It would have been easy to make Pacific Rim a dumb action movie. It would have been easy to fill it with stock characters, stereotypes and shoddy CGI. But making Pacific Rim wasn’t easy. It was hard for Guillermo del Toro to take archetypes so well worn and resculpt these featureless statues into sculptures that, though cracked, still weather any storm. It was hard to design titanic monsters and giant robots and imbue them with their own personalities and then use computer generated imagery to send them into battles full of color that also had epic senses of scale, texture and weight to them. Making Pacific Rim wasn’t easy, the things worth doing rarely are.
In 2013 massive monsters known as Kaiju break through an interdimensional portal – called the Breach – at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Initially on the backfoot humanity fights them by building enormous robots. These Jaegers – German for Hunter – are operated by a pair of pilots that share a neural link known as the Drift. Twelve years on and humanity is losing due to the cost of the Jaeger program and the increasing Kaiju attacks. Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), leader of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, comes up with a last ditch plan to send a bomb through the Breach. To do it he needs washed up Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) to join his team but Raleigh needs a co-pilot, who comes in the form of Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) Pentecost’s adopted daughter. As Kaiju attack the Hong Kong Shatterdome base Raleigh and Mako must learn to be Drift Compatible in time to save the earth from the Kaiju threat.
There’s a lot of capitalised words in the above paragraph. Kaiju, Jaeger, Stacker Pentecost and Shatterdome are a few. I’m going to write some more because it’s fun: The Bone Slums, Hannibal Chau, Gipsy Danger, Striker Eureka, Crimson Typhoon, Cherno Alpha. I could go on – Leatherback (sorry) – but if you’re reading this you probably already know how cool Pacific Rim is. But it takes more than some cool names and even cooler visuals to ensure a film’s lasting legacy, it needs character and Pacific Rim has that in spades.
It’s easy to be swept up in Pacific Rim’s immensity but it’s the fine details rather than the broad brushstrokes that make the film work. Del Toro follows a “Show don’t tell” philosophy, often letting the important things go unsaid and replacing them with body language, tight, gorgeous closeups and all important action. Even when exposition is required it’s usually accompanied by a rapid fire montage as in the film’s intro or delivered by scenery devouring character actors like Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau or Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the diametrically opposed scientists Newton Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb. Actions speak louder than words specifically in tension filled sparring matches between Raleigh and Mako or what we later learn of the sacrifices made by Marchal Pentecost. With that said, del Toro also knows the power of a great speech too.
Stacker Pentecost’s speech, hammered home by Idris Elba’s furious delivery, encapsulates Pacific Rim. The line “Today we are cancelling the apocalypse!” is the one we all know but it’s merely the capstone on an already well-written and bombastic speech. The repetition of the word today throughout the speech is like a hammer striking an anvil. Little taps at first as Pentecost builds himself up in order to build all those under his command up. Then booming crashes as he instils the belief in his soldiers, mechanics and scientists that not only will they survive and not only will they win but they will win together as one team, as one race and as one people.
It’s masterful stuff but even it pales in comparison to the simpler, stripped back stuff. When Raleigh, Mako, the Marshall and Australian Jeager pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) are heading off on a suicide mission Chuck’s father Herc – two great Australian names there – turns to the Marshal with tears in his eyes and says “That’s my son you’ve got there.” On paper it reads as dull but in the film we’re so used to seeing characters not express their feelings to each other because they already know them so deeply that a line delivery like that lands like a rocket-powered sucker punch.
Speaking of rocket-powered sucker punches, let’s talk action. Pacific Rim’s fights have more weight to them than they should. Del Toro’s decision to forgo giving the Jaeger’s guns except as a last resort was pretty smart in retrospect, The Jaegers and the Kaiju get up close and personal. The titanium-sheathed fists of Russian Jaeger Cherno Alpha look like they could crush a Kaiju’s skull like paper. Unfortunately, pilots Sasha and Alexis Kaidanovsky (Robert Maillet and Heather Doerksen) are sprayed with Kaiju acid before they get the chance. There’s more where that came from with Gipsy Dangers wrist swords and plasma cannon, Striker Eureka’s chest missiles, Crimson Typhoon’s saw blade hands, the Kaiju Knifehead’s knife-shaped head and Leatherback’s organic EMP blast. It’s details like these that make the action beats in Pacific Rim sing along with the use of miniatures such as when Gipsy Danger’s fist crashes through a skyscraper and as it loses momentum sets off a set of perpetual motion balls on a desk. Funny that in a movie supposedly about giant robots beating the shit out of giant monsters it’s the little things that matter.
“We built monsters so that we could fight monsters,” Raleigh Becket narrates in the film’s opening scene. A monster is only made by the mind and the heart and soul that power it though. I don’t see any monsters in Pacific Rim except those created by the things on the other side of the Breach. The Kaiju are soulless creatures, genetically engineered to destroy and consume without mercy. When we see the Jaeger Gipsy Danger in action it’s first act is to save a fishing boat at massive cost to itself. That’s a human act, one of selfless sacrifice. These metal colossi might look like monsters but they are driven by human hearts and minds and souls. The Drift is more than a neural link between metal and flesh; it’s what defines the characters of Pacific Rim, it’s what makes them human. The Drift is what cancels the apocalypse.