Wed
May 28 2014 11:00am

Vivisect the Director: Guillermo del Toro and Pacific Rim (2013)

Okay, I have to be entirely upfront about this: I love Pacific Rim with every fiber of my being. I want this movie played on a continuous loop on my tombstone—you know the tombstones of the future are going to have televisions embedded in them, don’t try to deny this. I’m even planning to incorporate the Gipsy Danger sigil into my sleeve tattoo; yes, I want something from this movie permanently imprinted on my skin. That’s how serious my love for Pacific Rim is.

Forewarning out of the way…

Summers have been all about big action blockbusters for years now. We’ve come to expect them to the point where it just isn’t July if there isn’t a superhero or robot blowing crap up in the local theater. And when del Toro announced that his summer release Pacific Rim was going to be about heroes in giant robots fighting monsters from another dimension, we had a pretty good idea what to expect.

And while it met most of those expectations, crossed many of the T’s and dotted all of the I’s common to the genre, Pacific Rim was also shockingly refreshing. Many would probably argue with me on this, but hear me out before you make up your mind.

The plot is as follows: a crack between dimensions opens deep in the Pacific Ocean. Through that crack come the Kaijus, giant beasts built along the lines of Godzilla, which promptly begin laying waste to coastal cities. When the world realizes the monsters won’t stop coming—and constantly dropping nuclear bombs on populous areas won’t really work forever—every country joins together to create the Pan Pacific Defense Corp (PPDC), which in turns develops the Jaeger Program.

Jaegers are giant robots in the vein of Japanese mecha like the Gundams and are manipulated by a pair of pilots that not only mind-meld with the machine, but with each other. The real story kicks off when the PPDC has been deemed too costly and is shut down, the Jaegers and their pilots benched, in favor of a giant defensive wall.

Naturally, this wall plan is a really crap one when you’re dealing with giant monsters. So Marshal Stacker Pentecost (the ever stately and amazing Idris Elba) rallies his remaining troops for one last desperate mission to close the Breach and prevent any further Kaiju from entering our world.

And now to explain just why Pacific Rim is such a damn awesome movie.

ONE: Pacific Rim is a story about the whole world coming together to face something that threatens to wipe out humanity. This isn’t about America saving the day, though one of the central heroes is an American: Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam). In most movies like this, the focus would be on how the USA is large and in charge, saving the day and kicking all of the ass. Not here! Del Toro dares to show us that the world can cooperate in the face of a common threat, and that heroes aren’t always white or American.

TWO: For such an apocalyptic premise, this is a movie that’s full of hope and love. While other recent blockbusters hold to the axiom that grittier is better (cough cough Batman cough), Pacific Rim refuses to be nihilistic or dark. There’s loss and pain, yes, but this is a story where the human spirit is unbreakable. Where emotional relationships are praised, put front and center, and shown to be forces powerful enough to save the world. The focus on familial, romantic, and platonic love is utterly unexpected in a big budget action film, and that’s what makes Pacific Rim so refreshing and great.

THREE: This is a feministic action film. It’s as much Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi)’s story as it is Raleigh Becket’s, and without Mako’s skills—she rebuilds the Jaeger Gipsy Danger and is a brilliant fighter and tactician—this would have been a much shorter movie. She’s never delegated to the “love interest” role, has a powerful back story and heaps of agency, and also happens to be a woman of color that eschews stereotypes. Del Toro has always been good with representation and including well-written women in his films, and Mako is the latest in a long line of great heroines.

FOUR: It’s downright gorgeous. The Jaegers and Kaiju are incredibly designed, detailed, and animated. There’s a gee-whiz-bang feel to the scientific gadgets. The colors are so vivid you almost feel as if your brain’s exploding—this is definitely a movie best viewed on HD Blu-ray. And the characters themselves are visually memorable, from Mako’s blue-tinged hair to Tendo Choi’s rockabilly style; from Raleigh’s scars to the Russians’ ostentatious gold jewelry.

FIVE: Utterly epic world-building. Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham show us a surprisingly plausible future where everything from politics to the economy has been altered by the Kaiju menace and the development of the Jaegers. The prologue serves as a perfect construction of the post-apocalyptic world. Sure, the government using giant Rock ’Em Sock ’Em robots to fight aliens might not seem very believable. But then consider that this is a story set fifteen years in the future; the generation fighting the Kaiju is my generation, the people that are currently in their teens and twenties. And let’s be honest: if we had to face down giant monsters, we’d probably use equally giant robots.

