I went to see Pacific Rim on opening night, and I’m happy to report that it was pretty much everything I’d hoped for. I enjoyed it thoroughly; what follows isn’t so much a review as a consideration of those elements that could have really benefited from closer attention to detail. Ultimately, the balance of my complaints are all concerned with narrative and story … because visually and viscerally, this film was awesome. And I mean that in the truest sense of the word.
Because really, all you need to know about Pacific Rim is that it’s giant robots fighting sea monsters. Like snakes on a plane or a sharknado, it’s a pretty unbeatable concept. It’s also a concept that, without knowing context, you’d be entirely forgiven for assuming was a Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer joint.
Except that as everyone who hasn’t been living in a cave in Nepal for the past year knows, Pacific Rim was the brainchild of Guillermo de Toro. And while his vitae does include a few less-than-stellar forays (Hellboy II, Blade II), he also gave the world Pan’s Labyrinth—which means he could also give us a shot-for-shot remake of Heaven’s Gate starring Gilbert Gottfried and Lindsay Lohan, and he’d still be forgiven. He is not unlike Ridley Scott in this respect, who gets a lifetime pass for having directed Alien and Blade Runner … but where Scott seems determined to stretch our patience to the breaking point, de Toro’s films are never irredeemable.
But de Toro is akin to Ridley Scott in another way, in that he is first and foremost a visual and not a narrative artist—and like Scott, his best work tends to happen when he marries his visual talents to an excellent script. And as much as I enjoyed Pacific Rim—and I really did enjoy it because, hello, giant robots versus sea monsters!—he was not working from anything resembling a good script for this one. We had an inkling of this from the very first trailer when Idris Elba declares “Tonight, we are cancelling the apocalypse!” Even the magnificent Elba, who has more gravitas in his little finger than a small town’s worth of motivational speakers, can’t make the line work. Cancelling the apocalypse? Really? They couldn’t come up with a better phrasing? (It does make we want to see Idris Elba play Henry V, if for no other reason than to see him deliver a well-written troops-rallying speech.) So the dialogue is mostly forgettable, and there are plot holes you could drive one of those giant robots through. But I will get to those presently.
By now, most people know the premise, whether you’re interested in seeing the film or not: sometime in the near future, humanity comes under attack from giant, Godzilla-like alien sea monsters—which become known as “kaiju,” the Japanese word for “beast”—who enter our world through a dimensional rift in the floor of the Pacific ocean. In order to fight back, the nations of the world pool resources to build “jaegars” (German for hunter), giant robots operated by pilots who merge mentally with the machine. And here we come to a crucial pivot-point, as we learn that these mechanical monsters are simply too much for a single pilot’s neurons to deal with. The solution is to have two pilots, who mentally link with one another in a mind-meld called “the Drift.” In the Drift, they share thoughts and memories, and essentially inhabit each other’s minds. So no secrets from your co-pilot.
The film begins with all this narrated by Raleigh Becket, a hotshot jaegar pilot played by Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy fame. He and his brother Yancy operated an American jaegar called Gypsy Danger … until they were defeated by a kaiju and Yancy was killed. This was the first of a series of defeats the kaiju inflict on the jaegar program as they grow and evolve into bigger and more efficient killers, until the giant robots are in full retreat everywhere and the politicians have decided to abandon the program in favour of building a giant wall.
Yes, a giant wall. Bear with me. This all comes to pass five years after Raleigh loses his brother, and though the jaegar program is still alive, it is only barely so, and the remaining pilots and crews are gearing up for a final assault on the dimensional rift. Idris Elba plays the man in command of it all, with the unlikely name of Stacker Pentacost (yes, the names get a wee bit ridiculous), and he tracks down Raleigh to where the former pilot is a construction worker building the Alaskan section of the wall. After a hilariously abbreviated discussion in which Pentacost convinces Raleigh to overcome his trauma and grief (which really almost comes down to “Hey, come and fight for me again.” “Can’t. Too traumatized.” “Come on.” “Oh, all right.”), Raleigh returns with Pentacost to Hong Kong. There we meet Mako Mori (which I think is Latin for “blue shark of death”), a young Japanese woman who (it turns out) has been Stacker Pentacost’s ward since he saved her from a kaiju attack. She has also been trained as a pilot, and very obviously wants to be teamed up with Raleigh. Which of course, in spite of Pentacost’s reluctance, she is. (“Let me pilot with him!” “No, you’re too inexperienced.” “But everyone else sucks!” “Oh, all right. Go on, then.”)
OK, that’s all I’ll say on the plot, aside from the fact that the ultimate mission is to close the rift by dropping a thermonuclear bomb into it, which of course they succeed in doing (after a fashion). Peace and democracy reign again.
Did I mention I really enjoyed this film? I just want to reiterate that because I can feel myself getting snarky. It was visually stunning, and all the fight sequences were brilliantly done. Del Toro brings a kind of brutal intimacy to the clashes while still emphasizing their massive scale. And because it can’t be emphasized enough: there is something deeply satisfying in watching a giant robot punch a sea monster.
That being said, here are a handful of plot holes that bugged me before I move on to a more careful critique:
- As the title suggests, the kaiju threat is indeed specific to the Pacific Rim. All of the sites attacked are coastal cities in this area. So … living as I do in Atlantic Canada, I wouldn’t have to worry about giant sea monsters so much? What does the rest of the world think? And what if you lived in, say, Saskatchewan? The speed and urgency of the film, and the attitude of its characters, communicate apocalyptic immediacy. Presumably, seeing as how the kaiju are evolving and emerging at a geometric rate, they would soon be making inroads into the middle of continents and spreading beyond the Pacific … but that is still just a possibility at the end of Pacific Rim when Tony Stark flies the nuke through the dimensional portal Raleigh Beckett blows up the portal. What does the rest of the world think about what’s happening?
