Calling it now; Pacific Rim is poised to become an American sci-fi classic. And that’s perfectly okay. It’s a better film than most action film directors could even dream of mustering up. It is an animation and Japanese science fiction fan’s dream come true. But it is not perfect. Guillermo del Toro hardly ever disappoints too much in his directing features (some more successful than others, I will cling to Pan’s Labyrinth until I die) but with his new mecha romp co-written by Travis Beacham, you do hit some rather unfortunate snags. Rather than completely inverting most tropes and conventions of action films or taking the opportunity to do so, the film unfortunately perpetuates one too many summer blockbuster cliches leaving the film a lesser piece than if they had made slight alterations and decisions. This does not mean it is a “bad” film. I thought it was overall predictable fluff fun and it made me smile and wince and gripe in the expected ways, far more than my viewing partner did as I enjoy this kind of action. And boy did it have action. I thought it had some great moments. Great visuals. Great music. I am however going to give it some (really) tough love. It was good, but it could have been better.
First, the concept for the film was overall pretty stellar. Boasting a considerable amount of Japanese heritage harkening back to Godzilla and other giant monster sci-fi films of the 50’s and then giant mecha (giant robo) anime from the Cold War era the set-up is nothing but fun. Comparisons to anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion, G Gundam, Voltron, Zone of the Enders and Super Zentai shows among others are unavoidable. The premise; that a rift in the ocean floor causes giant semi-aquatic alien monsters to flow out from another dimension and the world responds by developing giant mechanical robots dubbed jaegers to destroy them is pretty sound. That’s really cool. The robots then become symbols of national pride and the pilots when successful are turned heroes and big name celebrities, some using that to their advantage more than others. We are also given a very quick glimpse into the subsequent commercialization and consumerism that followed the jaeger and kaiju phenomenon. It was a very interesting aspect which in retrospect, I’d wished they focused more on. Details like the new black market for kaiju parts as medicine, the worship of the kaiju as divine retribution and large scale workforces being used to weld the kaiju walls are interesting world building features. The economic conditions and repercussions caused by the destruction of cities and then the production of jaegers would have been interesting to show in how it affected most of their patron countries. But we got what we got and for me I did get enough of a solid base to understand the world they were in (but it never hurts to want more).
Looks-wise the film is gorgeous. Rooted in Cold War grunge with dashes of Evangelion and Zone of the Enders styling the use of real cockpits and lots of solid props add a nice weight to the film. Actually dousing their actors with real water and mists when the cockpits have damage makes a big difference compared to other films that do much of the tech and the like in post-production. This does not mean the film isn’t a CGI fest, it is; but it is actually pretty well executed. You can more or less see and understand the action whereas in other films such as Transformers the action becomes so intricate and messy with explosions and the like it becomes nearly incomprehensible to watch. Pacific Rim doesn’t do that, mostly due to the jaeger’s solid designs and limited mobility compared to the extremely busy Transformers. Their heaviness and actual culpability especially as you go backwards in their production-line and their tendency to be easily felled is for the most part their saving grace from the cluttered and chaotic. Water locations tend to help too. It’s an anime and or videogame come to life in the most complimentary of ways.
The complete lack of sexualization and objectification of aspiring pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) was refreshing. In a genre that uses female characters for eye-candy much too often , the camera’s treatment of her as a human being instead of eye-candy was in fact a rather nice break from the usual stereotypes, especially as an Asian woman, who are often exotified. In fact the only overtly objectified person in the film was lead Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam). Hunnam was sans shirt multiple times in the film for tidbits of fanservice for those that would care and for a change, the one ogling was the girl in a very funny scene. Idris Elba’s entrance in a plugsuit too could be counted as gratuitous as per the camera’s gaze.
The relationship between Becket and Mori is one that could be seen as a major highlight. Their relationship could have been read two ways; either romantic or not. I enjoyed looking at it as non-romantic, as that was the more refreshing approach.They formed a platonic bond and confidant in each other since Mako becomes Raleigh’s partner. It’s kind of hard to not have a bond after having to have your minds sync and drift together in order to pilot the jaeger. It’s not a surprise that most of the jaeger pilot duos tend to be family; you probably don’t want to be syncing too much with other people. Their light flirting, and drops of sexual chemistry in a lesser director’s hands would mean an overt romance, but the lack of attacking each others faces with their mouths, comments from the co-writer and ending the film with a hug seem to point in the platonic direction. The person I saw it with thought it was romantic. If it was intended to be sexually romantic, then the lack of a kiss could be a bit problematic in that an Asian women finally gets a major supporting role as a love interest in a big film, and the script denies her a kiss. Again, I thought it was platonic and that entire thing is rendered moot, but if it’s anything more than we have a problem. Mako’s personal arc and emotional back-story was overall somewhat satisfying as more was revealed to the audience especially as her relationship with Elba’s Pentecost. I enjoyed Becket and Mori’s friendship; but I do wish we saw more of it. It was pretty shallow for something apparently very intense.
