First things first: Pacific Rim is a movie about 25-storey-tall mechanoids smacking the protoplasm out of genetically engineered, city-destroying monstrosities. It is, therefore, immune to criticism on at least one level. If that’s your kind of thing, you should probably go watch it in the cinema. If it isn’t, you shouldn’t. That said, there’s a difference between criticism and critique.
This isn’t going to be a review, more a pondering of some points of design and storytelling. However, there will be spoilers, so it’s all below the cut.
The film that Pacific Rim was most often compared to prior to its release was Michael Bay’s Transformers. It’s not an unreasonable connection – giant robots equate well to mechs – but there are differences. Transformers was a movie version of a kids cartoon, comic book and toy series, which was in turn based on the Japanese tradition of giant mechanoids in media. Pacific Rim skips over the intermediaries and draws on the Japanese originals, adding the tradition of kaiju, or giant monsters, to the mix.
First time I saw Transformers, I enjoyed it. The militarised destruction was presented with enough verve to paper over the cracks, among which the main crime was the presence of one-note caricatures instead of characters. That refers only to the humans, mind. With the exception of Optimus Prime, the robotic portion of the cast were given one-liners to express their nature, then became indistinguishable balls of whirling metal spikes.
Pacific Rim has far fewer mechs (the difference between mechs and robots is the human pilots of the former – they’re called Jaegers in the movie) but it goes to much greater lengths to personalise them. The four main mechs of the film come from four Pacific nations (China, Russia, Australia and the U.S.) and with the understandable exception of the Australian and U.S. mechs, each one looks different from the others. The Russian mech looks like something from the Soviet era, huge and bulky and powerful, whereas the Chinese mech looks advanced, slightly alien and perhaps trying too hard.
It’s important to tie down these elements of personality in design, because Pacific Rim is a movie packed with ideas that doesn’t sit still long enough to explain any of them in depth. The doom clock, the kaiju collectors, the drift that mentally links the co-pilots of the mechs, the history of the kaiju war, the futile building of a Pacific wall, etc. All are introduced with just enough detail for the audience to nod their head or raise an sceptical eyebrow at, then onwards.
Despite the clear efforts of the filmmakers though, there’s no such success in personalising the kaiju. While they’re different in shape, but not colour, and some have unusual abilities, the storm-wracked battles that feature them also serve to obscure them. Cleverly, they’re given code names like hurricanes, but these are used only to introduce them. Again, understandable: kaiju exist to threaten and be punched into piles of goo. Perhaps, though, it might have been better had the film taken just a little time to add gravitas to their threat.
Among all of this, a handful of human characters carry the weight of characterisation. Among these, the only one who feels real is the war orphan and wannabe Jaeger pilot Mako. Guillermo Del Toro’s most affecting creations have tended to be his more childlike characters, such as in the wonderful Pan’s Labyrinth. Here, Mako is the pivot around which the two main male characters circle, and if that makes her sound like a plot contrivance, she still comes across as the film’s most human presence. Nonetheless, this is another Hollywood action movie in which one token female character is surrounded by a bunch of gung-ho men. (There’s one other female character, but I think she gets all of one line before her demise.)
Rereading the above, I feel I’m being a little harsh on Pacific Rim. I did enjoy it, and its flaws certainly aren’t as glaring as those of some blockbusters this summer (Star Trek and Man of Steel, I’m looking at you). I’ll definitely watch it again some day and try to pick out more of the myriad homages and references. Until then, I’ll content myself with designing my own jaegers, or laughing at the efforts of others.