By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist July 15, 2013 at 2:13PM
This weekend, Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim," a monster mash about giant creatures that come through an inter-dimensional portal on the ocean floor and the giant robots constructed to fight them, was neither an outright dud nor a smash. Beaten to number one by "Despicable Me 2," we can't imagine a third place finish was what Warner Bros. had in mind for their $200 million summer movie. Was it too much of a fan letter to nerds and comic book stores for the general public to care? Did the marketing campaign stumble? Did it need an A-list star? We're sure conference rooms at WB today are having meetings asking those exact same questions, but there's also the simple question of whether or not the movie actually delivered.
While a certain segment embraced the approach that riffed on old-school Saturday matinee double-features, anime, manga and trumped-up videogames, others found those elements couldn't hit the derivative story, one-dimensional characters and a movie that offered a lot of hollow explosions and special effects (here's our original review). In fact at The Playlist, it has spurred its own numerous discussions in the lobby and we've carried it over to this feature in which we run down the good, the bad, and the just plain weird about "Pacific Rim" (and even some of these points were hotly debated within our ranks). Spoilers roughly the size and shape of a giant robot, follow.
Seeing as this is a Guillermo del Toro film, everything in "Pacific Rim" is meticulously detailed and gorgeously designed. The production design was handled by both Carol Spier, a longtime Cronenberg collaborator who has also worked with del Toro in the past, and Andrew Neskoromny, a veteran of influential sci-fi series "Star Trek: The Next Generation." The two work in concert with one another beautifully. The sets are almost universally stunning, though the borrowed "Blade Runner" look in the Tokyo slums is admittedly played out (let's call for moratorium there). From the bones of fallen kaiju to the lair of black market organ harvester Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), every location design is beautiful and fully realized. Then there are, of course, the robots and monsters, which del Toro personally oversaw with a small army of artists (the designs were brought to life by the magicians at Industrial Light & Magic). Each cuts an imposing silhouette, like the three-armed jaeger Crimson Typhoon or the "category 5" monster seen at the end of the movie, one that combines del Toro's love for "Godzilla"-esque man-in-suit designs with his clear fascination with all things Lovecraft. You get the impression, from the design work, that del Toro didn't set out to simply make a monsters versus robots movie, it set out to make the monsters versus robots movie.
Rare is the movie that can make you feel like you're experiencing something you've never felt before while at the same time warming your heart in the way that only the nostalgia of something truly familiar can produce. That's the magic of "Pacific Rim." It's a nearly $200 million, cutting-edge spectacle that uses every high tech tool in the cinematic arsenal but can often times feel as wide-eyed and wondrous as sitting cross-legged on the living room carpet, watching Saturday morning cartoons. It's sense of striking awe is something few of the summertime juggernauts possess— they might be able to turn the destruction levels up to a deafening degree, but there's little in the way of real marvel. Del Toro, with his geeky obsessions and attention to detail, knows how to create this kind of response in the viewer. And it really does take someone like del Toro to produce such an honest and immersive effect, mostly because he's an actual nerd, instead of who is usually behind these movies—a committee of suits and creative cynically types trying to speculate what nerds want.
Jaegers. Kaiju. The Drift. The Breach. The Shatter Dome. Hell, there's even tangential plot threads about the toxicity of kaiju blood, which is given the nickname "Kaiju blue." A lot of this stuff is deal breaker nonsense to normal civilians, but if you can hang with it, it's great world-building texture. These are all terms cooked up by del Toro and his co-screenwriter Travis Beacham, and they are all phrases that pop up, again and again, in "Pacific Rim." While it does act as marble-mouthed sci-fi gobbledegook to some (okay, many and non-nerds don't care about the different names of each Jaeger robot), if you can get past it, it actually serves to deepen and enhance the bizarro, perfectly calibrated "Pacific Rim" world. It's a testament to del Toro and Beacham, too, that you know exactly what each of these things is and that they can be spoken about with effortlessness within the movie. Rarely is a world this authentically established, where every facet of the science fiction concept is, if not examined deeply, then at least given a passing mention (including, of course, kaiju crap). You can tell that the filmmakers are in love with this universe, and if you are one of those who can suspend their disbelief, you can't help but be similarly entranced.
The Visual Effects
Simply put, the visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic, are unlike anything we've ever seen before. Yes, there have been both giant monsters and giant robots in major motion pictures before, and a lot of them have been brought to life by ILM. But the level of detail, complexity, and creativity on display in "Pacific Rim" is unparalleled. You can feel every reptilian scale, watch every gear move underneath the giant armor plates. What's even more is that most of these battles take place in insane atmospheric conditions—in snow, in rain, underwater (though it should be said, many have criticized those settings for obscuring the fight scenes, we'll get to that). All of that has to be visualized too and it's impressive to say the least. On a pure visual level, "Pacific Rim" is overwhelming and overstuffed, to the point that only on second or third viewings will you be able to pick up on all the little flourishes and embellishments. There's so much of it that it's easy to ignore or take for granted, but visual effects movies as lovingly crafted, with this much attention to detail, come around far too seldom. Most movies are interested in the most bang for your buck, while del Toro and his collaborators are interested in something more, a real sense of visual splendor and opulence.
One of the major criticisms levied at "Pacific Rim" is the lack of characterization and background story as motivation. And while this is certainly true for some, the one character who receives due diligence in this realm is Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori, a Japanese jaeger fighting expert whom Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is determined to keep out of the pilot’s seat... err... elliptical machine. Her shaky mental state is hinted at (“vengeance”) but we don’t know exactly why he’s keeping her from taking the reins until the test run with Raleigh in Gipsy Danger. During her first neural drift, she ends up falling down the rabbit hole of her own memory of her encounter with a Kaiju as a young girl. The amount of drama and stakes contained within this one flashback is more than the entire film really manages to carry out. Mako, as a young girl, runs down her city street with a kaiju chewing concrete city blocks just behind her. She carries her red shoe, wailing uncontrollably, and darts down an alley where Raleigh, with her in her drift, implores her to come back mentally. In this state, she manages to fire up the jaeger’s cannon firing device, almost obliterating the crowd in the Shatter Dome, before Clifton Collins Jr.’s tech ops character pulls the (comically oversized) plug. This sequence is emotionally searing, beautifully shot and highly effective. It’s also teased earlier and revisited later to reveal more about her character and is a fine piece of emotional and revealing filmmaking, that doesn’t overdo it or skimp on the details, and it’s clearly the mark of del Toro within this massive mash-em-up.