Pacific Rim Review -or- Giant Robots for Fun and (Hopefully) Profit

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. I’m going to be talking about plot points, so I have to tell you what they are. I’ll try to keep them to a minimum but I recommend you go watch the movie (ASAP!) to really understand what I’m talking about. The article begins after the break.

Pacific Rim is in many ways the perfect summer movie: it’s Independence Day if that movie were about giant robots punching aliens instead of Will Smith punching aliens (there’s even a scene where the aliens are staring wide-eyed into the maw of the exploding nuclear annihilation that’s about to destroy their mothership home planet). Pacific Rim exists in the same realm of loving tributes as opposed to the trope inversions we’ve been seeing recently (a la Batman), or at least the attempts at such. It’s a good movie that should be seen by anyone who is even halfway connected with the subculture that appreciates giant robots and the alien monsters who get punched by them with rocket-powered fists.

And that last bit–about the rocket-powered fists–is really all you need to know about Pacific Rim. At the end of the day it’s about giant metal people beating the ever-loving hell out of giant alien lizards from another dimension. Also GLaDOS (Ellen McLain) is in it as the half-heard voice of the computer, although they did dial down the filter (“I called Valve and asked ‘Can you give us the filter?’ so we went full GLaDOS for the first commercial, but I thought it was too much. If you’re a gamer, it’s too distracting so we created our own GLaDOS 2.0 filter that’s a little less full-on.”[24]) Just so you know.

So first, the good: Pacific Rim is exactly what it says on the tin. There’s a halfway-subtle romance plot, but it’s not overdone or forced into a character space where it doesn’t belong. There’s the arrogant fellow pilot, the main character with the tragic backstory, the young woman out for revenge, no fewer than two heroic father figures (more on that in the “bad” section, unfortunately), and fifty-story-tall fistfights destroying the crap out of bits of Hong Kong. The CGI is nearly seamless, all the tools and technology feel like a cartoon made real, and there’s even a Star Wars reference right up front. There are a few moments that made me feel like “Oh man, that sounds just like something James Cameron would say,” (though I admit I cannot remember exactly what those moments are), and lo and behold but who should appear in the “We wish to thank” list during the end credits. It’s clearly made with the idea that people in-the-know are going to see it, but I predict it won’t feel too inside joke-y to the uninitiated.

Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Burn Gorman play a pair of snarky, competing scientists who provide much of the comic relief (though it is not an especially dark movie). The comic relief does not, surprisingly, feel annoying or out of context of the plot, and when they work together at the end you can’t help but cheer. Also Ron Perlman. That’s all that needs to be said.

If you go into Pacific Rim wanting to watch a movie where giant robots beat the ever-loving hell out of giant lizards from another dimension, you’ll get exactly that, and it does all of those parts very well. But I promised a “bad” section, and here it is:

The movie is over two hours long, and while it never seems to drag (much), this running time means that director/producer/writer Guillermo del Toro probably had to make a few sacrifices to fit it down to even 130-or-so minutes. Unfortunately, he made those cuts (if indeed they were made; this is only speculation, mind) during the climax.

The sequence of relevant events in the last half of the movie is as follows:

1) Hong Kong is attacked by Kaiju (the giant lizards). In successfully defending the city, two of the remaining four Jaeger mecha are destroyed. All that’s left is Striker Eureka–piloted by the arrogant guy and his dad–and Gipsy Danger, piloted by our heroes (Tragic Backstory Man and Tragic Backstory Woman). In the process, the father of the arrogant guy hurts his arm and can no longer help pilot Striker.

2) The oft-mentioned plan to blow up a nuclear bomb in the underwater portal to close it is enacted, with the Commander of the Jaeger fleet (a former pilot himself, who will die from neural overload if he gets into a Jaeger again) replacing arrogant guy’s father. It has been revealed up to this point that he has been like a father to Tragic Backstory Woman, having raised her after her family was killed by Kaiju. Arrogant Guy and His Father have a heartfelt “I love you, man!” scene.