Overall on the good side Pacific Rim is a really high energy, flashy film with stylized visuals, high action, pretty people and adequate doses of humor to keep it rather leveled, not tipping one way or another. This is no earth shattering writing if not overtly cheezy skewing on pretty bad. It is a popcorn munching romp well worth the ticket if you are fan of the mecha genre and science fiction or want something with a bit more than the usual to chew on. Compared to many action films it has some substance and heart and actually treats it’s female character like a human being and not as a sexual object; other directors should take note at that fact. We need to craft more stories that actually give some emotional impact and value to the characters especially in action films which often skimp reducing their characters to shallow husks.
This does not however dismiss the film from having problems.
The critical observations:
The first eye-roll in the film was the use of the name “Gipsy” for the American jaeger mecha. Unless it was meant to be something else, correct me if I’m wrong but the word ‘Gipsy’ is a pretty old variant of “Gypsy” and that is for a lot of the Roma people, an extremely offensive derogatory name for them and should not be used. While the choice actually fits America’s general insensitivity or general naive ignorance to the longstanding connotations and follows the militaristic tradition of cheekily naming planes and the like (as all the jaegers), the fact they used it at all without acknowledging the problematic aspect of it in-story is troublesome for those that care.
Acting wise the movie is a bit all over the place as well. My friend who accompanied me thought most of the actors seemed like placeholders for larger actors who they just couldn’t get. I disagreed with that sentiment but could see where that observation could come from. Idris Elba playing the staunch Stacker Pentecost is a highlight, but much of the cast care for the two warring scientists Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) and then the shady scene stealing black market kingpin Hannibal Chau (Ron Pearlman) aren’t very memorable. Clifton Collins Jr. as Ops Tendo Choi didn’t have too much to do and even Rinko I felt could have had more scenes or onscreen development outside of flashbacks.
Perhaps the weakest role and was the main lead Raleigh Becket himself. Played by English import and fresh out of the Ken Doll shave-and-a-haircut-and-a-body-wax- too assembly line Charlie Hunnam (of Sons of Anarchy fame sans beard and I guess the rest of his hair), Raleigh is perhaps the least interesting part of the film though he provides a good 75% of the film’s fanservice.
As the sole surviving brother of a “good ol’ boy”American pilot team who recklessly (but nobly) disobeyed orders and get pummeled by a kaiju, Becket is neither round or nuanced enough in personality to warrant much investment at least for me. Besides his piloting trauma of losing his brother and a reportedly rough childhood and not being popular or able to do much (while looking like that), I don’t know too much about him. Hobbies, likes and dislikes. Nothing. It made it hard to connect to. Attractive male leads being homogeneous blondish white men with a six-pack are a dime a dozen and Pacific Rim continued the trend by putting Hunnam in the big seat which overall felt a bit too big for him. Other actors out acted around him. Charlie cannot do a proper American accent (or at least this one) to save his life and each time he spoke I heard a weird Boston blue-collar meets Heartland meets Californian surfer accent complete with an unnecessarily deep Brad Pitt gravel that overall seemed unnatural through the whole film. Finding out post-viewing he is British answered the question as to why his delivery was weird and sounded like cardboard. The script too didn’t do any favors for him either; Raleigh spouted the most cliche of lines and his supposedly heartfelt reassurances often turned cringe-worthy. Had the movie made his character more of a parody of traditional cisgendered super macho male leads in an act of self-awareness instead of playing it straight, I feel the casting would have then been fine and justified. Making Raleigh an even more ridiculous fan-service delivering over the top cliche of a guy and then revealing he’s actually the exact opposite of what he projects and acts like would have been I think a bit better. It would have allowed a better range of emotions for Hunnam who was stuck in either smug excitement, intense concentration or concern, and finally I’m rather ticked off/I’ve got a chip on my shoulder loner with a swagger let’s be defiant and go against the grain.
