It took me two minutes to decide I was going to love Pacific Rim. Why? Because that’s roughly how long Guillermo del Toro’s new film takes to reduce the west coast of the USA to rubble.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve nothing against California. I know some very nice people who live there. I was just tickled that director del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham had decided to deal with the ritual trashing of America right out of the gate, thus freeing them up to get on with the story they really wanted to tell.
And what a story it is. Superficially a big, barmy summer blockbuster, Pacific Rim scores over its rivals (Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel et al) in countless crucial ways. Not least of these is the care with which del Toro and his team have constructed the near-future world in which gigantic mechanoids (Jaegers) battle equally immense monsters (kaiju) from another dimension. Inspired by del Toro’s love of Japanese monster movies and anime, the plot’s as daft as it gets. But it’s tackled with such love and conviction, and invested with sufficient internal logic, that it succeeds on pretty much every level.
Central to its success is the idea that each Jaeger requires two operators. It’s a simple concept that allows the filmmakers to develop several sub-plots around the drift – a kind of mind-meld state in which the psychologically-matched pilots share their thoughts … and which also leads the eccentric Dr Newton Geiszler to attempt such a bond with the kaiju themselves. The drift is introduced in the opening battle, in which brothers Raleigh and Yancy Becket fight side by side trying both to defeat a kaiju and preserve the lives of the sailors on board a nearby ship. The result is a gargantuan grappling match that’s genuinely character-driven rather than merely an excuse to let robot and monster slug it out.
It’s a common complaint with this kind of film that the visual effects overwhelm the characters (I was bored senseless by the fight scenes in Man of Steel; boy, didn’t they go on?). For me, however, Pacific Rim hit the sweet spot, unleashing stupendous robot-on-monster action while still giving me characters I cared about and plot developments that actually made sense. It’s sad I should be surprised to receive such gifts. Aren’t they meant to be the lifeblood of storytelling?
Pacific Rim features solid performances from Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi and Idris Elba, with Charlie Day and Burn Gorman injecting comic relief as a dysfunctional duo of scientists. Ron Perlman clearly has a ball in his cameo as kaiju-organ bootlegger Hannibal Chau. It’s as refreshing to see a genuinely multinational cast as it is to watch cataclysmic action scenes played out not in some seen-it-all-before American metropolis but in downtown Hong Kong and, strikingly, the Pacific Ocean itself.
Scriptwise I could have done with a little more sparkle in the dialogue, and a little less Independence Day in the third act. But what sets Pacific Rim above its rivals is that everything feels properly motivated. Even the filmmakers’ fanboy indulgence of presenting both Jaegers and kaiju as ultra-cool teams of high-tech and alien grossness respectively is a conceit entirely justified by the idea that such world-shattering events as these really would lead to the rise of a gladiatorial, fighter-jock elite who end up being treated like rock stars.
The visual effects were created primarily by Industrial Light & Magic. Between them, visual effects supervisor John Knoll and animation director Hal Hickel (along with a rather large number of supporting staff) have knocked it out of the park, not just technically but in terms of choreography and art direction too. While I don’t take the technical excellence for granted, it’s clear that as the ability of companies like ILM to simulate reality approaches … well … reality, there’s both more opportunity and more responsibility to make good artistic decisions about what goes up on screen. Now we can have it all, it’s time to decide what it is we really want.
It’s tough to pick out VFX highlights from such a feast, but I was especially impressed by the handling of scale. Giant robots and huge monsters are standard movie fare, but Pacific Rim‘s Jaegers and kaiju are by far the most convincing I’ve seen. Their mass and momentum feels right for their size, and the design and detailing of the robots’ countless moving parts convinces the eye without overwhelming it.
Shots of the damaged Gipsy Danger emerging from the fog to collapse on an Alaskan beach are gorgeous. The hectic battle through the neon-lits streets of Hong Kong is a dance of coloured highlights and reflections that must have sent ILM’s rendering pipeline into meltdown. And there’s water everywhere, which, as well as creating visual drama, is also a highly effective way of selling scale. Want your robot to look really big? Have it rise out of the ocean shedding a couple of million gallons of foaming brine.
What a turnaround that is. In the old days, when effects like these would have been created using physical models submerged in large tanks, it was the water that would have killed the sense of scale quicker than anything else. Back then, the special effects guys had to use all manner of tricks to create smaller and more realistic droplets: aeration, wind machines, floating oil. These days, fluid sims are just looking terrific. Water is most definitely in. I guess it’s a fashion that won’t last. Over time, we’ll get tired of seeing titanic contraptions sloshing about in the ocean.
But, if they’re sloshing like the Jaegers in Pacific Rim, I for one could stand to see a little more.