muted than the slam-bang, holy shit action sequence that preceded it. I don’t think this parallel was really intentional: this is the first triple kaiju event, and the first category 5 monster, so it’s a 2-on-3 fight that includes the biggest, baddest beast yet. On paper that should be the most insane, exhilarating part of the movie, but the sea-floor setting with its lack of humans and buildings actually lowers the adrenaline. Things are quieter, cloudier, and slower here. Like Gojira’s ending, it sometimes borders on dreamlike.
Basically, Newt and Gottlieb’s final kaiju drift revealed that the breach (the portal the monsters come out of) can only be entered by something bearing the kaiju’s DNA. In order to slam dunk their nuke into Monsterworld, they’re gonna have to grab a kaiju and ride it through the breach. So Becket and Mori strap into Gipsy Danger, and Chuck (the shitty younger Aussie) and Stacker fire up Striker Eureka, since the cool older Aussie is laid up with a broken arm.
The final monsters seem like push-overs at first: they slice the first one perfectly in half from head to toe. But our heroes soon find themselves forced to detonate their nuke to take out the remaining two kaiju, sacrificing Stacker, Chuck, and Striker Eureka in the process. Even the nuclear blast doesn’t quite stop the (secretly hilariously named) final kaiju Slattern. Some really cool details here too: firing the nuclear warhead creates a water-free void under the sea, complete with dry ground and flopping fish. Gipsy has to brace itself not just against the force of the blast, but the deluge of water rushing back in to fill the bubble. Their plan isn’t boned either! Gipsy has a nuclear core, and if movies have taught us anything, it’s that anything with a nuclear reactor in it can and should be turned into an atomic bomb.
Mori and Becket use Slattern’s tenacity against it, stabbing Gipsy’s swords into the beast and surfing it through the portal and into the monster’s homeworld. Called the “Anteverse,” it’s a crazy, kaleidoscopic hell dimension with what looks like a black hole or a giant fiery eyeball (or both?) for a sun, and in general kind of looks like electron microscope images. It is dope as hell.
It’s nice to see an alien world that actually looks alien instead of just a planet-wide desert or caves or whatever. We get to see a little more of the Precursors, the dimension-hopping turd fergusons that genetically engineered the kaiju in an attempt to wipe us off the face of the Earth. Being that this is a Guillermo del Toro movie, they of course are creepy, fascinating, and even kind of regal. Which makes sense, because apparently they were partially inspired by pre-revolution French nobility.
Whether they’re from Remulak or not, Becket fricassees their asses to hell and escape-pods the fuck out of there just in time to get clear of the blast radius. The breach closes, Becket surfaces back on Earth, and we get a happy ending, complete with the first and only sunny sky in the whole movie.
The movie itself eventually got its happy ending as well. It did okay-ish in the US box office, but a few weeks later the overseas market made Pacific Rim a big enough hit that a sequel is scheduled to launch in August 2017 with the working title “Maelstrom.” There have already been comic books, and even off and on rumors of an animated series (mostly off lately). The movie has garnered a cult following, with die-hard fans organizing a yearly convention, and of course plenty of fan-made media, like a ridiculous alternate ending comic where everyone survives:
So everything’s rosy for Pacific Rim! It’s a joyfully corny stand-alone action-adventure that also works as a love-letter to monsters and mechas, all without insulting your intelligence, and rewarding repeat viewings/scrutiny! And it eventually found its audience! Yay! But what about that other movie? Around early 2010/late 2009, Dreamworks bought the rights to a kaiju-themed collectible miniature wargame called “Monsterpocalypse.” Tim Burton was set to direct, the movie was anticipated to come out as early as Christmas 2012, and the game it was based on featured awesome creatures and a fun storyline. This looked like a slam-dunk:
But then nothing happened. All I’ve ever found is an extremely short interview with the producer, conducted before the project dropped off the radar. Not only did the movie vanish, but the game shut down too: no more new content or figures, no explanation from its publisher. The game’s site is a ghost-town that hasn’t been updated since 2011. Now maybe maybe Dreamworks is just gun shy after their 2009 animated Monsters vs. Aliens fizzled, but I can’t help but wonder: did Pacific Rim cancel the Monsterpocalypse?