Jamie Harsip Content Editor
I love aliens. I love robots. I love giant aliens fighting giant robots. And most of all I love Idris Elba. I’ve been waiting at least a year for this movie, people. Pacific Rim is maybe the strongest big-budget action-packed summer blockbuster I’ve ever seen. This ain’t your usual Michael Bay explosion-fest, I can promise you that.
For those unfamiliar, the premise of Pacific Rim is that the world is being slowly but surely invaded by giant monsters from another dimension. Yeah, I know, that sounds really crappy, but I promise you it isn’t! The world envisioned in the film is a fully realized, tactile, believable one. The first eerie part of the film is that it begins in the year 2013. Yes, Guillermo del Toro clearly wants me to stay up at night, worried that giant beasts will come through a trans-dimensional portal in the ocean. The situation is that these creatures, called Kaiju, need to be stopped, and the only things that work are giant robots. The thing is, it works for a while…and then it doesn’t. The Kaiju adapt and start to win.
We begin with Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) waking up to an alarm going off. It’s a Kaiju, and Raleigh is one of those charged with keeping them at bay. He wakes up his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) and they get to work. These two are Jaeger operators – they engage in what’s called a “neural drift” in order to, in tandem, control a Statue of Liberty sized robot. The neural drift is a process that connects the minds of the two pilots, and not everyone can do it; the two pilots must be compatible, which the two brothers luckily are. Not so lucky is the fate of this particular mission: the Kaiju the Beckett boys think they’ve killed comes back, and Yancy is killed.
Fast-forward five years and Raleigh is called on again. He is visited at his new job, working on an impressive but futile wall to keep the Kaiju out, and he receives a visit from Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) who led his expedition five years earlier. The Jaeger program is being disjointed, and the Marshal wants Raleigh on board for one last strike. It takes some convincing, but he agrees.
The person who ends up being Raleigh’s most compatible match is a young woman named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). We have seen little to nothing from this actress since her Oscar nomination for Babel in 2007, and this isn’t really much of a come-back for her, unfortunately. The most impressive and important scene for Mako is a flashback to a horrific day from her childhood – her first encounter with a Kaiju. This scene is terrifying, but sadly there are very few moments afterwards where her childhood tragedy seems to affect Mako. I will say, however, that it is encouraging to see that a top-billed character in a science fiction-y action blockbuster was a woman of color – and as a real player, not just the token “sexy, exotic female” women of color seem so often relegated to. Mako is a force to be reckoned with.
And then there’s Pentecost, played by Idris Elba (who we sadly see neither hide nor hair of in the Thor: The Dark World trailer that plays before Pacific Rim). Originally, this role was offered to Tom Cruise, and no offense to that bucket of crazy, but no one could have just become this role the way Elba did. I always love to see Idris Elba playing a jaded, angry, forceful authority figure, but this performance is particularly enthralling. Pentecost may not be at the forefront of all the action, and he’s certainly not the guy you look to as the film’s action hero, but by its end, he’s easily the most fleshed out character in the film. This is due in no small part to Elba’s incredible talent. There are shots in Pacific Rim where Pentecost is saying nothing and yet the expression on his face tells the audience everything he’s thinking. This guy is a rare talent, and as much as I love seeing him in this kind of flick, I can’t wait to see Idris Elba starring in a film he can really sink his teeth into.
Other actors I was excited to see included Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, and Ron Perlman. Perlman, of course, has a very memorable and colorful role. I won’t spoil it for you, though. Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Burn Gorman (Torchwood) play a pair of bickering scientists who take polar opposite approaches to studying the Kaiju. Day is a nerdy Kaiju fanboy, who has tattoos of the beasts up and down his arms. He’s dedicated to the idea that if he can “drift” with a Kaiju he can understand them better, and they’ll know how to fight them. Gorman’s character is a stuffy Brit with a noticeable limp who believes that nothing but math is reliable – he has blackboards filled with equations that calculate and predict future Kaiju events.
The really cool thing about Pacific Rim (well, one of them) is how it portrays the people of the world. In the face of a universal enemy that threatens life itself, the whole world bands together in an effort to defeat them. The people represented as the final band of Jaeger fighters include pairs that are Chinese, Russian, Australian, and the interracial pairing of Raleigh and Mako. There’s a little bit of tension, but by and large everyone is working together. It does beg the question, though: is it possible for the people of the world to come together without there being a giant trans-dimensional race of monsters to fight first?
The main thing that sets Pacific Rim apart from a lot of the dime-a-dozen summer blockbusters is that it has soul. It makes audiences feel, because there’s real emotion there. Deep friendships, mentor/mentee relationships, father/son relationships…it’s all in there (except for romance – there’s no room for romance when the world is ending). There’s certainly room for character development, but the relationships in the film ring true. And so does the overarching emotion of a species that knows it’s dangerously close to being wiped out.
So yes, there are epic battles and cool special effects and giant robots beating down giant aliens with giant boats, but that’s not it. These are people on the brink of decimation, coming together to fight off an enemy. They don’t crave violence the way a lot of action heroes seem to – they go through it for the sake of the human race. And, very importantly, things don’t explode unless they actually would in real life! That always bothers me in action movies, how a car crashes and immediately bursts into flames. Make no mistake, giant robots and giant beasts wreak a lot of havoc – it just isn’t exaggerated and full of visual excess. What makes Pacific Rim so great is that it’s got heart and soul, and a story that audiences can grab onto. And yes, there are plenty of massive battle scenes, if that’s what you’re into.
Pacific Rim is arguably director Guillermo del Toro’s most ambitious project to date, and it doesn’t disappoint. There’s no such thing as a perfect summer blockbuster, but this one can certainly challenge the best of them.