The expression “turn your brain off” is a bit unfair in the realm of movies, because it implies the only way to enjoy certain things is to not think to deeply into what they mean. There is a difference however between a movie that asks you to turn off your brain because that meaning is shallow, and a movie that asks you to turn off your brain because it really has no other meaning other than what it is happening onscreen. As kids this is a simple exercise perhaps due to the fact that we lack a wealth of experiences, but as adults who often seek something deeper from life’s experiences this can be like trying not to notice you are breathing manually.
Pacific Rim is the cure we didn’t know we needed for this affliction of adulthood, and represents filmmaking in perhaps its purest form of engagement through visual media. It is a rip-roaring action fest that takes its cues from childhood cartoons and anime and shows them bigger and more extravagant then we ever dared to believe. It is at every moment a movie-movie, and not a meaning-movie, and takes such delight in displaying this that you cannot help but see it as singularly unique rebuttal to all the self-serious superhero and “End of the world” film of recent years.
Its story is classic giant monster-invasion fare, beginning with an intro like a science fiction serial from the 50s that lays the ground for the ludicrously enjoyable premise. Gargantuan monsters known as Kaiju have begun to emerge from a crack in our dimension at the bottom of the Pacific ocean, and mankind has pooled it’s planetary resources and developed humongous robots, called Jaegers, to take them down. Cue the obligatory title card.
Our story follows has-been Jaeger pilot Raileigh Antrobus (Charlie Hunnam) and newbie trainee Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) as they are called in by commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) in a desperate mission to take the fight to the kaiju’s home turf. Since the Jaeger system is such a strain on the mind, each one requires two pilots to work together in a kind of neural merge that lays bare each pilots memories to the other. Both Raleigh and Mako have their share of emotional baggage to work through, but their issues are small potatoes compared to dealing with monsters that spit acid and can go through a Jaeger with their teeth alone.
Luckily they have a self-proclaimed “Kaiju groupie” Newton “Newt” Geiszler (Charlie Day) and fellow scientist Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) who have been studying the monsters and the portal they emerge from in hopes of ending the Kaiju threat for good. Assisting in their efforts are several other Jaeger teams airing from different nationalities, including a set of Chinese triplets with a three-armed fighting style, a Russian couple whose Jaeger looks like it’s sporting a nuclear smokestack for a head, and a father-son Australian team (Robert Kazinsky and Max Martini) who butts heads with Raleigh in that special “Hero needs a rival” way.
On the actor’s end of things, each performer embraces their role in a serious/but not too serious way that allows for levity in the midst of all the destruction. No one is trying to turn this into a movie about the human condition, but the characters are still allowed enough humanity that you want to root for them, even if that humanity is exercised through well-worn tropes of vengeance and redemption. The standouts include Idris Elba who takes the calm under pressure leader trope and imbues it with unrelenting hope and determination, and Charlie Day who plays his manic scientist with just enough enthusiasm that he is endearing rather then annoying.
Director Guillermo Del Toro even throws in a bit for veteran anti-hero character actor Ron Perlman as a swanky, and scene-stealing Kaiju organ dealer deliciously named “Hannibal Chau.” Dressed like a pimp with a fondness for clashing colors, and sporting a ridiculous pair of shoes with gold scale platting that chings with every step, Hannibal is a larger-then-life human in a world where giant monsters routinely destroy cities and even dwarfs his massive ego.
But all these human chess pieces are but the icing on the cake compared with the Jaeger VS Kaiju battles that make up the film. Though the Jaegers featured come equipped with fancy plasma cannons and spinning blades to presumably slice and dice the Kaiju into sushi, their opponents are so monstrous and resilient that every encounter quickly escalates into an all-out brawl. Pacific Rim therefore delivers what its premise has promised and more; giant robots piloted by humans slugging it out with monsters who make Godzilla look like a gecko.
To watch a giant robot rocket punch a grotesque yet mesmerizing monster in the face is one thing, but to see one do this half a dozen times, followed by them picking up an oil tanker and laying onto them as though it were a baseball bat is something transcendent. It’s like being transported back in time to when you first saw Power Rangers and watched them punch each other into buildings. Seeing it in a movie theater is visually cathartic, as though we are at last acknowledging a cultural childhood that has been hidden away under adulthood.
Each time the Jaeger stands, or the Kaiju reveals a secret weapon, we experience a thrill we felt when we were kids and first learned to identify with characters and were drawn into their battles. When a Kaiju finally shudders to the ground in defeat, we cheer, and when their savage force overwhelms our heroes we wince as though part of ourselves is under attack as well. There is no metaphor, no symbolism; we feel the action because the battles are on the screen and in our heads with nothing in between.
Pacific Rim pulls out all the stops in its final phases, amping up the odds with increasingly creative Kaiju, and more jaw dropping fights that push our heroes past the breaking point, while an utterly enthralled audience watches with bated breath. While other more “serious” action movies would squander their suspense by devoting unnecessary dialogue to humanizing their characters or trying to impart some message, Guillermo Del Toro knows that truly being a kid again means we have to stop looking for meaning, and embrace the fantasy. And what better way to do that then having a giant robot suplex a creature with glowing eyes and toss it into San Francisco bay as if it were an annoying little brother?