Review of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim

At first glance, Pacific Rim seems like a shallow film with paper-thin characterisation and performances from a Wing Commander cut scene; all this can make it hard to see the film as anything other than an overgrown cartoon. Fortunately, what the film lacks in those areas it more than makes up for with gristly, weighty action, a coherent and interesting world, a great, memorable score from Ramin Djawadi and a unique and beautiful palette.

For a film about giant exoskeletons punching the shit out of giant alien monsters, it’s ironic that the most cartoonish element of all is the cast. Charlie Hunnam barely registers in the lead role, while Charlie Day and Burn Gorman put in broad performances as a pair of argumentative scientists. Idris Elba’s popularity continues to baffle me with his “poor man’s Clive Owen” style of acting and a variety of anonymous Australian actors and non-speaking national stereotypes fill out the rest of the cast. Rinko Kikuchi and Ron Perlman are both good, at least, and it isn’t to say that anybody’s bad, as such, but looking back at Guillermo del Toro’s filmography reveals an attention to character and performance as strong as his attention to sound and vision, and I’d have liked to have seen more of that here.

But, you get used to it, because Pacific Rim is a film not just of action, but of ideas. The need for each Jaeger to have two mentally-synched pilots acting as one makes for convincing spots of tension, and I liked the notion of an ocean-wrapping wall that’s politically-favoured and utterly useless. As is typical for a del Toro film, the world-building is logical and believable, from Kaiju fanboys to profiteers that trade in Kaiju parts, parasites and effluence, all the way up to city infrastructure built up around Kaiju bones; this is a world in which Kaiju attacks have shaped human culture and, despite the finality of the main story, is a world full of implications that screams out for more stories to be told.

Also typical of Del Toro is the heart-stopping beauty of it all. The Kaiju themselves are all craggy, armoured toothiness on top and bright bio-luminescence underneath, reminiscent of the Forest God of Hellboy 2, ethereal, haunting and almost unstoppably destructive. The Jaegers are similarly designed; craggy, humanoid tanks on the outside, controlled from within in rooms of neon and hologram. Despite being largely set at night, Pacific Rim is the gaudiest, brightest summer blockbuster there’s been for a while and it stands out because of it; the action sequences are clear, fast-paced and exhilarating.

So, while I gripe about the disposable human cast, Pacific Rim grabbed me with the world-building of District 9, the lurid, artificial-colouring of Speed Racer and the satisfying crunch of metal against flesh. A film that deserves more success than any other summer blockbuster this year, if only for taking familiar elements and crafting something that feels genuinely new from them.

Further reading

On the Inhuman Drama of Pacific Rim
Inside Pacific Rim
Interview with Imaginary Forces, the company responsible for the title and credits
Costume design in Pacific Rim