Since I'm planning to wrap up 2013 with a look back at a few examples of Japanese robot toys--one of my favorite kind of toys--I thought I would kick off this year-end series of posts with a review of Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, one of the big-budget releases from last summer that I missed when it was playing in the theaters.
Summer blockbusters have never been held in high regard by the film critic community, and such critics have been particularly displeased with Hollywood's over-usage of CGI effects to produce increasingly bigger and louder blockbuster movies. To be sure, such criticism is not entirely inaccurate: CGI does permit the creation of larger-scale environments and set pieces in ways that miniatures, matte paintings and other practical effect techniques could never allow. As such, CGI has enabled the production of many, many summer blockbusters that are enormous in terms of spectacle but conspicuously short in terms of creative ideas and conceptual depth. Pacific Rim is not one of those movies, because del Toro eagerly packs every frame of his film with enough details and ideas that fans who know what they're looking at will be reviewing this movie for years to come. Pacific Rim is a "big" in every sense of the term--big CGI, big landscapes, big battles, big ideas, and big ambition. In fact, I can't think of how any other special effects technique other than CGI could have accommodated del Toro's story.
In a nutshell, Pacific Rim is about a group of pilots, military leaders, scientists and technicians who build and operate giant robots called "Jaegers" that are designed to fight a seemingly endless series of giant monsters called "Kaiju" that have been emerging out of the Pacific Ocean for years to regularly trash the nearest city. The movie takes places during the closing days of the Kaiju war, when the Jaeger team is planning its final offensive that promises to put an end to the Kaiju menace.
Pacific Rim is a well-made film in every aspect: a well-written script, a well-cast ensemble of actors, and a well-directed approach to the material. Yet to really appreciate this movie, one has to understand that it is a tribute to Japan's "Super Robot" fantasy-science fiction genre and its "Real Robot" spin-off subgenre. Super Robot and Real Robot anime and manga usually involve giant robots that are piloted by human beings to fight giant monsters, other giant robots, or both. The Super Robot genre began in the mid-50s with the manga series Tetsujin 28, and it has continued with popular titles such as Mazinger Z, Mobile Suit Gundam, Patlabor and Neon Genesis Evangelion.
One of Pacific Rim's Super Robots, complete with "Rocket Punch" action.
Pacific Rim also draws inspiration from Japan's kaiju movies (ergo the collective name of the giant monsters in Rim), and the monster designs in the movie demonstrate how much del Toro and his production crew love and understand kaiju films such as Godzilla and Mothra. Nevertheless, most of the film's other details--the characters, their technology, the situations they face and the world they inhabit--are clearly modeled after Super Robot and Real Robot narratives. To put it another way, Pacific Rim is to Super Robot and Real Robot stories as Star Wars is to pulpy sci-fi space operas such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon.
With so many details spread throughout the movie, some aspects feel somewhat lacking. In particular, so much detail is applied to movie's fictitious world (a world where there's even a black market for dead Kaiju parts) that the characters feel more like broad personality types than fully-developed individuals. We see bits and pieces of who they are and their roles within the beleaguered, monster-pummeled society they represent but not much more than that; at times, it almost feels like watching Top Gun with giant robots instead of fighter jets. Yet del Toro's enthusiasm for the material permeates every aspect of the film, so I enjoyed geeking out with him just to see what kind of unique interpretations he could put on machines and monsters that are so closely associated with Japanese pop culture. To say that del Toro went above and beyond what he set out to do is an understatement, making this one of his best films to date.
If you don't understand why anyone would want to make a big-budget, live-action film based on anime and manga stories about giant robots, then Pacific Rim probably isn't for you. Otherwise, if you love big brawling 'bots and are looking for an example of CGI done right, then go grab some popcorn and treat yourself to del Toro's magnum mecha opus.