“Awesome” is one of those words (like “masterpiece” and “hilarious”) that gets thrown around so much that the locution has actually lost almost all of its true meaning. For something to truly be “awesome”, it must first inspire “awe”, an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder that is inspired by authority or by the sacred or sublime (according to Merriam-Webster, that is). In short, your car isn’t “awesome”. That steak you just made for dinner? Not “awesome”. Sex with your girl/boyfriend last night? OK…that might come close (depending on he or she’s “authority”).
Pacific Rim, however, is “awesome”, in the truest sense of the expression. While hardly an intellectual exercise, the film is pre-teen afternoons of smashing toys together writ large. It’s the cinematic expansion of childhood games of Voltron played in the back yard, where you and your friends took turns between being the do-gooder mecha, and the many beasties sent from Planet Doom to do battle with it (peace to the Robeasts). Basically, it’s everything that will inspire “holy shits” to be emitted by the twelve-year-old that still lives deep inside of you.
The set-up: a rift deep in the Pacific Ocean opens up a portal to another dimension. Through said portal come giant monsters called kaiju (a word anybody who is remotely familiar with Japanese cinema will recognize), who stomp through cities, rain hellfire and, after four days of military battle, CAN be brought down, but not until after wiping out thousands of human beings in the process. In an effort to stop these rampaging beasties, nations unite and create what is known as “The Jaeger Program”, an army of man piloted mechs sent to throw down with the monsters and engage in ocean bound WWE matches that would make Macho Man Randy Savage shout “ohhhh yeah!”. But as the ‘bots begin to smack more and more of the monsters in the mouth, the kaiju sent from below increase in size and strength, leading to an unexplained numerical ranking system and toppling the human resistance.
If all of this sounds insanely silly to you, relax, as it simply means that you are a well adjusted adult. However, the world that the prologue of Pacific Rim sets up (that’s right, everything I described above happens in the first ten minutes of the movie) is so immersive and immediate that I find it hard to imagine even the most grounded and boring of CPAs not finding themselves suddenly transported away from their invoice cluttered existence for the next 120 minutes. Director Guillermo del Toro sets the stakes at the highest level, as this is mankind on the verge of losing the greatest battle in human existence; a world where hope has been lost and its people have begun to give up. Rather than fight the monsters that have decimated half of humanity, the government has cancelled the Jaeger program in favor of simply walling the most populated areas off with giant coastal ramparts meant to keep the beasts at bay. There are even cults that worship the kaiju, seeing them as Mother Nature’s own apocalyptic “final solution”, being doled out as punishment for man’s continuous abuse.
But while the plot may come off relentlessly grim on paper, make no mistake: the pre- to early teen is Pacific Rim‘s target audience. This isn’t the “dark and gritty” reinvention of comic books once targeted at kids and now taken over by man-child misanthropes. Where the world of Pacific Rim has given up, del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham have crafted a tale about heroes rising from the ashes to inspire hope in what Hemingway once called “the broken places”. And in meticulously designing their quest to take down the annihilators from the deep, del Toro has created a smorgasbord of spectacle that is destined to make even the most jaded moviegoer feel like a kid, not because it’s dumb (though the techno-babble does get carried away from time to time) but because it will remind them of other revolutionary, effects driven adventure films from the likes of Spielberg and Lucas (though this movie is definitely more Starship Troopers than Star Wars). This isn’t “sad boy” Chris Nolan’s sobering study on the consequences of heroism, but rather a rock ’em sock ’em extravaganza, meant to make you fist pump and cheer as Optimus Prime halves Godzilla with a sword.
On top of the pastiche of pre-teen pop culture, del Toro and Beacham embrace the pulpier side of sci-fi, incorporating “neural handshakes” (the process through which two Jaeger pilots link minds to control the mechs), a “shatterdome” (the hangar that houses the ‘bots) and even name some of the robots in the most colorful ways possible (“Gipsy Danger” anyone?). To tell the truth, Pacific Rim also gives the human parties monikers such as Stacker Pentecost, upping the ridiculous quotient to “Cannon Group” levels. But again, that’s all part of the picture’s charm; del Toro has created a live-action anime, right down to Clifton Collins’ pompadoured head technician, Tenso Choi.
And while we’re on the subject of Pacific Rim’s homo sapiens, let’s talk about the commanding force that is Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost. Elba (who most will recognize as Stringer Bell from HBO’s The Wire) becomes his own force of nature here; the big swinging dick of the Jaeger program who could probably melt kaiju down with one of his patented hard-eyed stares. While Pacific Rim is undoubtedly an ensemble piece (made up of no less than three FX series regulars), it’s Elba who makes the most distinct impression, delivering speeches about “canceling the apocalypse” that would give William Wallace’s corpse wood.
On the other side of the “charisma spectrum” is Charlie Hunnam, who is undoubtedly the weak link in the cast. Playing “Jax Tellier, Top Cadet in the Robot Top Gun Academy”, his Raleigh Becket is the “best damn pilot we’ve got”. Much like Maverick in Tony Scott’s seminal bit of propaganda (which del Toro also cribs from), he suffered his own “Goosing” when his brother/co-pilot was ripped from their mech, his mind still linked up to Raleigh’s, thus transferring his agonizing final moments. But instead of hopping on his bike and finding solace in Kelly McGillis’ navel, we’re subjected to Hunnam delivering line after line about how “he’ll never be the same” after that moment (in a bad American accent, I might add). If I had a major criticism of Pacific Rim, it’d be that Hunnam just isn’t a very good actor, and his rather rote storyline (being recruited back into the program by Pentecost in order to make “one last stand” against the kaiju) suffers because of it. He is the first forty-five minutes of Whedon’s The Avengers made flesh; a drag incarnate.
In the middle of the chaos is Charlie Day as Newt Geizler, a scientist kaiju groupie who has tattoo sleeves of every attacking monster from the past five years covering his forearms. His quest: to find one Hannibal Chau (the one eyed, scene stealing Ron Pearlman), a black market kaiju parts dealer who may or may not have a brain for sale that Newt can mind meld with. And while both of these characters almost act as the picture’s comic relief (the genesis of Chau’s name is probably the film’s biggest laugh), they are also details in a larger world that del Toro and Beacham have envisioned. From the tattoos to the very idea of “black market kaiju parts”, it shows that del Toro is interested in creating a lived-in universe for these men and monsters to thrive in.
But let’s face it, while the world building and human drama are surprisingly rousing, nobody bought a ticket thinking this was Blade Runner or Henry V. Where Pacific Rim delivers in spades is the massive action set pieces, as del Toro’s combination of visual and aural perfection leads to a near orgasmic release of city leveling violence. Every punch, kick, plasma cannon blast and building topple is felt as these robotic monstrosities do battle with their evil counterparts. The action, while often taking place at night and in the rain, is clear and understandable; the stakes always palpable, thus resulting in thrilling throw downs. It’s in these “big” moments that del Toro taps into what seems to be a bottomless cauldron of cinematic alchemy, leaving the audience breathless and clapping, wanting more of that near indefinable feeling that just shot down their spine.
Ladies and gentlemen, that is what “awe” feels like, thus making me feel comfortable labeling Pacific Rim “awesome”.