SIX: Raleigh Becket is one of the best heroes in action/sci-fi history. He’s muscular and blond and American, so of course you’d expect him to be a macho asshole or angsty brooder wallowing in manpain. But no: Raleigh is earnest, hard-working, respectful, and kind. He encourages and supports Mako, is quick to defend others, and acknowledges his mistakes by apologizing for them. Raleigh is proof positive that you can have a hero that’s a manly man but still a decent human being; he didn’t need to be rude, closed-off, brutal, or emotionless to save the day.

SEVEN: There’s more than one way to be a hero. Too often there’s a clash between brains and jocks—the scientists versus the soldiers. But here, the brainy characters get to contribute and save the day just as surely as the action heroes do. And instead of mocking the scientists, with their neuroatypical tendencies and physical issues, the story celebrates their contributions just as much as it lauds the Jaeger pilots.

EIGHT: For all that there are giant robots smashing things, this is still a very human story. We connect with the Jaeger pilots and care about them; when a Jaeger goes down we feel the cost of the human life and it’s played as a very serious tragedy. This isn’t about the empty but dazzling show of giant robots punching scaly monsters. It’s about the bonds between people being powerful enough to stop the apocalypse, and about heroes willing to lay down their lives to save people they’ve never even met.

NINE: It’s a wonderful homage and love letter to two sci-fi subgenres del Toro—and much of the audience—grew up loving: mecha and kaiju films. There are plenty of direct nods to the granddaddy of both, Godzilla, and yet it never feels cliché or boringly stereotypical. Pacific Rim was made with a lot of love and it shows. And it may have been heavily influenced by previous work but it still manages to be fresh, new, and unique. In fact, in a Hollywood rife with sequels, prequels, adaptations, and reboots, Pacific Rim has been one of the few truly original stories to hit theaters in the past several years.

Del Toro has always made movies for himself as much as for his audience—he puts everything he loves and finds awesome in front of a camera and then turns it on. It’s what makes him such a distinctive and exciting director; you know where you stand with a del Toro film, and if you share his sensibilities and interests you’re going to have a damn good time. Some of his films may be more serious, substantial, or successful than others, but no matter what he’ll always deliver an interesting ride.

At this point, I can say with assurance that Guillermo del Toro is my favorite director. Every film is better than the last and I’ve loved everything he’s given to the world. With talks of a Pacific Rim sequel in the air and his next projects already in the pipeline—the television adaptation of his vampire trilogy The Strain will hit FX this summer, with Gothic thriller Crimson Peak currently in production—del Toro shows no signs of slowing down yet, thank heavens. Fingers crossed that we’ll see much more from him in the years to come.

And if you made the mistake of missing Pacific Rim in all of its Technicolor, bombastic, heartfelt glory, get thee to your Blu-ray and rectify this stat. Cancel that apocalypse. Nobody else has done it with quite so much dazzle and joy.


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”

Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Individual - You will receive an alert for each comment added to this post.
Digest - You will receive an end-of-day alert for all comments added to this post.
2 comments
Betty Breier
1. BLB
I just saw this movie recently and I agree with everything you said. I would love to see a sequel as long as it is as good as the original. I'm also looking forward to The Strain as I loved that book. Del Toro is so talented in so many ways.
2. Jason Langlois
Among the many things I love about this film (not including the fact that it is effectively the STAR WARS for my 9 year old son)...

- It had multiple character arcs get resolved: Raleigh and Mako are the obvious ones. But we see Pentecost, Chuck, Newt and Gottlieb all change over the course of the film. Which means that even the secondary characters mattered. Even better, they don't all change solely because of their interaction with Raleigh, but because of their interactions with each other.

- The music. Just a fabulous soundtrack, and it's what convinced my son to come see the film with me.

- The way even minor characters (the Crimons Typhoon and Cherno Alpha crews) are given huge personality by little touches. And, despite their short screen time, how much of an impact they make in the film.

- the various shout-outs to both mecha and kaiju films.

Really, this is one of my favorite films ever.
Post a comment