Tackling the Kaiju: “Pacific Rim” and What Makes a Good Summer Blockbuster

* full spoilers for the movie are below *

In what can most succinctly be described as Transformers vs. Godzillas, Pacific Rim opens as a midsummer masterpiece by Guillermo del Toro that transcends far beyond both very obvious influences. Whereas Michael Bay focuses on squeaky clean machines, hot girls, and character development on par with a Disney Channel Original Series, Guillermo del Toro knows how to take a gimmick and make it work wonders in an action movie about the end of the world. Make it work he does.

In the near future, an inter-dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean opens up. Out of it comes giant monsters that devastate coastal cities. Deaths toll in the hundreds of thousands. Increasing in frequency and size, these monsters – called Kaiju – can only be stopped through exhaustive means. Humanity, in typical human fashion, stands resolute in the face of extinction. Through the use of giant robots called Jaegers, humanity is able to make a stand.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJh5_Jg-Vuc]

Due to the “Neural Load” that it takes to pilot a Jaeger, the Jaeger program employs the use of two pilots that fuse their minds together to control their Jaeger. This Mind Meld is a process called Drifting through which pilots share memories, feelings, and even instincts so that they can act in unison, with one pilot controlling each hemisphere of the Jaeger. In addition to linking to one another, both pilots have to perfectly synchronize with the machine through the Neural Handshake. An interesting caveat is that pilots have to be as compatible as possible. As a result, a majority of the pairs that we see are directly related, two being sets of siblings and one being a father-son combo.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=_VYA1OW2SkE#at=44]

The film opens several years into the war after a few minutes of exposition and voiceover from a Jaeger pilot, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam). He’s a hotshot pilot who fights Kaiju with his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) in their Jaeger called Gipsy Danger. After an epic fight with the largest Kaiju ever seen before, Yancy is killed. Raleigh survives but exiles himself to be miserable in Alaska. Inevitably, Raleigh’s desperate former Commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), seeks him out for one last assault on the Rift to close the portal for good. Once we’re through all of the set-up, the film centers around a secret base near the coast of Hong Kong where they prep for the mission, defend the coast from Kaiju, and eventually embark on their final assault.

Raleigh Becket, left hemisphere Jaeger pilot turned wall-builder turned right hemisphere Jaeger pilot

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the story structure behind Pacific Rim is that the entire thing feels like a sequel. This is the story of Kaiju vs. Jaegers and their pilots, and a whole lot has happened already. Five years have passed. Many battles have been fought. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives. And all this before we even see our protagonist. While this information is skimmed over in the first few minutes of opening montage, it’s an effective set up that not only leaves us asking, “What is going to happen next?” but also, “What has come before?” The viewer is suffocated by these anxious worries about the past and future, making the current situation that much more dire. This is the apex of the war, the turning point where humanity will either emerge victorious or go extinct. We aren’t here to just see robots punch monsters in the face. We are also here to watch a species defend its survival on an epic, cosmic scale.

Something else that is established in the opening few minutes is how the zeitgeist of a modern society drowned in technology brings Jaegers and Kaiju into the cultural spotlight. People worship Jaegers and their pilots as both heroes and celebrities. Kaiju are the monsters under the bed and the real threat that’s leveling skyscrapers. We see action figures of Jaegers and Kaiju, and pilots are grinning guests on late-night talk shows. On a cultural level, we tend to digest trauma through the media representation of events and threats. Doesn’t it make sense that Jaeger pilots would become cover magazine and Kaiju would become the tattoos that hipsters carve into their forearms? Churches are even formed in the ribcages of dead Kaiju, and people pay a lot of money for the various organs and body parts. It’s an accurate representation of a media-driven society in which threats attack us not only on a physical level, but a cultural one as well. In a post 9/11 world, fear is twisted into a perverted kind of worship the more real a threat becomes.

Over the course of the movie, we meet a great number of these pilots that have come to embody cultural stereotypes. They even customize their Jaegers with patriotic symbolism. The Chinese team of triplets known as the Wei brothers pilot Crimson Typhoon, a Jaegar that is red and emblazoned with dragon symbols. In stereotypical fashion, their fighting style is acrobatic in nature and is reminiscent of kung fu. Likewise, the Russian-run Cherno Alpha is piloted by a giant husband and wife combo who use Russian steel and power to beat their enemies to a pulp in the heaviest and best-armored Jaeger ever made. The saucy Aussies have the sleek Striker Eureka, the fastest and most expensive Jaeger around, piloted by a father-son combo of the cockiest proportions. Even Raleigh’s Gipsy Danger is designed to be reminiscent of WWII American fighter planes, complete with the female model painted on the chest plate and all. It’s classic. It’s romanticized. And it’s pretty badass. Though these depictions flirt with the edge of offensively stereotypical, their design and pilots are meant to embody a certain kind of nationalism in the respective peoples. This isn’t Michael Bay treating his audience like idiots who like to laugh at racist caricatures. This is Guillermo del Toro making an accurate statement about national pride. The Kaidonovskys embody everything that Russia prides itself on, and they bring that to the table when they fight with Cherno Alpha.