You would also think del Toro would have taken the opportunity perhaps with this film to also to have a Latin-American or really any other poc lead for the character that became Becket. What better time than this movie and director to do so? Who else is going to do it? That in itself is a bit of a disappointment. Things get further blond and beige when the Australian father son duo of Herc and Chuck Hansen (Max Martini, Robert Kazinsky) also fill the screen alongside Raleigh. All three blonde fair eyed men with chiseled jaws and a permanent “just there” stubble looking for all the world in the same family was just monotonous. Chuck’s shiny egotistical personae and purpose in the as the hot-head attractive “celebrity” pilot who abused his herodom a bit is sort of lessened by Raleigh being even blonder and more or less cut from the same cloth at least visually. I’d have excused the Aussies and felt they’d have been more effective had Raleigh been visually a lot different from them. Thus their role (or at least Chuck’s) as the arrogant pretty-boy celebrity could have additionally been a critique and deconstruction of the cocky traditional white male leads by showing such characters from the perspective of the more diverse leads Raleigh and Mako instead just of Chuck just being a lesson in don’t be an arrogant ass or abuse your successes. Especially when dealing with your father.
Rinko Kichuchi’s Mako Mori was someone I was on the fence about; I feel she did fine, with what she was given.
First, Mako should also have been the lead; not Raleigh. She receives more backstory and garters more sympathy. She also follows the hero’s journey, not Raleigh.
Rinko gave a very restrained performance full of little nuances that were very good when they actually let her in a scene. She did half of her acting with her eyes and that was very cool to see because that was often all you’d need. They were often filled with sadness or anger or whatever emotion and pain you really needed to see from her whilst her face never broke composure. This is also good since the script was spotty, I’d be afraid of what kind of lines they’d give her.
The problem with Mako is that she is supposed to be a very capable character but it constantly seems like she is being sidelined by the men around her and by the writing and direction of the film. She was often shuffled to the side, literally excluded from the conversations or dismissed and shoved out of shots or regulated to the background. The fight between Chuck and Raleigh? Mako should have been able to either sock it to either of them and just walk away or at the least be given the chance to express a response and an active role in the scene. Instead she doesn’t even get a reaction shot. Her relationship with Raleigh is one that was hard to read too. As we stated before we have many people thinking it was purely a platonic love and friendship formed. I’d like to think that as it is different than the norm and would set Pacific Rim apart. However others obviously peg her as the love interest and the film does employ traditional scene set-ups and tropes, all the sparkling script affects of setting up a romance between the two pilots. I can see both arguments, and neither option is completely satisfying due to not enough scenes of them together being friendly in a non flirtatious way to for sure confirm it’s a friendship (loosening up and playing a board game or cards, etc) and with no kiss we are denied a full romance at least the way we are used to in Western cinema. If a deep platonic love was the intent, then they are being brilliant, if not, the writing was half-baked.
Additionally the reasons she wasn’t allowed to pilot are all pretty sexist too; both defined by her being too emotional with her trauma to pilot and then her familial attachment with Stacker Pentecost who doesn’t want to loose her as she is basically his daughter. This is hypocritical because Pentecost wants Raleigh back in the cockpit because he is passionate and emotional and his will caused him to pilot Gipsy alone to the seashore. His brother was killed and it is motivation; her family was killed, it is more or less a detriment because her abilities are just far too strong or raw because of it. That part of Mako is pretty problematic. Her obvious hatred for the kaiju and the memory triggers activating Gipsy Danger’s plasma canon when she first suited up was actually a good touch; I was looking for more moments like that once they got out in the field. I enjoyed the idea of the contrast of her being quiet and restrained overall but she was by Evangelion terminology; a berserker once in the field even as a newbie in the cockpit. A bit of a Shinji Ikari. I was hoping an actual berserker moment fueled purely by her will (the jaeger shuts down and she repowers it, etc) was going to happen, but it didn’t. Her only other really shining moment was when she brandished a sword from within the jaeger delivering a killing blow to a kaiju in an amazingly Voltron-esque moment. Plot holes concerning the utilization of the sword long beforehand aside, that was a very good scene for her.
A further problem for me laid mostly in the lack of attention on Mako from the camera during the action scenes. The movie could have benefited from more shots of her face and reactions whilst in the jaeger instead of focusing so much on Raleigh shouting her name in a panic fifty percent of the time. Her few lines through the film also emphasize the film’s otherwise relative lack of other speaking-role female characters in the main cast; the film does indeed fail the Bechdel test.
