It’s been six years since I watched the first of Michael Bay’s awful Transformers films – two harrowing hours of seeing a favourite childhood cartoon torn apart, set on fire, pissed on, and then stitched back together in a grotesque parody of the original vision. The experience left me with some resembling geek post-traumatic disorder, which manifested itself in two ways: sudden epic rage meltdowns at how badly Bay had handled the source material, and the fierce belief that big robots beating things up would never be any fun ever again.
Enter Pacific Rim.
I was sceptical at first. The trailer made the film look like another big disaster movie, with cities being wrecked by big monsters, and so on, and well . . . whatever. After seeing New York being annihilated in the Avengers, the impact of this large-scale destruction just washes over you. But then two things happened. The first was that some ingrained geek intuition started flashing a subconscious message through my brain: Big Robots + Big Monsters = Epic Times! The second was that I remembered that Guillermo del Toro is certainly no Michael Bay, because he actually makes great films (Pan’s Labyrinth) and his imagination extends beyond big explosions and big boobies.
So I went along to see Pacific Rim, wondering whether huge robots beating things up can actually still be fun. Two hours later I was left in no doubt that yes, it really can be.
There’s a lot to love about Pacific Rim.
The robots – called Jaegers, which is German for ‘hunter’ though it’s not made explicitly clear why exactly they have this title – all look fantastic; the costume designers really did a good job in making them all look distinctive and suitably battle-worn. Forget the glitzy, shiny look of Michael Bay’s transformers – this is how big robots should look.
The monsters – the kaiju – are equally impressive, all clearly taking their cues from various animals which lends them both a degree of individuality and realism. They look incredible (the CGI – courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic – is superb) and the creature design and animation lends them an indomitable presence. Seeing huge monsters wrecking urban landscapes is hardly something new, yet Pacific Rim makes it feel like a fresh experience.
The selling point of the film is of course showing what happens when an unstoppable object meets an immovable force, so it’s no surprise that this is where the film excels. It’s obvious that a huge amount of effort went into making the jaeger/kaiju battles as gripping as possible, with close attention being paid to the choreography. And it really pays off; these confrontations are completely absorbing and visually impressive. There’s just something intrinsically thrilling at seeing a huge robot holding a monster in a headlock and pummeling its face.
Costume/creature design and CGI aside, one aspect of Pacific Rim that deserves a special mention is the art direction. The film looks absolutely amazing; saturated hues bleed across dark backgrounds to form a riot of colour complimented by the darker tones of the water. It’s the perfect backdrop for the unfolding action.
Robots and monsters aside, the human contingent turn in solid performances. There’s nothing particularly deep or complex about their relationships, but then the film doesn’t need that. Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi have a good chemistry and of course Idris Elba is Idris Elba. His “today we’re cancelling the apocalypse” came across as cheesy and overly dramatic in the trailer, but the calm authority he brings to his role draws you in, so that by the time he gives his speech that same line suddenly seems to have more gravitas.
There are a few bum notes. The two scientists – Burn Gorman and Charlie Day – both possess a wackiness that feels forced; they’re clearly intended as the comedic element, but the resulting humour flits between underwhelming and irritating. Worse, Burn Gorman’s character bears a bizarre resemblance – both in terms of his mannerisms and physical appearance – to Lee Evan’s bumbling character Tucker from There’s Something About Mary, which, once that realisation had lodged in my brain, was annoyingly jarring.
Ron Perlman’s character is a bit of a missed opportunity; Perlman brings plenty of colour and charisma to his role as underworld king pin, but he’s never really given the chance to flex his muscles and subsequently feels underused.
And of course Pacific Rim has various other flaws. The explanation for how only a few jaegers remain as humanity’s last hope was glossed over in a couple of minutes and is pretty ridiculous. The various crews of the jaegers could have done with a bit more screen time – they seemed interesting from a distance (particularly the Wei Tang triplets that man the jaeger Crimson Typhoon) but appear only fleetingly in the film.
The film’s main weakness and biggest disappointment is the ending – it feels a little rushed and superficial, strangely lacking much of the excitement and tension that the rest of the action sequences managed to generate. Which is a bit of a shame.
Still, it’s not enough to detract from the overall experience. Pacific Rim is a stunning to look at and a huge amount of fun to watch. It’s obvious that del Toro and his team put a lot of love and passion into this project, and the result is one of the most enjoyable summer blockbusters I’ve seen in a long time.
A sequel is already in the very early planning stages, so hopefully it won’t be too long until jaegers and kaiju are rampaging across the big screen again.