Pacific Rim (2013)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro
Note: If you haven’t seen Pacific Rim, this review could be considered spoiler-ific, and even a little esoteric—so, you know, see the film first.
I love Tokusatsu. For those of you who are baka gaijins, Tokusatsu (or Toku) is a genre of Japanese media. Though it literally means ‘special effects’, a better translation would be ‘cool stuff with men in rubber suits in it.’ Doctor Who airs as a tokusatsu in Japan, perfectly fittingly. On top of that, I love mecha anime—the sheer fact that an entire genre has sprung up from the concept of giant robots punching things is a testament to the beauty of the concept. I’m also a big fan of Guillermo del Toro and his films. So when Pacific Rim went into production, I was highly optimistic, given that I am precisely the choir to which del Toro is supposedly preaching.
Why, then, was Pacific Rim so disappointing?
Although fellow smugster Alex Hiatt dislikes the film far more than I do, I agree with him that the main problem with the film is that it fails to execute its premise entertainingly. But the question I’m asking is, why?
One answer is that it’s not Toku enough. Not just in the obvious sense that the robots punching each other are, woefully, CGI rather than actors in rubber suits, but because the entire film represents a compromised version of what del Toro is crafting a love letter to.
Del Toro, on the commentary track for the movie, goes into vast detail about how rather than drawing inspiration from monster movies or anime (the material to which Pacific Film owes its entire existence) his basic concept for the plot was inspired by sports movies. Indeed, many of the characters in the film fall into sports movie archetypes. The main character—so woefully uncharacterized beyond being a walking, talking, sports movie stereotype that I can’t remember his name offhand—is the returning veteran with a jaded history with the game; Mako Mori is the plucky, young, inexperienced rookie; the younger Australian pilot—again, if I’m not remembering a name, it’s because their character was that unmemorable—is the jerk with a heart of gold who learns to be a team player; Stacker Pentecost is the coach ex-player who had to quit because of an injury—the list goes on. I’m not claiming that drawing inspiration from sports movies for the situations the characters find themselves in is implicitly a bad idea—I’m simply positing that in a two-hour film about robots fighting giant monsters, wasting a majority of the runtime hammering home sports movie tropes is a huge mistake.
I personally think this happened because the film is, ultimately, a product of Hollywood. Standards vary greatly from one country to another—in Japan, the premise of Pacific Rim would go unquestioned, because it’s a commonly-seen theme. In America, making a film with Pacific Rim’s premise goes firmly against the grain. Compromises are demanded, and complied with—effectively eroding the ‘love’ aspect of the love letter.
The first twenty minutes of the film feature the most pointless voiceover I’ve ever heard, which bothers to explain in detail what a Kaiju is, what a ‘Jaeger’ is, why a Jaeger is good to use for fighting giant monsters, and that you need two pilots to operate it—things a film should trust the audience to just pick up along the way. It comes off as both condescending and under-confident—not only am I being treated as too stupid to understand the vast complexities of a giant robots vs. giant monsters movie, the story is trying way too hard to ‘justify’ a premise that needs no justification. I already suspended my disbelief about massive humanoid mechas and gnarly beasts when I bought a ticket—you don’t need to resell me on it.
The characterization is also completely off. Not only is the film preoccupied with adhering to a sports movie dynamic, it doesn’t even do these characters justice. For instance, the film boasts a sci-fi device that allows characters to unite their brains and think as one, sharing thoughts, memories, and dreams—yet, I don’t actually know what any of these characters even think about when they’re fighting. Contrast that with mecha shows, which always have really strong characters. Mazinger Z, one of the most popular mecha—del Toro even gushes about it on the commentary as being an inspiration on him—revolves around Kabuto Kouji, a teenager who is utterly crazy and completely defies most traditional Hollywood main characters. In fact, as far as I can tell, Mazinger Z’s creator, Go Nagai, has never written a show whose central characters weren’t the most interesting part of the story. Nagai understand that while the robots were essentially characters themselves, so were, you know, the actual characters.
The most interesting character in Pacific Rim, Newt, played by Charlie Day, is psychopathic and self-destructive in his pursuit of understanding the Kaiju in a way that is, admittedly, hilarious to watch—and a film populated by other characters as over-the-top in their strengths and flaws would have been incredible. But here, his scenes are treated as largely incidental—the film focuses instead on two boring characters working out their issues in order to have entertaining but not-that-great fights with uninspired monsters. He is even explicitly referred to by other characters as a mere ‘Kaiju groupie’! A character that exemplifies the most interesting human elements of the genre that inspired the film, waved away as a silly dork. There can be no greater proof the film’s inauthenticity than this.
The only flaws we see in the non-Newt characters is that they are sad about things that have happened. No joke, that’s the bedrock of their psyche. And for these characters, a character saying ‘get over it’ is enough for them to finally solve their trauma. It’s almost as if Del Toro and Tracis Beacham had faith that the audience could accept the existence of giant robots (after excessive justification of course) but by no means could be able to accept human characters with actual human feelings and misgivings.
Sorry del Toro, but the best western toku film is still Evil Dead 2.