In the near future, enormous monsters begin to appear on Earth through a dimensional rift beneath the sea. Mankind’s only hope against these city-destroying beasts is to build an army of giant robots called Jaegers, each piloted by a two-person team. But as more and more monsters appear on the scene, how much longer can the Jaegers hold out?
When Robert E. Heinlein told the story of futuristic soldiers piloting robot exoskeletons in a war against an alien race in his 1959 novel Starship Troopers, he cannot have known that he was laying the foundations for a genre of Japanese cartoons. That’s exactly what he was doing, however: since the seventies, Manga and Anime have played host to what is known by fans as the Mecha genre.
This began with straightforward pieces of juvenile escapism such as Gigantor and Mazinger, but just as American superhero comics were given literary weight by the likes of Frank Miller and Alan Moore, the Mecha genre developed into something more sophisticated over time. Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam looked back to Heinlein for inspiration, crafting a more nuanced vision of futuristic war; Neon Genesis Evangelion took a psychological tack in deconstructing the entire genre; and eventually, the genre conventions were so well established that Makoto Shinkai’s Voices of a Distant Star could afford to reduce the entire robots versus aliens conflict to a mere background detail, instead spotlighting the heartache of an Earth woman whose boyfriend was fighting in space.
The comic book movie is big business in Hollywood, but this fertile genre has gone largely untapped: even the 1997 film of Starship Troopers omitted the robots. However, Michael Bay’s Transformers films – based on Marvel Comics’ interpretation of Japanese Mecha toys – have opened the door for a wave of giant robot films. So, is Pacific Rim another lame Transformers coattail-rider in the vein of Battleship, or does it make full use of a genre which has sparked so much creativity in the Far East?
First of all, this is a silly film. But unlike Bay’s Transformers, where the silliness came across as merely dim-witted, Pacific Rim succeeds in being wryly endearing. Director Guillermo del Toro has already shown a flair for tongue-in-cheek fantasy action with his Hellboy films, and the same spark is in evidence here.
Travis Beacham’s storyline is aware of its genre heritage. The film has a number of references, the most obvious being the fact that the giant creatures are referred to as Kaiju – a Japanese term used for movie monsters such as Godzilla and Gamera. Above all, Pacific Rim knows full well that it is a cartoon at heart.
The cast is comprised of unabashed cartoon characters. The protagonist Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is a dashing, clean-cut fellow in the mould of Flash Gordon; the leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) teeters on a brink between John Wayne and Buzz Lightyear; and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) is a martial artist with a funky black-and-purple haircut straight out of an anime. Completing the effect are two comic relief characters who could have appeared in a Nickelodeon series: Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) is a nerdy scientist combining Woody Allen with Brains from Thunderbirds, while Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) is a stuck-up, tweedy Englishman with little patience for his twitchy cohort.
Visual impact is of vital importance in a film about giant robots fighting monsters, and Pacific Rim delivers in this area. The robot designs are not cluttered like those in the Transformers films, but are deliberately conceived to capture the simplicity and (for lack of a better word) coolness of children’s toys; there is even a gag about this early on, when a child finds a rusty old toy robot on a beach shortly before the real thing comes lumbering over to the shore. The Kaiju are also well-crafted, combining the appeal of the rubber suits of yore while remaining credibly organic. A clever touch is that both sides fit right in with the neon cityscapes that form backdrops to their duels – the robots are decked out with coloured lights and shoot dazzling lasers, while the monsters have bioluminescent streaks and spit glowing blue acid.
Perhaps best of all, the film generally avoids the noisy and incoherent action sequences which blight contemporaries such as Man of Steel. The fight scenes are well-made and inventive, with countless little touches to keep the audience on its toes: whether it’s a Jaeger using an ocean liner as a club or a Kaiju suddenly sprouting wings and taking to the air, the ante is always being upped.
The standout sequence is a long way from these all-out battles, however. One plot device involves the two pilots of a Jaeger using a mental link-up to share each other’s minds; when Raleigh and Mako are flying a robot together, the film cuts to what appears to be a flashback to Mako’s childhood.
We see Mako as a little girl, crying alone in the ruins of a city. Then, a lobster-like Kaiju emerges and chases her until Raleigh appears on the scene – in his modern day form, wearing the futuristic suit which he donned to enter his robot. This is not a mere cinematic flashback but one of Mako’s memories, which Raleigh is able to share through the mental link.
It is an intriguing and conceptually playful sequence. The harrowing sight of a child in a warzone is combined with an animated alien and a space suited hero, an image right out of a Banksy design. The cartoonish theatrics found throughout the rest of the film suddenly resemble a child’s attempts to process the real world horrors of warfare and natural disasters. It is this sequence which reminds us that del Toro is not just a teller of good yarns, but also the bold and thoughtful fantasist responsible for films such as Pan’s Labyrinth.
Unfortunately, Pacific Rim does not sustain this level of creativity. The various plot threads – Raleigh’s conflict with a macho cohort, Pentecost’s worsening physical affliction, Mako’s desire to prove herself worthy of a Jaeger – add enough texture to help the film to stay afloat , but are not particularly engaging in the long run as the characters are simply too broad for such nuance to convince. As the monsters and robots lurch towards their final confrontation and hackneyed character arcs are completed, the film does not seem to notice that it is the comic reliefs – nerdy Newton, stuffy Hermann and a futuristic black marketeer played by Ron Perlman – who end up stealing the show.
Perhaps the highest praise which can be given to Pacific Rim is that it is a film which justifies a sequel. In entertaining us with this run-around, del Toro and Beacham have introduced us to a whole world of Jaegers and Kaiju; now, what we need are more thorough explorations. After all, this genre has treated Japanese audiences to decade’s worth of epics. The least Hollywood can follow with is a good franchise.