There are some people who just aren’t going to like Pacific Rim, so before I jot down down my own thoughts about it, let’s try a little multiple-choice quiz to weed them so they don’t waste their time reading this.
1) Can you imagine that an interdimensional rift could open in the bed of the Pacific Ocean and start spewing out skyscraper-sized alien monsters with an insatiable desire to trample seaside cities flat?
b) Yes, that sounds entirely plausible! Please tell me more!
2) What do you think that the best way to defend ourselves against such beasties would be?
a) Wallop them with a few cruise missiles as soon as they stick their pointy heads out of the briny.
b) Build gigantic humanoid fighting machines called ‘jaegers’ and fight them mano a mano.
If you answered a) to either of those questons this may not be the film for you. But if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to answer b) to both, it is a lot of fun. And it helps you to suspend said disbelief by being very beautifully made – everyone is raving about the special effects, but the set and costume designs are terrific, too. There are all sorts of little 1940s touches in the jaeger pilot’s off-duty outfits (and the jaegers themselves are shown being assembled by Rosie the Riveter) but the retro feel is nicely muted, and combined with a lot of sleek-but-battered hi-tech stuff. The script starts well, too. The pre-credits sequence (which is so long that I forgot there hadn’t been any credits and was quite surprised when the title came up) is a masterclass in concise world building, throwing up a succession of rapid images of battles and their aftermaths, TV news footage and chat show clips, which jigsaw together to form a brief history of the ‘Kaiju War’
This opening chapter also features a lovely shot where one of the jaegers pauses on its way into battle to scoop a fishing boat out of harm’s way before wading in to duff up the finny denizens. It curls its massive hand under the trawler in exactly the same way that a small child might lift a toy boat out of the bathwater, and I think it signals how this film wants us to approach it – as cheerful, fighty make-believe.
Unfortunately, it then promptly bogs down in a quagmire of clichés. Of course, giant robots vs sea monsters is itself a cliche, resurrected from loads of Japanese monster movies, but that’s fine, that’s what the film is selling and what I went to see. What I wasn’t really up for is all the dreary character development stuff – bland alpha-male rivals locking antlers, and will-she-won’t-she pseudo tension about whether Rinko Kikuchi will become Charlie Hunnam’s co-pilot when we all know she will because we saw her co-piloting away like a good ‘un on the posters in the foyer.
Meanwhile, potentially interesting characters like the Chinese and Russian jaeger crews are reduced to the level of extras who don’t even warrant a close up, let alone any dialogue. There’s much talk about humanity burying its differences, and the pan-Pacific nature of the action makes it look as if this film is a multicultural cut above the traditional Hollywood alien invasion movie (which concentrates only on the USA, with a cutaway to Big Ben getting lasered up if we’re lucky) but the difference is mainly in the set-dressing: with the exception of Rinko Kikuchi, the characters are all Americans, Australians or Brits. (The massive jaeger base in Hong Kong harbour where most of the film takes place seems to have no Chinese people among its senior staff at all. )
There are other wobbles, too. One of the creatures spreads some hitherto-unmentioned wings at one point and soars into the sky, making a nonsense of the authorities’ coastal defence wall and talk of safe zones inland: I assumed it must be some new and game-changing mutation, but no one on-screen ever commented on it (that I heard). And there’s a silly and pointless attempt to link the kaiju to dinosaurs, which brought even my easily-suspended disbelief crashing to the ground.
There’s also no getting around the sense that once you’ve seen one giant robot fighting a giant monster you’ve basically seen them all*. When Pacific Rim started it reminded me of the first Star Wars film: made completely out of stuff you’d seen before, but done with such skill and enthusiasm that it felt new minted. But Star Wars had a variety of action scenes to keep it going, building from gun battles and sword fights to spaceship skirmishes and massed fighter battles. Pacific Rim has to keep riffing on one basic image.
That said, the battles in the streets of Hong Kong are nicely staged (there’s a lovely little bit of visual punctuation involving a seagull and a harbourside bollard in one of them). There are some good performances from Idris Elba and Ron Perlman (looking so like Tom Waits that he automatically qualifies as my second choice for the new Doctor Who) and an eccentric turn from Burn Gorman as a dotty British scientist apparently channelling Patrick Moore (and somehow helping to anchor dotty American scientist Charlie Day just the right side of irritating). And there are some glorious slums built around the bones of slain kaiju, and an eerie sequence with scavengers in ramshackle protective suits wandering about inside one of the dead monsters. And there are kaiju skin parasites, and black market aquaria full of harvested kaiju organs… to be honest, I was far more interested by these shady, seedy subcultures growing up in the shadow of the monstrous invasions than I was in the gung ho military stuff. But I guess that’s because I’m not twelve (clichés aren’t really a problem if you’ve never seen them before), and also one reason why I don’t get to make blockbuster movies.
And as blockbuster movies go – as big, silly entertainment in a nice cool cinema on a hot afternoon – Pacific Rim is really very good. It’s way better than Star Trek (the only other big live-action movie I’ve seen this summer). It isn’t about superheroes. It isn’t a remake, or a reboot. It isn’t pretentious. It shows distinct signs of intelligence and a working sense of humour. I enjoyed it while I was watching it (apart from the yawny Top Gun stuff), and it was only really when I sat down to write about it that I noticed the flaws I’ve mentioned. It’s just a pity that it couldn’t lift its giant mechanical feet a little bit further out of the mires of cliché.
My favourite scene didn’t involve any monsters or robots at all. It was this one; a Hong Kong helipad in grey light and pouring rain; Rinko Kikuchi in a black coat with a big black umbrella. I found the screenshot below from a blog called Piling Piling Pelikula, whose Pacific Rim review has a more positive take on the film’s characterisation, and more knowledge than I do of the films it pays homage to: it’s worth a read.
*I wonder where this image of hero-as-puppeteer controlling a superhuman body comes from, incidentally? It seems very much the trope of our times – it’s in Avatar, Iron Man, Real Steel, Surrogates, Neil Blomkamp’s new one Elysium and doubtless loads of other things I’ve not come across/can’t think of off the top of my head. Is it an analogy for computer gaming? I don’t recall it being among my childhood fantasies.
All images © warner Brothers/Legendary Pictures.