The summer blockbuster tradition has a long established history of homage for pop culture of the past: Star Wars was made in homage to the Flash Gordon movies of the 1930s and ‘40s, and Indiana Jones was similarly inspired by pulp magazines of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ childhoods. Joining in this tradition is Guillermo del Toro’s latest offering, Pacific Rim, a movie made in loving homage to Japanese mecha (giant humanoid robots which have inspired such properties as Transformers) and kaiju (giant monsters, the most famous of which is Godzilla).
Perhaps the film that Pacific Rim bears the most similarity to, however, is Roland Emmerich’s 1996 tour-de-force, Independence Day. Much like Emmerich’s film, Pacific Rim features themes of unity, optimism, and humanity breaking boundaries to come together against a common foe, all set against the backdrop of an apocalyptic alien invasion. There’s no moral ambiguity or complexity to these films, but that’s not their goal. The simple themes and messages of films like these should not be confused with pandering, and it’s important to note that Pacific Rim consistently takes its audience seriously.
Not only does Pacific Rim bring a love for classic anime and manga tropes to the table, it also pushes with a real ambition to challenge the boundaries that confine so many other summer movies. The “jaegers” (the in-universe term for the mecha) and “kaiju” come from a widespread plethora of influences, often obscure, that yield a palette that is both original and unfamiliar.
The jaegers are designed with unique personalities, each representative of the human fighters controlling them and the culture of the country that built it. Similarly, the kaiju are all different. Although their designs are based on dinosaurs, Goya paintings, and Lovecraft fiction, they never feel like clichés, and are all all terrifying in their own ways.
At its core, a summer movie like Pacific Rim demands great battles, and del Toro pays that off with action that is incredibly engaging while also carrying dramatic weight. In lesser summer movies, action set pieces can feel as if they were choreographed first, with the screenwriters having to force them in the story later.
In contrast, the action sequences of Pacific Rim organically belong to the story, bringing their own unique elements to the film. The giant underwater ocean battles that take place in the movie don’t feel like anything seen before in a movie. Like the best summer blockbusters, Pacific Rim does a great job of juxtaposing small, incredibly human moments with the big action sequences, immersing the audience in the story and establishing genuine empathy for the characters and their situations.
Pacific Rim has a terrific cast, from top-to-bottom. The lack of big-name stars is more than compensated for by great performances and high energy. Nowhere is that more clear than with the inclusion of Idris Elba, who gives a stellar performance as Stacker Pentecost, the commanding officer with nerves of steel. Fans of The Wire and Luther will know that his trademark intensity is a great fit for a film such as this one, making this a mainstream, big-screen breakout for an actor who is already critically acclaimed for his smaller roles.
Similarly, Charlie Day brings his neuroticism and high energy into the story in a way that both provides comic relief while also carrying the story forward. He steals just about every scene he appears in, and his on-screen presence is always welcome. Pacific Rim also sets out to create strong female characters, who don’t have to be shown in skimpy clothing or have to fall in love to reach an emotional resolution at the end of the story. To that end, Rinko Kikuchi’s character, Mako Mori, is a great success, with admirable fierceness and courage that will resonate with audiences even after the film ends.
Pacific Rim also succeeds where many American films fail by steering clear of trite Hollywood ethnocentrism. Pacific Rim features a multinational cast of characters and a palette of cities that feel unfamiliar to those of us used to New York and Washington DC being the target of every alien invasion. In fact, much of the film is set in an almost post-apocalyptic Hong Kong, and that Asian influence creates scenery that feels familiar, and yet foreign, a type of territory rarely explored in film. In some ways, the scenery and sets are almost characters of their own.
Guillermo del Toro’s attention to detail shines through the film, and the movie vastly succeeds in its ultimate ambition: to make the kaiju and the jaegers the star of the film, while also keeping the optimism and very human elements of the story anchored to the excitement.
Like its predecessors, Pacific Rim is exactly the type of movie that the summer blockbuster is supposed to be – an ambitiously fun roller coaster, perfectly designed to keep the audience engaged but never exhausted with fight scenes. In this way, Pacific Rim is positioned to stand the test of time and join the pantheon of great blockbuster films.