95% Spoiler free
Pacific Rim is in no small way a kinetic thrill-ride that towers above any and all competitors. Not since Jurassic Park have filmmakers dared to dream so big—and once again a film has come along that will forever force them to. Visionary director Guillermo del Toro’s dazzling return to cinema screens after an excruciating five-year absence is unrivaled in scope and unbridled in its destruction. Filled with moments both jaw-dropping in their beauty and vertigo-inducing in their scale, del Toro navigates between the massive and the intimate with adroit aplomb.
For all the mayhem, del Toro proves he is a master story-teller with his incredible level of restraint. Other directors of spectacle would be well advised to take note: although del Toro has the means and the imagination to showcase destruction on an unprecedented and borderline unfathomable scale, he shows action only relevant to the characters in the plot. Everything else is extraneous, and sensibly absent. That’s not to say he does not make reference to the ongoing action taking place all over the globe, but he shows only what is necessary and vital to the plot. It keeps the film rolling on the rails at a breathless pace. But like all proper roller-coaster rides, this experience is about the lulls in the action as much as it is about the sensational highs.
The film sums up del Toro’s cinematic finesse in a brilliantly choreographed shot where a Jaeger’s rocket-propelled fist smashes through a building with all the grace of a train wreck, stopping just in time to give the slightest of nudges to a conveniently placed and perfectly framed pendulum. Del Toro has no difficulty tackling either moment with just the right force.
He brings the same measured touch to the character beats. The sparring scene between Raleigh (Hunnam) and Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) is a prime example. It perfectly encapsulates the intimacy and antagonism between these characters. Del Toro doesn’t bother giving them many other scenes of physical connection because he’s already shown their version of foreplay. The closest they get to sex is their mind-melding in the Jaeger, an experience more intimate than any sexual encounter could have provided—a gratuity which del Toro wisely omits.
Del Toro deftly infuses the intensity of the spectacle with the intimacy of his characters, providing his dazzling mechanical Jaegers with very real hearts, Charlie Hunnam’s most passionate of all. For all the money spent advertising the monsters and robots, the PR team should have spent it showcasing the birth of a new superstar. One of the few celebrities with both the intelligence and the physique to accomplish this thankless role, Hunnam lights up the screen with all the brilliance of the nuclear reactor powering his robot. Shoulder always cocked at just the right degree, and strutting about with all the swagger of a young Brad Pitt, Hunnam carries himself and his Jaeger the way he carries this film. In the decades to come, people will look back and acknowledge this film as Hunnam’s ascent to super-stardom. His character, meanwhile, is something of an allegory for del Toro, a captivating renegade not afraid to disobey the orders of what film can and cannot be.
To wit, del Toro gives us spectacle with story, action with meaning, stock characters with heart. He’s burst open the carcass of the monster movie and discovered it does still beat with a pulse. The opening, for example, is a nonstop barrage of story mixed with spectacle. It’s world building at its finest and most massive scale. Film discourse needs a few neologisms to describe the cinema del Toro has fashioned. Scales need to be reconfigured; this movie takes Avatar’s 11 and bumps it up to 12. Colours seem newly fashioned for this movie (some probably are). It’s sensational, experiential cinema at its finest. Hooking up with the Jaeger is like entering into a new cinematic Oz, the opening fight a bare-knuckle thrill-ride. To experience it in IMAX 3D is to ride in the Jaeger yourself. Each thundering step of the behemoths rumbles to your core. The glasses funnel your vision, their rims block out the proscenium of the theatre, the audience and the distraction, and focus your complete attention on the epic stage presented before you. It’s an experience you won’t want to miss.
Just as the film begins by explaining a rift has opened between two universes, del Toro has opened a rift between cinema and his imagination, allowing the monsters to pour out on film, and like the climax of his own film, he’s inviting you in to share in the collective dreamspace. It’s no wonder that the film is dedicated to Ray Harryhausen and Ishirô Honda, it plays out like their shared fantasy. Harryhausen controls one hemisphere of del Toro’s brain, Honda the other. What a magnificent Jaeger they pilot.
Nevermind that the film’s climax bears too close a resemblance to Independence Day (write it off as an homage if you must); overlook that del Toro doesn’t make us care about the monsters (as he has done so capably in all his works before); this is just the first tentative step into a much broader universe, reconnaissance work of the highest degree. A Kaiju in a class all its own. Let us hope he gets the chance to return.
Alas, it all proves too much for one viewing—the film is a soufflé of cinema synesthesia (my best attempt at giving a new language to describe the cinematic genre of this movie, and an ode to what del Toro has accomplished). These words are futile, insufficient, the equivalent of using a graph to explain the majesty of Beethoven’s 9th. But rest assured I will undoubtedly try again when the film makes its glorious Blu-ray debut. In the meantime, this is a film to experience and savour, not simply to watch and enjoy. Del Toro invites us down the rabbit hole of his imagination, do yourself a favour and chase the rabbit. You’ve never seen its like before, and unless we all support it we may never see it again. So strap yourself in and share the neural lode.
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I want to urge everyone who reads this and agrees with me to do what they can to get the word out. Champion this movie to anyone who’ll listen, especially those who you think may have written it off. Guillermo del Toro is the rare talent who hasn’t been corrupted by Hollywood, but has instead been corrupting Hollywood with his talent, and this film is evidence of that. Wouldn’t we all like to see him allowed to push it further, rather than be consigned to box-office oblivion? Ok, so perhaps I just really want del Toro’s vision of At the Mountains of Madness, but who doesn’t!? (Other than Universal, of course)