Pacific Rim Takes Us to the Edge of Cinematic Possibility

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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.PACIFIC RIM

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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Post Script:

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)


28 thoughts on “Pacific Rim Takes Us to the Edge of Cinematic Possibility

  1. You actually liked Charlie Hunnam’s performance? I’m surprised. I thought he was terrible. I absolutely hate that guy and think his acting is so wooden it’s crazy that he keeps getting roles.

    I will say that I was pretty impressed with the IMAX 3D, and I’m someone who’s totally against the format.

  2. What was so terrible about his performance? The only thing wooden about him is his washboard abs. He was the strong, rugged, masculine hero; sympathetic, warm and caring. He handled displaying the trauma of (SPOILER) his brother’s death without becoming a morose jerk. He was a sympathetic and relatable. Besides which, his character (as it was for all the characters in Jurassic Park) is entirely secondary. The movie belongs to the Jaegers and the Kaiju, as it did for the dinos in Jurassic Park. We should be thankful we even get to glimpse the pilots, yet del Toro gives us even more, he gives these people the faintest trace of a soul.

  3. Thanks for dropping by the site.

    Hunnam’s performance was neither good or bad. I thought it was good enough that it wasn’t distracting. He did a much better job when interacting with Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako especially in the early going.

    In the end, all the characters were pretty much broadly-written archetypes from action-adventures films, especially those from an earlier era (50’s through 60’s). The real stars of the film were the Jaegers and kaiju. The fact of it was that these same characters people thought of as being badly written ended up giving the Jaegers they piloted the personality that made them such living things instead of just walking hunks of steel and tech.

    • I couldn’t agree more, the monsters were the stars. I feel like someone could write a really entertaining analysis of all the sources Del Toro is drawing from to make this film.

      • Right off the bat I could see influences on the Jaeger program from classic anime like Mazinger Z and Tetsujin 28-go. On more recent anime some scenes look like something out of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Attack On Titan.

      • Quite a bit. Though mostly the older series as he has admitted that the newer anime he has to rely on his two daughters for recommendations. LOL

      • I find it both heartwarming and frightening that a man is basing his career decisions off the whims of his young daughters. Still, if it gets us more Jaeger/Kaiju action…

        So if one felt so inclined as to become acquainted with the source materials del Toro is working with, where might one start?

      • Easy answer would be Neon Genesis Evangelion, Mobile Suit Gundam and Mazinger Z/Mazinkaiv SKL on the anime side.

        For the Kaiju side no better place to start than the original Godzilla. Make sure watch the original Japanese version that didn’t have added scenes of Perry Mason doing commentary.

      • I have watched most, read some scattered analysis (mainly of the Susan Napier and David Kalat variety) and studied with varying degrees of intensity everything except Mazinger Z/Mazinkaiv SKL. In fact, I’ve never even heard of it. I’ll have to look into it.

        As for Godzilla, I like both versions (though I even enjoyed the quirky insanity of Final Wars, so maybe my opinion is shot). Thanks to Criterion, however, I don’t have to choose. Obviously we know which one’s making the statement, but when approaching the Perry Mason version in the context of the original Japanese film, it becomes an interesting study in cultural appropriation and American cinematic hegemony of that era. Cool beans I say. I also say no matter how forced the execution, there’s some very real skill involved in splicing that man into that movie for the low-low budget that they were working with (but rarely ever showed). I also think the set-up would make for an intriguing modern day Godzilla film, a way of bridging the cultural roots of Goji-la with an unavoidable North American style. Or maybe I’m just aping Kalat’s remarks without realizing it.

      • Agree with you on the American version. Hell, that was the version that introduced me to Godzilla. But once I saw the original Japanese release Godzilla became something more than just a kaiju movie. It elevated Godzilla for me from movie to film.