- On a similar note, why are there still densely populated cities on the coasts? Who thought that was a good idea?
- The co-pilot selection process seems entirely limited to having prospective candidates fight Raleigh Beckett, further evidence that proficiency at martial arts makes you qualified for anything.
- Mako is the only one who can match his mad kung fu skills, and ergo is a suitable co-pilot. Um, what? If you’re trying to match people for mind-melding compatibility, wouldn’t there be a series of in-depth, you know, psychological and/or neurological tests?
- By the same token, wouldn’t they have at least one dry run where they enter the Drift together in a safe space, i.e. one in which someone freaking out isn’t connected to a huge nuclear-powered weapon?
- If these pilots are in fact mind-melding, why are they constantly talking to each other? There’s a lot of one pilot ordering the other to “arm the plasma cannon!” and things like that. Wouldn’t that be unnecessary if you’re sharing thoughts?
It can be frustrating when SF films introduce a potentially very cool, very intriguing speculative concept whose implications pose significant philosophical questions, and then neglect to follow through on it at all. To be fair, there are occasions of pedantry and excessive exposition—I’m thinking most specifically of The Architect from The Matrix Reloaded here—but more often than not it is treated as incidental to the main story. Even when, as in the case of the Drift, it is in fact a central premise.
I think Alyssa Rosenberg puts her finger on it when she argues that this should have been two films. We begin in media res, with a pretty quick background—monsters emerge from a dimensional rift, start attacking cities, and then for a time are successfully repulsed by the jaegers. Until they evolve and start defeating the jaegers, the first instance of which is the battle in which Raleigh loses his brother.
While I appreciate the narrative economy, it occurs to me that there is a huge missed opportunity here. The story of how the monsters appear and humanity figures out how to fight back would have made for a great film, with huge dramatic potential—especially in the early days as the jaegers were first developed and the bugs in the Drift worked out. There would be, on has to assume, a significant human toll in working through the technology and evolving it to the point where it’s effective (there is a brief gesture toward this with Stacker Pentacost, who still suffers the ill effects of his time piloting the early jaegers). You could have ended the first film with the battle where Raleigh loses his brother, and spent a good chunk of the second film showing how the jaegers were losing and the strife that emerges amongst the partner nations.
Above all, the characters and their development would not have received such short shrift. The key device in this film is this mind-melding technology: as mentioned above, the Drift is potentially brilliant SF material, as it adds a very human dimension to the giant robot trope, making piloting jaegers not just a fundamentally cooperative exercise, but one that necessitates the subordination of the self to that of the team. There has been a lot of talk about the influence on del Toro of everything from Godzilla movies to mecha anime to Voltron to even The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; I have to wonder however if the story was not at least in part influenced by Joe Haldeman’s novel Forever Peace. In it, the western world in the future maintains its colonial holdings and fights its short wars with robotic soldier-drones operated remotely by individuals plugged in to a collective consciousness (the novel is, among other things, totally prescient about drone warfare). Linked in together, the soldiers share thoughts, memories, loves, hates, and so forth—there are no secrets. And as it turns out, staying connected with others for too long leads to some interesting side effects (which I won’t spoil—read the book!).
Del Toro’s jaegers seem to operate on a similar premise, albeit not remotely—the pilots are inside the robot’s “head.” And in Forever Peace, though the operators are mentally linked, each pilots their own robot. The implications of a single unit being piloted simultaneously by two linked individuals is a fantastic speculative device, as it carries all sorts of questions about how differing, contrasting, conflicting, or competing personalities and impulses can work together in unity.
Unfortunately, aside from some very truncated gestures toward these questions, the film effectively ignores them and instead gives us a very familiar pilot / co-pilot dynamic in all the jaegar cockpits we see. Yes, we see the pilots move in unison as they walk, we see them punch and strike in tandem as they fight the kaiju, but there is otherwise very little sense of them having actually merged consciousness. They speak individually, carry out separate actions in the cockpit, shout encouragement at each other. As mentioned above, why would you even need to speak? Yes, they sometimes have to speak on the radio with command, but how uncanny, then, to have had them speak in perfect unison?
On top of all this is the obvious fact of asymmetrical power relationships between the pilots depicted: though Mako is ostensibly the best match for Raleigh, she is obviously his subordinate in every way. The other jaegar team of significance are the Australians, who are father and son and possess the same experienced elder / brash youth dynamic. Perhaps this is the best sort of pairing, as their respective strengths complement each other? That would have been a brilliant point to explore.
(The other two teams have very little to do: a Russian man and women with weird hair who look like villains from a 70s Bond film, and Chinese triplets—who are in fact indistinguishable, which raises a whole host of disturbing racial and ethnic overtones I don’t want to get into right now. Suffice to say neither of the other teams have much to do before they are kaiju kibble).
Perhaps this all seems like me totally overthinking what is essentially just a big, shiny summer blockbuster—perhaps I should just enjoy the film without nitpicking? Perhaps … except that, as I’ve repeated several times, I did enjoy the film. I loved it, as a matter of fact. Which is why these problems make me grind my teeth in frustration so much. The film is good, and the ideas behind it (while borrowing from just about every SF monster trope in existence) are intriguing. Believe me when I say I never spared a thought about the philosophical implications of Transformers.