Inevitably, these and other pilots fall prey to pride more often than they fall to the Kaiju. Egos swell in a culture that treats them like celebrities rather than war heroes. With each victory, certain pilots get more and more cocky. They’re less like soldiers and more like all-star quarterbacks. Knocking out Jaegers is an absolute blast for Raleigh Becket in his early years; to have found something he can excel at and be worshipped for on a global scale? What’s better than that! But the “game” gets a harsh dose of reality when his brother is ripped out of the cockpit by a stray Kaiju claw and killed in a fraction of a second. Up until that moment, Pacific Rim was nothing but a fun ride to the viewer and the war nothing but a jovial game to Raleigh. He even remarks on the awesome power of the Jaeger at one point, saying that it gives you the privilege of moving hurricanes if you really want to. Such power. Such glory. Yet even then, a single human being – or even two human beings psychically linked in a giant robot – are still under an incredibly grave threat. That looming threat and increasing level of intensity is felt right away, and it only escalates over time, both in scope and scale as the Kaiju appear larger and more frequently. The four Jaegers are humanity’s last hope, and as they start dropping like tin cans, the odds of survival look more bleak. As awesome as Jaegers are, they have severe vulnerabilities. No matter how cocky and capable the pilots are, there’s a real sense of danger felt in every battle, particularly when the massive and looming Kaiju begin to display new abilities as well.

Crimson Typhoon battles a Kaiju in the waters of Honk Kong

The awesome presence of the Kaiju flirts with the boundary of the absurd in the best way possible (if you’ve ever played the PS2 hit, Shadow of the Colossus, then you know what I’m talking about). It’s awe inspiring, really, to see a Kaiju lumber onto the shore and step on a tractor trailer truck like it’s a stale Cheeto on the floor of its grandma’s basement. You’re constantly surprised when they appear and continuously marvel in their shape and abilities. In every instance, we know that they are coming. Advanced and purposefully nebulous sensors track each Kaiju as it emerges from the Rift and moves through the ocean. Jaegers are deployed to defend the coastlines and stand guard. Time and time again, the Kaiju take us all by surprise, delivering an impressive opening blow that dents armor with a force that shouldn’t, can’t even be possible. Ominous musical tones accent their terrifying presence. Metal groans against shell and sparks fly as the punches are thrown. Systems fail. Arms are lost. Glands are ripped out. Jaws are broken. These fights are outrageous and frightening, the UFC of monster brawls with damages bordering on the catastrophic. Long cargo ships are used like billy clubs as power rock tunes remind us that Jaegers are the Samuel L. Jacksons of robots. They are muthaf*&cking badasses! Fortunately, despite all of the destruction caused by both robot and sea behemoths, the loss of specific human lives is largely hidden from us but the immensity of the damage is apparent. The Jaeger pilots can’t help when their giant robot is thrown through several buildings, but they can step neatly over a highway overpass to avoid any excessive damages.

In some ways Pacific Rim is Raleigh’s story. He starts out as the cocky and unbeatable hotshot, and only after he is defeated and loses his brother does he realize his own hubris. Five years of solitude transform him into a wise and humble warrior who despises his former self, particularly his own powerlessness in watching his brother die. He’s our obvious hero who pulls through in the end to save us all, but it takes a lot to get there. Once he rejoins the Jaeger program he not only has to contend with the emotionally trying process of finding a new co-pilot whom he can Drift effectively with, but he has to deal with his foil, Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) [HEY! Isn’t that Warlow!?].