      • Ya, hands down it’s a phenomenal achievement, especially because there was no real reference point. Sure, there were a few American monster movies, The Beast from 20,000 fathoms most immediately springs to mind, but this was uncharted waters. Not only did Toho throw an unprecedented one million dollars at the project (the most expensive in Japanese cinema history at that point), this was TOHO! The house of Kurosawa making a Kaiju film! It’s as if they didn’t know it was considered low culture, so they brought with it all the trappings of high. And by the end of it, the audience is actually caught in a moral quandary over who is the real hero. And then, as if that weren’t enough, they have the tenacity to let the villain win–the bomb takes another life (H, not A, but then I think they also wanted to remind us to worry that we have so many different bombs we need to start assigning letters).
        I really want to go watch this movie again right now.

      • Another reason why Pacific Rim is not just your typical summer popcorn flick. It actually makes people want to learn more of not just the world GDT made for the film, but other films which influenced PR.

      • I had the same reaction when I was a teen watching Hellboy for the first time, suddenly I was up to my eyes in Russian history and occult lore. As far as I’m concerned del Toro is one of the most brilliant and artistic people alive, bar none. I sometimes cry when I think of At the Mountains of Madness, and what could have been…ok, not really, but I die inside.

        My lifelong dream is to visit his Bleak House. I was so inspired I’ve slowly been building my own these past few years. So I’m only up to one side of my room, but he’s got a few years on me still.

  4. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but after reading this, I’m sure it won’t be long before I do. A friend of mine was trashing the movie on fb today, which makes me only want to see it more. He was complaining about how the movie references larger plot elements then just moves on without exploring them. This may be off the mark (as I said, I haven’t seen the movie), but based on some elements of this essay and what my friend said, I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines in “It’s A Wonderful Life.” When Uncle Billy has lost the money, he tells George that he’s looked all over, even in rooms he hasn’t unlocked “since Laura died.” And with that sentence fragment, it’s like “Bam!” and a whole history of this character comes into focus. As the moment the viewer is just about ready to write off this guy as a totally bumbling idiot, we understand him completely and we sympathize with his pain . . . both at losing the money, as well as his wife. I don’t need a whole history, or an understanding of exactly what happened, I can imagine it. Capra doesn’t need to get all didactic about it. He trusts the viewer to make the logical leaps, as it sounds like Del Toro does.

    Like I said, maybe my comments are off the mark, but looking around this site, I was feeling very inspired and wanted to begin joining in on the conversation. And now I’m really looking forward to seeing Pacific Rim.

    • Wow, really insightful, I’d actually never made that connection in It’s a Wonderful Life before. Cool beans.

      In terms of this movie, the script definitely trades in ambiguity, these people have a living history and we’ve just sort of caught up with them, but as I said in my other comments, and as so many people have complained, this movie is about robots vs monsters. So expect the same character depth as in Jurassic Park. Just enough to make us care if these people get chomped or stomped, but not enough to get us wondering what they do in their spare time (it seems like they don’t have much, what with the world ending and all).

      I actually unsubscribed from a blogger just a few hours ago because his comments on this film were so illogical and ignorant that I felt nauseous.

      • The story is quite basic and is probably why detractors and even some supporters of the film have called Pacific Rim a so-called dumb, popcorn film. The former sees that as a huge flaw and negative while the latter sees it as part of the film’s charm.

        One particular blogger actually broke down the film’s simple narrative not in the usual terms, but in how Del Toro used visual imagery to convey character backstory and motivations even when none of it was spoken.

        It’s an interesting look at the film which still continues to surprise me with it’s attention to detail every time I go back to see it.

