Tasha: All right, Scott, I’m braced for impact. Is this going to be a giant-robot-vs.-giant-monster-style face-off where I have to take you down for the good of the world? Pacific Rim is one of the several types of movies we’re most likely to disagree on: the big, clanging, explosive summer thrill ride. I tend to like spectacle-driven movies more than you do, but we’re also both pretty sensitive about formula and predictability, so I’m not sure which way you’re going to leap on this one. I have my reservations about Pacific Rim, which we’ll get to later, but I still spent most of it with a big, goofy grin on my face. It’s a wild scenario, yet expertly controlled by filmmakers who knew exactly what they were going for. Specifically, the audience adrenaline rush. Did it work? On a base, gut level, did this movie thrill you?
Scott: “Thrill” is setting the bar a little too high for me. Generally, thrills are what’s missing from clanging, explosive summer movies, replaced by spectacle, which studios and filmmakers seem to believe are synonymous. Pacific Rim opens with the destruction of the Golden Gate Bridge, which would surely be the money shot in blockbusters past, but is merely a throat-clearing here. It isn’t thrilling to watch the Golden Gate Bridge get destroyed, because no stakes have been established yet.
That said, Pacific Rim did clear a lower bar: I enjoyed it more than any summer spectacle save Iron Man 3, a film I valued mainly for the scenes when people were just standing around exchanging Shane Black-isms. There’s often an inverse relationship between how much a sequence costs and how effective it is, though Guillermo del Toro is certainly one of a small handful of directors who can operate coherently on a large scale.
Tasha: That large scale is what made Pacific Rim feel different for me. That Golden Gate Bridge scene you scoff at establishes a truly massive scale, a Japanese-monster-movie scale… and sets that as just the starting point. It establishes the imbalanced scale of humans vs. the beasties called kaiju, after Japanese rubber-suit monsters. The kind of destruction that would be the climax in most movies is just a statement of intent in Pacific Rim. It establishes a weight for the combat that was easily the most effective and jaw-dropping part of the film for me. “Spectacle” is an objective description, but thrills are entirely subjective. So don’t tell me Pacific Rim objectively isn’t thrilling, because I was thrilled.
Scott: Critic David Edelstein and producer Lynda Obst had an interesting conversation in Vulture about the sustainability of the current model of blockbuster filmmaking, which is built around big gambles on big spectacles, and might collapse if a just a few mega-budgeted productions go sideways. And the current summer of mass destruction, where the demolition of entire cities has become an almost weekly ritual, might suggest a breaking point. This is a serious problem for Hollywood, which can’t expect to succeed merely by going big. When anything is possible, nothing is intrinsically impressing.
But crisis creates opportunity—or as Homer Simpson would say, “Crisitunity.” You make a good point that the Golden Gate destruction perhaps wasn’t meant to wow the audience, but to establish the terrifying stakes in Pacific Rim, where humanity is under siege from sea-dwelling monsters who can make quick work of its major cities. But the real thrills come when del Toro has done the hard work of establishing the stakes for humanity and for the warriors tasked with fighting the kaiju. For fans of Japanese monster movies—which includes every right-thinking person, ideally—del Toro has done a mostly splendid job updating the genre for 21st-century Hollywood while having a distinct throwback appeal. One quibble, though: Where’s the metaphor? I always think of Japanese monster movies as tied to nuclear concerns. But what do these beasties signify? Does it matter?
Tasha: Reading many of del Toro’s interviews about Pacific Rim, I suspect he’d say it doesn’t matter. His own discussions of the film suggest its overriding message is “Japanese monster movies were totally badass.” He seems more interested in enthusiastically paying homage to entertainment he loves—rubber-suit monsters and anime from Voltron to Neon Genesis Evangelion—than in tapping into current cultural or societal anxieties. Certainly returning to the nuclear panic of the 1960s, the heart of the kaiju boom, would feel dated at this point.
If you need a metaphor, though, I think you can dig one up: Pacific Rim’s kaiju are a devastating worldwide threat that can hit anywhere at any time, and dealing with them is expressly beyond the resources of any one country. As del Toro said in his interview with Slashfilm, he wanted them to feel like “a charging force of nature.” So if there’s a metaphor at work, I’d say it’s global climate change, and the fear that it’s producing increasingly deadly events like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 2011 Japanese Pacific-coast tsunami, and the 2010 Haiti earthquake, not to mention disasters like Hurricane Katrina. The kaiju could well be symbols of these huge, unpredictable events, and the need for a unified global response. Not convinced? Global climate change expressly comes up toward the end of the film, when (spoiler ahead) the two scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman claim that ozone depletion and carbon-dioxide emissions have basically terraformed Earth for invading aliens, encouraging them to move in and settle down. If that is Pacific Rim’s underlying symbolism, though, does it change the film for you in any way?
Scott: It actually does change the film for me: It gives it a depth I didn’t credit it with having. The global-warming metaphor didn’t occur to me, but it makes absolute sense the way you’re explaining it. I’m reminded of Game Of Thrones, a show and book series about the bloody, often petty conflicts of humankind, set against the backdrop of a fantasy world where there are dragons and other supernatural things more powerful than man. The battle for power is just a game when you consider the forces that threaten the entire world. Pacific Rim imagines threats that are possible to contain, but Mother Nature is a formidable foe.
