When I first saw the trailer for Pacific Rim, I thought: This could be the best movie of all time. I love me some robot on monster action. I’m also a huge fan of Guillermo del Toro, with both Hellboy 1 & 2 and Pan’s Labyrinth sitting in my list of favorite movies of all time. I know that del Toro has a major interest in creature creation, so would his kaiju monsters make it among the best he’s created?
We are set in the future, where giant monsters known as kaiju (“monster” in Japanese) often appear from the depths of the ocean and attack. We see bits of this history via a montage at the beginning, but really we’re thrown in after this is a regular occurrence. To battle these kaiju, the world has banded together to create giant robotic jaegers (“hunter” in German) which must be operated by two individuals that are mentally compatible. We meet our hero Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) in the opening scene, as he operates a jaeger with his brother. He’s soon brought into the fold as a top soldier to fight alongside a woman from Japan (Rinko Kikuchi), a grizzled general (Idris Elba), and a highly kinetic and fast-talking scientist (Charlie Day). Add in Ron Perlman (Hellboy himself) as a black market kaiju specialist and you’ve got quite a varied cast.
Visually, this movie is gorgeous. The kaijus are so gritty and detailed that you sometimes forget that they’re so destructive, as you’re focusing on their scales and tentacles and every little piece of them. Del Toro put some amazing work into them and making them look truly menacing.
The highlight for me though was the jaegers. These giant robots were much more distinct than the kaijus and I thought the details popped a little more. For example, the jaeger Gipsy Danger from the United States had a gigantic whirling engine at its core and dual cannons in its arms. The Chinese jaeger Crimson Typhoon on the other hand, had three arms that could turn into rotating blades. They were unique, both visually and functionally.
So when these two forces meet, the battle scenes are incredible. The amount of detail in their fight is second to none, as they destroy everything around them and leave nothing standing. They’re what the kid inside me wanted this movie to be…
What doesn’t work.
I expected this movie to be nonstop action but in all reality, it was like three battle scenes. I left the theater unsatisfied and like my quota of monster versus robot battles wasn’t filled. I also had this feeling of unmet expectations and unfulfilled potential. For example, as soon as a jaeger reveals a cool weapon, that weapon is immediately destroyed. Or when a new jaeger appears, it is immediately killed. The movie kept doing itself a disservice and set us up for moments of disappointment. For the action scenes it did have, they were mostly fantastic though.
And while the jaegers were unique and carefully created, the kaiju seemed much more copy and paste. In a special I watched, del Toro claimed that each kaiju was unique and different and yes, I see that, but they’re also eerily similar. They all have this same kind of bluish skin and some sort of weird crest on their forehead and some sort of neon ooze that flows nonstop from its mouth. Let me talk for a second about these neon colors. The monsters might’ve looked great but spewing a neon blue saliva detracted from the aesthetics and made the kaiju look less realistic.
I also didn’t like the Hong Kong location because so much of the location was a bright neon color that it looked like a video game almost. I much preferred the opening scenes where a kaiju attacks San Francisco, illuminated only by a foggy background for example. Sometimes a simpler look might’ve benefited his creatures, as opposed to adding neon saliva and then complementing it with neon signs and lights. I also felt like rain effects were added unnecessarily, again detracting from the simple monsters he created and instead gave us a layer of rain to have to look through.
For being a monster movie, there was a shocking amount of movie that had very little monster (the first half of the movie, to be exact). Most of this chunk focused on the human actors who were, for the most part, disappointing. Idris Elba was solid, but lead Charlie Hunnam was overdramatic and had a case of “Batman voice.” His partner in crime Mako, played by Rinko Kikuchi, was also overacting most of the movie. Her childhood counterpart though was absolutely fantastic, resulting in the most emotionally resonate moment in the film, in my opinion. And then Charlie Day appears as this scientist but he’s so annoying that I kind of wished he would’ve gotten eaten right off the bat. I didn’t really connect with any of these human characters, though Perlman’s brief scenes were a saving grace.
I’m conflicted. I enjoyed the movie, I had a blast. But I know what this movie could (and possibly should) have been. Del Toro bogged down his monster movie with overdramatic and campy human storylines and left too little room for his beasties. And when the monsters did appear, they were generally and eerily similar… and the fight scenes were full of untapped potential. I enjoyed what the end product was, but it’s not the dawn of a new age that I had hoped for. Fun and exciting but not the creation (or revitalization) of the kaiju genre. Just a little off the mark for me.