Let’s start with the bad. There can be so much wrong with a movie that tries to find its soul in a soulless hunk of metal (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is atrocious, and it features soulful hunks of metal), but this will actually be quite brief. In Pacific Rim, manned suits of armor that dwarf skyscrapers and stand waist-deep in oceans punch glow-stick colored reptiles that would pat Godzilla on the head and go “Hey there, little guy.” But they are not the problem. Obviously. Amongst those titans and gods, some humans run around, screaming and behaving heroically and running; and tragically, they prove to be a bit trickier. See, sometimes they fight each other in hand-to-hand combat, and even though they are not mechas with swords, and even though they do not have wings or spit acid, the hand-to-hand ninja stuff is still pretty darn cool. And then sometimes they speak. Sometimes… Only rarely, and usually only as a release of tension, in the form of comic relief which is provided brilliantly by two scientists who bicker constantly about their turf in the theoretical/experimental war, and whose names may as well be R2 and 3PO. They are not the problem either.
But then, once in a blue moon, a human says something, and it is meant sincerely. At one point in the movie, right between two important climaxes, many characters – fathers and sons, adopted fathers and adopted daughters, potential lovers – feeling the weight of what is about to be brought down upon them, attempt to tell each other what they mean to one another in the way that human beings might. This is where Pacific Rim threatens to come crashing down like the Golden Gate Bridge after a bite from an alien lizard monster. It is in these moments – when characters, played by actual human actors such as Idris Elba and Charlie Hunnam, attempt to mimic humanity – that Pacific Rim seems like it was written by a kaiju who’d spent just enough time watching humanity from afar to do a passing imitation of the most stunted dialogue from Top Gun.
Pacific Rim would be a really great silent movie. And I wouldn’t enforce complete silence on it either – director Guillermo del Toro can keep all his clangs and clacks and thuds and whirrs. In a Michael Bay Transformers’ film, all that noise is chaos; it echoes off all those metal-on-metal visuals that make it impossible to decipher just who is fighting who for anyone without a doctorate in Decepticon history, creating a diaphanous cacophony of nothingness that is impossible to decipher but still keep some satisfied because… BOOM! But Del Toro, aside from a few nonsense fight sequences of his own, creates visual and auditory poetry. When he gets going (and he allows ample space to let his imagination run free), the city-rending, harbor-churning battles turn into something of a religious awakening. They stir.
Many will say, and have said, that Pacific Rim‘s inability to imbue any of its human characters with such life – with the ability to stir – turns the film’s mind-altering spectacle into mind-numbing spectacle. Too dumb to function above the level of smashing our cortexes into blissful surrender, many cry. And to some extent this is true; it is difficult to say what makes the action in Man of Steel – a much better written film with poor character motivation and growth, but hey, at least it exists – manipulative and dull and the action in Pacific Rim – which has a higher body toll, which levels as much, repeats as much, pummels as much – transcendent and moving. I think it might be fair to attribute this to the fact that Pacific Rim seems like it wasn’t so much “written” as it was choreographed expertly with an eye towards maximum effectiveness, which sounds bad but is actually great; Man of Steel, on the other hand, is a clearly “written” film, with writerly goals and writerly drawbacks, that puts little care into where it puts its x’s on the dance floor and when it presses play.
That is the beauty in Pacific Rim. The film largely has the decency, outside of five minutes of leaden “emotional growth,” to not pretend its aims are much higher than disarming viewers who would care to be disarmed with synapse-firing, dream-making spectacle. This film is not revisionist; it is innocently, blaringly unchallenging to the inherent nostalgia of its conceit. It would like, if you would not mind, for you to feel seven again, to feel blissful and uncomplicated joy in a theater seat. This is not a terribly grown-up motivation, but it’s a helpful antidote to the very grown-up summer cloud of Nolan’s furrowed brow philosophy that made The Dark Knight and Inception such resounding successes (and two of my favorite films of the past decade), and that made Man of Steel and parts of The Dark Knight Rises so fruitlessly joyless.
So why have those five minutes at all? Pacific Rim doesn’t just put all of its ammo into cool suit and monster design – it understands the inherent criticisms a film like this must face. Firstly, Pacific Rim may be, unlike Transformers, an ambitious original property, but, in conception, it still basically seems like a new toyline waiting to happen more than a movie. If not for the sterling reputation of del Toro, many would dismiss the film as Reel Steel kids’ stuff, something they’ll have to buy for Tommy this Christmas and nothing more. Well, the film ingeniously builds this very notion right into the complacency that informs its opening fight scene. I won’t spoil how.
Secondly, this is pure fanboy-baiting, male-driven spectacle. And Pacific Rim tries nobly to create a strong female character (just one though, she’s pretty alone, the only female character with more than a paragraph to say). When she goes with her gut and acts, as she does in a splendid quarterstaff fight scene, Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori is something to behold. And then (you might notice a recurring theme here) when she talks and tries to act in ways humans might when thinking and being respectful and communicating, she comes off as a wilting, bowing Asian stereotype that might play well in Asian markets but makes it pretty clear why she was featured so little in marketing stateside.
Its those token gestures toward humanity that make Pacific Rim a sometimes unpleasant experience, and worse, a sometimes bland experience. (Hunnam especially is a beefcake-of-the-month charm-vacuum, though Idris Elba is striking, larger-than-life and splendid.) The film may answer some critics by trying to build in more humanity, but it may have actually benefited from going for less. Pacific Rim makes some unfortunate passes at a deeply unnecessary romance between its two leads, and at character growth for its antagonist, and at nobility for its martyred leader, and these attempts do great damage to the scenes that feature them, stilted as they are by canned dialogue that sounds, perhaps in tribute to foreign monster movies of old, like it was dubbed in to fit into the limited amount of time that could be devoted to each line. (A sidenote on Hunnam while we’re on the subject: I’ve seen criticism of his accent. To be honest, I would not have guessed he was British had I not known, but I also would have wondered throughout the film whether he had learned to speak English as a child by listening to recordings of Rorschach’s journal on a loop.) It’s pretty painful to watch. During the film’s “most moving” scene, someone behind me laughed. I wanted to punch them, then thought for moment, and considered shaking their hand instead. This was laughable. The consolation here: faint nods at conventional movie moors like that tearjerker scene taint all of ten minutes of the film. A pretty bad ten minutes. Blissfully, the rest of the film, all two hours of it, soars.
Speaking of soaring, I spent much of the second and third acts of this film perched at the edge of a theater seat, mouth so agape, a kaiju could have flown in, but I will never forget one moment from Pacific Rim in particular: a kaiju, seemingly defeated, reveals something unexpected about its anatomy, and suddenly the kaiju and the mecha take off, high, higher, dangerously high. But the kaiju is not the only beast with surprises tucked away in del Toro’s labyrinthine monster designs, and so, just as suddenly, and just as gasp-inducingly, they fall. The scope of all this, the push, the pull, the perspective of it all, bigger than life, bigger than Earth itself, it’s all felt. I was virtually standing up. My seatmate had left the theater for a moment, and I had the distinct feeling of pitying him. Guillermo del Toro had just delivered his sermon. It had not been delivered by men, and it was not about men. This was much bigger than that. This was about gods. Gods and – just a teensy bit – men. Just the right amount about men. Mostly gods.