Guillermo del Toro. With a prolific and varied resume as a director, writer and producer, he steps behind the helm as both writer and director in his most ambitious project of his career. With an impressive $190 million budget to play with, he veers slightly away from his usual western comic adaptations (Blade II and his pair of Hellboy movies) to attempt a big summer blockbuster based on the Japanese love of Kaiju and Jaeger – Giant Monsters vs Giant Robots.
Set in the present time, we are informed at the start of the film that a rift between dimensions has opened due to shifting of the tectonic plates in the deep Pacific Ocean, and no more than seconds in we see our first Kaiju attack, with San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge completely destroyed setting the tone for the devastation to come. After the first invader is defeated only by the use of nuclear weapons, following similar attacks in Manila and Cabo world leaders realise these aren’t isolated events, and that nuclear strikes alone wont stop this invasion and the Jaeger project is born.
Also known more colloquially as “Mechs,” the idea of giant mechanised robots fighting large monsters is nothing new in cinema, even if not found usually found in western theatres. The slew of fifties movies coming from the far east popularised one of its most revered Kaiju, Godzilla. Along with the likes of Mothra and Gamera, they became household names in the era when science fiction B-movies were all the rage and special effects were limited to men running around scale sets of Tokyo in rubber suits. This formula is even seen in modern day teen shows, with the Japanese Super-Sentai series running since the mid-seventies, its fight scenes spliced into the Power Rangers television shows.
There are no such constraints on del Toro, and his budget has been liberally used by Industrial Light and magic to create a visual feast for the eyes. The mixture of practical effects and sets interspersed with computer generated scenes creates a more realistic feeling than the likes of Michael Bays’ Transfomers, and moreover it is better designed, the machines given a true sense of size and weight as they move.
Such is the size and scale of the Jaegers that in order to operate them a human must be plugged into their mainframe, and it is these paired operators who are the focus of the film. Essentially sharing one mind together in a process called “drifting,” the pilots must be attuned to each other in order to fight and function as one.
The film shies away from the implied worldwide devastation, instead focusing on last remaining Jaegers after years of battle, on the bonding of the pilots and the personal missions that spur them into battle. The story is linear and predictable, and follows a similar arcs to that of Independence Day; in fact Idris Elba’s rousing speech as Ranger Marshall Stacker Pentecost is reminiscent of Bill Pullman’s equivalent presidential spiel in that film. Other disaster movies are homaged alongside the nods to the original Kaiju films, and as we move from one fight to the next our pilots look for ways to defeat the menace, whilst the science team looks to the real motivations behind the attack.
The cast are largely drawn from television, with Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam leading the pilots alongside Hollywood newcomer Rinko Kikuchi as his replacement drifter Mako Mori. Known lately for playing Heimdall inThor as well as BBC’s Luther, Elba delivers the expected solid performance, with Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman, putting in a likeable cameo as Hannibal Chau, an opportunistic black market peddler of Kaiju wares. Unfortunately Charlie Day and Torchwood’s Burn Gorman’s characters are tiresome buffoons, their intrusive supposedly comic antics cluttering up scenes with a depiction of scientists as socially incapable monomaniacs as egregious as that which Michael Bay put onscreen in Armageddon.
At over two hours, the film is stretched by improbable battles and bouts of machismo as mankind struggles to deal with the alien threat and establish a pecking order within the ranks, though easily half the running time could have been trimmed had the Jaegers and their support vessels been sensibly equipped with weaponry rather than attempting to subdue the invaders with wrestling moves.
The 3D is one of the superior examples of the last few years whilst the soundtrack from Game of Thrones’ Ramin Djawadi helps set the atmosphere. There are a few little extras for observant fan boys such as Ellen McLain as the voice of the computer interface, a role she also played in the Portal videogame.
Obviously a more commercial work than The Devil‘s Backbone or Pan‘s Labyrinth, with plans for a sequel on the way alongside Godzilla’s return to celluloid, hopefully this will be a learning curve for del Toro to perfect his formula for the next chapter, or better still, if the film is successful it may finally allow him to adapt H P Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.
Pacific Rim is now on general release in 2D, 3D and 3D IMAX