3) Turns out the Kaiju are fighting back on this one. Three Kaiju attack as the two robots approach the underwater portal, and in defending themselves Striker Eureka, which is carrying the bomb, is damaged and can’t eject the bomb anymore. In order to try to destroy the Kaiju so that Gipsy Danger can overload its nuclear reactor and become the new bomb, Striker Eureka detonates the bomb and sacrifices themselves. Two of the three Kaiju are now dead, more or less.

4) Gipsy Danger grabs the last Kaiju and jumps into the portal (they need a Kaiju corpse to trick the portal into opening for them) and dives right in, using its chest-thruster weapon to kill this last Kaiju. Tragic Backstory Man gives his co-pilot the last of his oxygen and has her eject in her escape pod as she falls unconscious. He then detonates Gipsy Danger in the alien world and escapes in his own escape pod. The exploding robot seals the breach, the Tragic Backstory Couple reunites on the surface, and all is well.

Throughout the movie there is a foreshadowed thread: “We (Commander and Tragic Backstory Man) are the only two people ever to pilot a Jaeger solo. That’s why I brought you here.” That sets up an expectation: at some point, they’re going to have to pilot solo. Tragic Backstory Man, during the ending, pilots solo for about two seconds, if by “piloting” you mean “pushing some buttons to blow up the robot”. Why can’t Commander pilot solo for two seconds, while Arrogant Guy is ejected back to his father? Why couldn’t Tragic Backstory Man pilot solo long enough to jump into the portal after ejecting his co-pilot?

I’m not saying these are things that should have been done as I’m saying them, but since there’s foreshadowing and escape pods, there’s no in-world reason it shouldn’t have been done. It makes sense from a plot perspective not to do it that way–as the plot is done, anyway; too many escape pods does not tension build–but it violates its own suspension of disbelief. If we’re meant to take these Jaegers seriously as a fighting force–and we are–there must be a good reason why these escape measures don’t work. Also, there’s really no plot-related excuse for not delivering on your foreshadowing.  The Piloting Solo thing is mentioned at least three times–that’s a Chekov’s Gun that is never, in the end, fired. It should have been trimmed out or utilized.

There are also too many heroic sacrifices. We get whiplash–do we feel bad at this moment for the girl who lost her father figure, or for the father who lost his son (which is never really elaborated upon, by the way). It’s not that you can’t have it, but if it were me writing I might have had the son die in Hong Kong (moving the heart-to-heart talk up a few scenes) and the father, with nothing to live for, join the Commander in making the ultimate sacrifice at the bottom of the ocean–that way you don’t have to use too many escape pods.

More: upon discovering the bomb delivery system is broken, they immediately jump to “Well, make Gipsy blow itself up instead.” Wait, what? You have escape pods and man who will die anyway (it’s the big reveal of Commander’s character arc). Make that guy do it.

Better still: make him try and fail. Make Gipsy Danger the last hope for humanity, not because everything goes more-or-less to plan (which is really how the end works as it’s written) but because Striker Eureka tried and failed. Have Striker jump into the portal, only to lose hold of the Kaiju corpse at the last second–maybe Commander has a seizure or something?–and bounce off (as had been foreshadowed at least twice!), leaving Gipsy Danger with only one option–take the plunge themselves.

That’s called “raising the stakes”, and it’s a pretty common trope–remember in Independence Day where Randy Quaid has the last missile, but it won’t fire so he has to fly the plane into the spaceship himself to save his children and the Earth? Yeah, that. That whole scene takes about fifteen seconds, but it’s still more tense and powerful than the end of Pacific Rim where everything goes (essentially) according to plan.

In conclusion, see Pacific Rim. It’s a fine movie that really shows respect for the culture it borrows from, and it’s a film that, for the most part, does the same old tropes in a really solid way. It’s clearly done with love, and we need more of that in filmmaking…lest we get a whole generation of filmmakers raised on Transformers films.

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