The premise of this film is sufficiently bonkers to awaken your ailing inner 12-year-old: Earth is under siege by aliens the size of skyscrapers, known by their Japanese name kaiju, which literally translates to ‘strange creature’, or more commonly, ‘monster’. They come not from the stars but, like Godzilla (whose influence is greatly felt), from the depth of our oceans. A portal known as ‘the breach’ allowed these intergalactic beasties to slip into our world and begin their process of colonising the planet. In mankind’s darkest hour, we set aside our disputes for the greater good, to pool our resources and construct skyscraper-sized robot warriors called Jaegers (German for ‘hunter’) to combat these creatures of the deep. The Jaegers prove to be too much for a solo pilot to handle, and so the cockpits are tailored for two, who each control one of the machine’s mental hemisphere’s by entering a sort of mind meld known as the ‘drift’. This process requires a mental and spiritual compatibility involving the sharing of thoughts and memories while the pilots are synchronously operating the robots. Have I lost you yet?
All of this background is deftly communicated in the film’s opening prologue. When we pick up the narrative five years later, mankind is losing its battle against these towering titans and the expensive Jaeger programme is being shut down. Unable to accept this, Jaeger crews from all over the world, in violation of their superiors, are banding together in the Pacific Ocean to make one last stand.
It’s important to differentiate between big, silly films featuring giant robots and big, silly films featuring giant robots that crucially are created with a pure love for this kind of cinema. Pacific Rim is certainly the latter, and so it’s about a million miles away from the soulless, superficiality of the Transformers franchise, which seemed to exist for the purpose of selling merchandise for toy company Hasbro and little else. Guillermo del Toro is essentially an independent artist, an auteur working on the biggest scale imaginable. His devotion to the genre has been amply expressed, from his strange vampire debut Cronos and there onwards: Mimic, Blade 2, Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth. Almost all his films, novels and comics trumpet an irrepressible love of monsters, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of the subgenre is well-documented.
Having said all that, Pacific Rim is unlikely to top anyone’s list of favourite del Toro films. There’s a hyper-frantic comedy element in the film that doesn’t always gel, for example. In particular, there are two kaiju specialists, one an American maverick and the other a typically ‘tight-arsed’ Brit (apparently impersonating Matt Smith’s Doctor Who), who are intended as a light relief double act. While they’re not irritating per se, the tone often jars. Elba is solid enough, but Hunnam and Kazinksy, while generically heroic, are strangely similar-looking and frequently unremarkable. This is further exacerbated when anyone shares the screen with del Toro regular Perlman: his handful of appearances cause every muscle to relax, and his shoes have more charisma than the entirety of the cast combined (to be fair, they are mad shoes).
What separates del Toro from contemporaries such as Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich is that he remembers to craft his narrative in such a way so as not to insult his audience, and to imbue his human characters with contradictions and vulnerabilities enough to make us give a damn. On several occasions where, for the good of humankind, the characters suit up and fearlessly enter the drift, side by side, mentally synchronised, I’ll admit, my neck hair stood on end. Perhaps it’s not high art, but it’s high craft.
Pacific Rim (11)
Dir: Guillermo del Toro; US action/adventure, 2013, 130 mins; Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Ron Perlman, Charlie Day, Robert Kazinsky, Ron Perlman
Premiered August 1