      • That was an incredible link. I wish I had a mind for those types of details, I’m terrible at noticing colours and visual symbols, even when I’m looking for them. I’ve listened to del Toro’s commentaries on his other films and I’m constantly amazed the amount of visual information he notes he’s managed to pack into each frame.
        And I agree, visually complex, narratively straight-forward. And to those who argue for complexity, I ask why must every film plot be a labyrinth? And why is narrative complexity an automatic pass for a film’s quality? A film can have a solid plot structure and still keep it simple, and manage to do so by expressing character and narrative detail through methods divorced from the progress of the narrative. A detail like Mako’s hair, which the film never dwells on, nor acknowledge, nonetheless holds a large key to understanding this character (if we take the interpretation provided by the blog, which I do). I don’t want to go on too much, mainly because I feel I’m already covering some ground I have explored and will examine in more detail in a forthcoming multi-part video and literary review. But I’m curious to what we can make of what the “rules” for plot and narrative should be. Are we still in the post-historicist age of the only rule being that there are no rules? Or are we capable of claiming some measure of structural necessity? Rules like Chekov’s gun for example. Or perhaps, only subvert knowing full well it’s a subversion?

      • Audiences today have been fooled into thinking that a story has to be complex and labyrinthine to be considered serious and good filmmaking. As much as I love Iron Man 3 even that film suffered from what has been called the “convoluted” syndrome that blockbusters nowadays have fallen victim to.

        Pacific Rim doesn’t dwell overmuch on particular plot points because they’re not essential to the basic premise and mission of the film. So, GDT uses visual metaphors to almost subconsciously give us the details we want in regards to characters.

        I never thought of the blue highlights in the way the writer’s GF interpreted them as. I always thought they were an unconscious need by Mako to remind her of what was the origin of her tragedy aka kaiju and their toxic blue blood.

        Even the fight scenes between the jaeger and kaiju, especially in Hong Kong, has so much visual clues to answer the very questions people had after the film: why did certain jaegers go down so easily? what made the city destruction in Pacific Rim less gratuitous than what was shown in Man of Steel?

        The film doesn’t say the answers outright but they’re there if one paid attention instead of just dismissing Pacific Rim as a dumb, popcorn flick. GDT definitely is not the type of filmmaker who wants to handhold the audience to every answer. Even a film as pure and simple as Pacific Rim he throws the audience into the deep end of the pool once the extended prologue giving the audience the background of the PR world has been given.

        Pacific Rim is literally the anti-Bay and anti-Snyder event of this summer.

      • I like your interpretation of the hair colour. I think both are valid, and the film supports both. I also think the violence is warranted because the audience would feel like del Toro had skimped on the destruction if he hadn’t shown the city being destroyed. I haven’t seen Man of Steel so I can’t comment on the gratuitous nature of that destruction, but I can say in the case of Bay, he gives us extended montages of things blowing up, with no relation or impact on the characters. In the case of Pacific Rim, the film only lingers on the destruction directly relevant to the main characters. And we see the impact of the destruction through the concern of the characters. They want to save and rescue the people. In the case of Transformer’s, the damage to the people is irrelevant, a necessary byproduct of having the building go boom. If del Toro didn’t show us the moments of destruction he did, we’d be wondering why the Kaijus were a threat at all if they never managed to touch a building. Meanwhile, he doesn’t overstay his welcome with countless scenes set in the city. The climax takes place on the ocean floor for goodness sakes!

      • in PR GDT actually makes an effort to show that in this world where they’ve been fighting the Kaiju War for almost 12 years there are procedures in place to send the population into shelters.

        It sounds like the sort of the detail that’s a throwaway but it speaks volumes at the humanistic storytelling style of the filmmaker. He understands that the city will be destroyed in one way or another, but he wants to make sure to save as many people as possible before that destruction takes place.

        Like you mentioned above in Transformers the destruction is there as eye-candy and doesn’t really add to the overall emotional weight such a scene should have.