Chuck Hansen, co-pilot of Striker Eureka

Chuck is as close as it gets to being the poster child for D-Bags United. As a pilot, he’s defeated more Kaiju than anyone else and boasts about it on international television. He directly and repeatedly insults Raleigh, accusing him of being a disgrace to the Jaeger program and a complete washout. He’s the best, he knows it, and he has no problem reminding anybody about it while simultaneously putting them down. At least he has a cute, pudgy Bull Dog. Naturally, Raleigh and Chuck take an immediate dislike to one another without ever really realizing their very obvious similarities: Raleigh was Chuck before his brother died. All that Pride. All that Piss and Vinegar. Chuck is the closest thing we get to a character arc in Pacific Rim and we’re meant to be okay with that. We hate Chuck at first, but that all changes once he and Raleigh find begrudging respect for one another through battle and Chuck proves that the preservation of humanity is more important to him than the preservation of his ego.

Mako and Stacker arguing about what she can and cannot do

The other two most central characters are Stacker Pentecost, the commander of the Jaeger program, and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who initially appears to be little more than his assistant. Over the course of the film, their father-daughter-ish relationship is revealed. Stacker, a former Jaeger pilot himself, had saved Mako from a Kaiju that attacked Tokyo years previously. The experience proved emotionally traumatizing for Mako, who is driven to be a pilot by vengeance, and physically exhausting for Stacker, who retired due to radiation poisoning from being one of the earliest Jaeger pilots. We imagine this to be difficult for the aging warrior to endure, being sidelined from the battle, which would explain why Stacker Pentecost is an oftentimes harsh leader.

Inevitably, Mako is the best co-pilot candidate for Raleigh and the two of them form an unlikely companionship. Mako is awkward at first and intimidated by Raleigh’s faded fame. Once they Drift together and share memories, emotions, and fears, their chemistry is only strengthened. It would have been easy to over-sexualize Mako or at the very least infuse their budding relationship with a romantic quality to it, but del Toro makes the expert decision to avoid it altogether. Even in the movie’s final moments when Raleigh and Mako are standing in lifeboats embracing one another, they look into each other’s eyes, relieved, and they hug as the camera zooms out. Any bit of romance here would be little more than a distraction in a plot-driven story. We’re here for the story of the Pacific Rim, the Kaiju that emerged from it, and the Jaegers that were made to combat them. The characters in Pacific Rim that serve as an additional dimension to the film are a colorful assortment of people, some complicated and others not. They add substance but are never meant to be the central focus and that is more than okay.

Though I’ve probably already overstayed my welcome, there are a few other things worth noting:

1. The voice of Ellen McLain is a comical addition as the voice of the Jaeger operating system. Anybody who has played the Portal video games will immediately realize why.

2. Guillermo del Toro has a strange obsession with shoes as objective correlatives. Stacker keeps the shoe that Mako lost in the Tokyo attacks as some kind of souvenir or reminder. He gives it to her as a present when he finally allows her to be a Jaeger pilot. In addition, Ron Pearlman of Hellboy fame, who is clearly one of Guillermo del Toro’s favorites, plays the minor role of a black market Kaiju body parts dealer. His golden scaled shoes are meant to be an indication of his wealth, and when he is finally consumed by his own obsession (a baby Kaiju), the heavy hand of irony falls a bit too hard and one of his shoes is knocked free. Why the shoes? Why the shoes Guillermo?

3. There’s a great little side-story happening between two scientists in the film. One is a biologist named Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and the other, a physicist (Burn Gorman). Their bickering about the best ways to solve the Kaiju threat through their respective sciences provide the necessarily human comic relief, but it’s Dr. Geiszler’s experiments in Drifting with Kaiju brains that offers real insight into the nature of the Kaiju. They invade and destroy native civilizations, harvest planets, and eventually move on to do the same somewhere else, using giant, beastly clones to do all the grunt work. It’s also worthwhile to note that Charlie Day (of Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame) was wildly entertaining in Pacific Rim and got a much-deserved, albeit surprising amount of screen time.

4. In the epic finale to Pacific Rim, they have to send Gipsy Danger into the rift, through a wormhole, and to the Kaiju homeworld. They self-destruct its nuclear reactor core to blow it all to hell just as Mako and Raleigh’s aforementioned escape pods make it back through to the surface of the Pacific. Everything we see is utterly foreign and downright confusing. The wormhole looked like the innards of a digestive tract and even the Kaiju home world looked strangely organic. I almost want a theoretical physicist to break down what we are seeing in those sequences so we can make sense of them. But hey, perhaps the point is that it’s all just inter-dimensional theory, anyway?

There’s a lot to say about Pacific Rim, but the bottom line is that it is everything that a blockbuster should be. The characters are interesting. The action is astounding and intense. It’s an immensely enjoyable experience through and through and it’s a hella lot of fun! It’s got enough substance to it to support the weight of inter-dimensional warfare and enough heart to make you proud of the human race. Check it out in theaters now!