A NON-GLOBAL GLOBAL CAST
It has to be said; for a supposed global rag-tag team out to save the world after the governments pull the plug on their programs; the team assembled to defeat the kaiju on heir own is very white when it comes to the central leads. Five of the eight main speaking characters were white and only Mako Mori of the two definite leads of color survives at the end.
A lot of this cast didn’t need to have been casted the way they were. Charlie Day as Doctor Geiszler, while funny and having one of the better performances (and most certainly a great display of character acting) for instance didn’t need to have been cast in the role. The character truly could have been anyone hyperactive enough and it certainly didn’t have to be him. Keep the script more or less the same for the character, same personality, same tattoos, same lines, and you could have easily gender-swaped him and had a funny actress perhaps one of color to play Dr. Geiszler instead with the same comedic relief effect. Mindy Kaling anyone? Can you imagine her in that bunker scene?
The supposed global jaeger teams remaining after the increase of kaiju attacks; Russia, China, US and Australia for the most part resemble a Cold War map.
Russia and China’s pilots aren’t given any particularly big roles in the script. They are also the first two jaegers to fall against the new wave of kaiju attacks post assembly at the Hong Kong Shatterdome headquarters despite their touted excellence (particularly the Russian crew whose jaeger is an early production model and touts a long success rate and longevity) which thankfully we do get to see just briefly for both of them before they are ;literally slaughtered. While most likely unintentional it was a bit disconcerting that the Soviet era partners were the first to fall, leaving the democratic countries US and Australia to finish everything. Unfortunate subconcious writing and directing choices. The Russian pilots’s 80’s cyberpunk comicbook tastic caricatures were a bit ridiculous in a so tacky I sort of like it (but feel guilty about it because that’s pretty awful ) manner, it is a shame they didn’t last around longer. Meanwhile we hardly got good face shots of the Chinese pilots or got much dialogue out of them either which is weird considering they are at their home country. Missing were also perhaps other very rich countries that surely could have been there. I know most of the jaegers had fallen by then but their choices of the final four are pretty cringe-worthy if not generically safe in terms of diversity. Don’t you think Dubai would have made more than one jaeger?
del Toro espousing the film as “the world saving the world” instead of one country is a bit of a fallacy. Yes, you had in the end an Australian jaeger piloted by an Australian and a British man of color, and then the American jaeger piloted by an American and a Japanese woman; but it was still the white leading man who detonates the American jaeger-bomb (haha) destroying the connection between the two universes and saves the world. I would have preferred Mako and Raleigh’s roles at the end to have been reversed; she tending to Raleigh who is short on oxygen and then sending him up to the surface (Saying “That’s enough, you did your part, thank you.) before attempting to self-detonate Gipsy. It would have been a perfect unintentional homage to the death of Rei II in Evangelion with that identical self-destruct plunger-box, air of self-sacrifice and it would have been a great cap in her life-long desire to destroy the kaiju since a little girl. It would effectively make the film ultimately Mako’s victory story instead of Raleigh’s especially after just losing a father figure. Her role sort of dropped like a brick during that final suit-up after so much build-up of her skills and effectiveness in the simulation work. And that was bad.
Finally I was also bit surprised at the straight-forward explanation of the kaiju. I was anticipating with the drift syncs Doctor Geiszler took with the partial brains of the kaiju that he was going to find out the monsters were actually manufactured here on Earth and that the entire kaiju attacks and thus the jaeger program had been inadvertently spun out of a big twisted government farce not unlike Ozymandias’ giant psychic squid attack in Watchmen to facilitate global support and peace efforts and nationalistic pride but somewhere down the line something went wrong. That spin is perhaps too cynical but it was the narrative twist or something like it I was expecting. So the simple “alternate universe aliens, no really for real” while classic was a bit like “Wow they weren’t kidding” for me. My friend thought it felt a bit too simplistic, but then again the source material they pull inspiration from were often just that simple and it worked just fine for them.
I could go on, but considering the length I’ve already written; I think it is high time to stop.
So overall, yeah I liked it, but again, it had its issues and as you untangle them; more seem to appear. Media is a big ol’ hydra type kaiju and I’m in a literary jaeger trying to tackle it all down and beat it into submission. It’s a pretty hard job. Not many good benefits. Low survival stats.
Until next week!
Staff Writer/The Doctor