  5. So, now I can comment on the movie properly now that I’ve seen it, only I can’t really. I saw it over the weekend, and had a great experience, but when I go back to think about the movie, my mind just keeps jumping around to various details and enjoying them but not really understanding why. And I think that’s part of the reason I did enjoy the movie so much. The details create these impressionistic shapes that hint at larger worlds with a nuance I really enjoyed. Small details are elevated to great importance in the movie, just as they would be in the minds of the Jaeger pilots. A fellow Jaeger pilot would recognize powerful symbols from their partner’s experiences without needing these symbols explained. They would just feel them. The movie treats its audience as if they were the movie’s own Jaeger pilots in a way, and I find that such an interesting approach for Del Toro to have towards his audience. It almost blurs the line between fact and fiction. Similarly, just as Raleigh instructs Mako to let the memories wash over her without lashing on to any of them, this is also the film having a dialogue with its audience, saying, “Here comes the ride, just go with it.”

    I keep thinking about the nosebleeds. I get that when you enter the mind of the Kaiju, you come back and have a nosebleed. But there was the older Jaeger pilot that was getting nosebleeds because of radiation from his Jaeger. So, I’m guessing there’s somehow an equivalency there, but I’m not yet able to figure out what it is.

    I loved the chemistry between Raleigh and Mako. I loved the purple streak in her hair, and I know I read an interesting comment about the significance of that somewhere, but I can’t seem to remember where.

    I loved when the guy who had gone into the Kaiju’s mind is hiding in the bunker, and he starts saying, “He’s here for me! He’s here for me!” I thought the collective paranoia was going to take over and everybody was just going to start screaming, “No, He’s here for me! He’s here for me!” which would have been pretty funny, but I loved the way the scene played instead. The fact that everybody BELIEVED him gave me a palpable sense of how much he’d been changed by the experience. Even strangers around him could recognize it.

    When I was a kid, they’d show “Creature Double Feature” on the local TV show, and at five years old I’d be glued to the TV screen for a couple of Godzilla movies every afternoon. Pacific Rim definitely brought me back to that experience, so that was pretty awesome. I have to say that I’ve been a 3D naysayer (I’m a lo-fi fan), but going to this film was so experiential that I see the potential of the format. I actually felt this movie, and you can’t deny the power of that.

    There was so much here that worked that almost seems like it shouldn’t have worked. Having to have these coordinated pairs to fight . . . it seemed like an idea that could have gone badly easily, but Del Toro pulled it off pretty amazingly. My daughters and I often watch Avatar: The Last Airbender together, and in that show the Avatar must perform a coordinated dance with another fire-bender to unlock the ultimate secrets of fire-bending, and it’s one of my favorite episodes, so I guess I might have been a little predisposed to like Pacific Rim.

    But yeah, those are my rambling impressions of Pacific Rim. Maybe as I think back on the movie further I’ll add something again, since I’m sure I will be thinking about it.

    • Great stuff!

      I too wondered about the nose bleed, I thought it was from too much mental abuse from plugging in, but there is the radiation thing. I wonder if there’s more to tease out of that.

      I also loved the choreography of the fights. It reminded me of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in that each fight is a sort of dance, albeit through combat, and where CTHD is ballet, this is something else (doing the robot?).

      The 3D is like stepping in through a frame, rather than have things stick at your face, it goes back to that Alice in Wonderland reference, del Toro inviting you into Wonderland.

      I think the visual overload is intended with the movie, at the very least it creates some strong visual echoes in my brain.

      • The nosebleeds are a consequence of interfacing with the jaeger solo or with a much more powerful alien mind. The one character who continued to have nosebleeds throughout the film was one of only two pilots to control a jaeger into combat solo (3 hours) which was te Mark-1 jaeger Coyote Tango. Raleigh was te second pilot to do so but did it for a shorter period with Gipsy Danger.

        The 3D itself was a 50/50 for me. It worked when it involved the scenes with the jaegers and the kaiju. Also scenes where backgrounds were expanded using CGI looked great. The scenes where it was just a set didn’t add much.

        The first two worked because Del Toro instructed the animator a to create the CGI scenes with 3D in mind. This helped the post-conversion process.

  6. Oh! And as a father of triplet daughters, I was selfishly psyched to see a quick reference to triplet Jaeger pilots. Not quite as awesome as the triplet boys/bears in Brave, but still very cool.

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