All deeper significance aside, though, Pacific Rim does succeed as spectacle in much the same way a monster-truck rally succeeds as spectacle: It’s giant things vs. other giant things, as basic an appeal as movies can have. I struggled to care about the pilot’s boilerplate Top Gun drama. One of the things I looked for in Pacific Rim—and what I look for in a lot of blockbusters—is how much the filmmakers’ personalities and stylistic signatures survive the machine crafting. And I found plenty of del Toro obsessions beyond Ron Perlman to mull over, particularly the world-within-a-world of Perlman’s underground lab, which seems right out the Hellboy movies. Del Toro understands better than anyone the fantasy appeal of secret places to which only the very special (re: nerds) have access. How about you?
Tasha: For me, it’s all about the monsters. Del Toro has a long-running fascination with alternate mythologies and dangerous inhuman creatures. Supernatural creatures define all his directorial projects since 1997: the bug-monster in Mimic, the ghost in The Devil’s Backbone, the vampires in Blade II, the phantasmagoria of the Hellboy movies and Pan’s Labyrinth. He talks about it briefly but directly in this Big Think interview from 2010: To him, monsters are just walking metaphors for all the things on the “evil” pole of the good-vs.-evil pantheon. Looking back on his films with that in mind, it’s easy to see how he uses the scariest monsters he can devise to define the virtue of the people who fight them. The more frightening evil is, the braver and more determined you have to be to confront it.
And the monsters in Pacific Rim are incredibly frightening. i09’s Charlie Jane Anders recently conducted a fascinating interview with the film’s creature designer (Wayne Barlowe) and special-effects supervisor (John Knoll) where Barlowe talked about what makes the monsters so intimidating: They have no personalities, no anthropomorphization, no recognizable human emotion but hate. They’re just sheer gigantic malevolence. That seems like a conscious throwback to Japanese kaiju movies—the original rubber-suit monsters weren’t emotive or nuanced—but it’s also del Toro trying to up his game when it comes to the themes that most interest him. He loves chronicling the battle between heroism and consuming darkness, but it seems like for it to be meaningful to him, it just has to keep getting bigger and more intense.
The film’s biggest problem for me was that the heroic human element felt like an afterthought compared to those monsters. Del Toro is capable of creating heroes as memorable as his villains—Ofelia in Pan’s Labyrinth and Carlos in Devil’s Backbone come immediately to mind, and so does Hellboy, who’s both monster and hero, battling himself as well as external forces. So why do Pacific Rim’s primary heroes feel so bland? Is it because the real heroes are the giant mechs, not the people inside them?
Scott: I completely agree about the heroes feeling bland, and that’s primarily what’s keeping me from considering Pacific Rim a great movie rather than merely a diverting one. I reject the idea that the real heroes are the giant mechs, though you could make the argument that the films to which del Toro is paying homage also have cardboard characters, and didn’t need anything more than giant things battling other giant things. But after giving it some thought, I’m going to reject that argument, too, because as you said, del Toro has proven himself capable of sketching memorable, sympathetic characters within a fantasy context. When we’re engaged in the characters, that raises the stakes whenever they’re in danger. And the amassment of clichés that define the pilots in Pacific Rim—the tales of loss and uncertainty that all of them have in common—just failed to exert much of a pull for me. I wound up just gawping at all the smashing.
Tasha: Was there no particular character moment or human-centric plotline that worked for you, though? Pacific Rim felt a bit too much like Avatar to me, with an overly bland central character as the eye in the center of a much more dynamic hurricane. But where your average American blockbuster might have solely focused on the broody man-pain of surviving twin and former pilot Raleigh Becket (played by Charlie Hunnam), del Toro has a lot more going on. I didn’t particularly care about Raleigh past the movie’s dramatic setup, and I didn’t care about his by-the-numbers romance with pilot-wannabe Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), whom he picks out as his perfect telepathic partner for no reason except that she’s pretty and she can kick his ass. (Great reason to go on a date, bad reason to go into battle with an unprepared, traumatized novice sharing your brainspace.)
But if you want more relationships and more story to choose from, take your pick: There’s the complicated familial relationship between Mako and Idris Elba’s character, Stacker Pentecost (whose name alone boosted this movie’s grade by half a star for me), and Stacker’s own tragic backstory, and all the semi-comic business with Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as a couple of dueling scientists out of a Joss Whedon TV episode, and Ron Perlman as a kaiju-parts trader. (I hope everyone reading this stayed past the start of the closing credits for some bonus Ron Perlman.) The issue for me isn’t that the characters are bland, it’s that Raleigh is bland, and we spend more time focused on him than anyone else.
Scott: Right. The vast majority of screen time is devoted to the pilots, whom I shall now list in order from quite bland to a warm puddle of drool: Mako, Stacker, Raleigh. Day and Gorman are far livelier as the scientists, and when Day ventures into Perlman’s territory and we catch a glimpse of the kaiju-trading underground, it throws the blandness of the pilot quarters into sharp relief. Here are the true rebels of the new world, full of idiosyncrasy and life, and plainly the type of people with whom del Toro has aligned himself closely throughout his career. Yet that’s merely a side adventure, a second-to-third act subplot that diverts but doesn’t distract from the more generic human core of the film.
Then again, giant sea monsters vs. giant robots. We mustn’t overthink this too much. In his review for us, Mike D’Angelo referenced a quote from Barton Fink that’s completely apropos: “Wallace Berry. Wrestling picture. Whaddya need, a road map?” Pacific Rim’s appeals are simple, and when it stays in the ocean arena, it’s a lot of fun. To paraphrase the famous line on Esther Williams: Dry, it ain’t much, but wet, it’s a star.