Pacific Rim has undoubtedly become one of the movies we’ve most covered in the last year or so. Reaching the level of a Batman or Marvel movie, the scifi actioner from Guillermo Del Toro has rarely gone a week without popping up on the site in the form of con coverge, a poster, a banner, a trailer, a sizzle reel, another trailer, another poster or the like. I think it’s fair to say that’s largely true for any site that covers films like this.
But what is it about this summer blockbuster concerning robots and monsters that has slammed it so hard and fast into the top spot of many film fans’ most anticipated lists?
There are a lot of answers to that question, and an endearing appreciation of Guillermo Del Toro and hope for his success is certainly one of them. The man has a deep relationship with the film nerd community, and there’s no illusions about the fact that many long-running sites like CHUD have a personal relationship with the filmmaker. CHUD in particular is tied by our head honcho Nick, who acted as a producer on Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark, one of Del Toro’s recent projects. Since I’m still a two-bit newbie in this world, the depth of my relationship with Del Toro is that I was in the same room as him once, and I would like very much to give him a hug one day. All of that to say, I’m coming at this pretty purely from a consumer’s perspective. That’s some full disclosure stuff, but all that aside it’s fair to say most of us fans are prone to crossing our fingers for the filmmaker, especially when he’s finally been given full license by a major studio to do work on just about as large a scale as he can imagine.
I think it goes deeper than that though. What Del Toro and writers Drew Pearce and Travis Beacham appear to have concocted here bear the signs of a truly special summer film, and I felt like it was well worth and about time to run down exactly what some of those signs are. All of us excited by the trailers have something that raises the hairs on the back of our necks the most –be it the monster designs, or the image of a giant robot powering on, Idris Elba’s speech, or a tanker ship used as a bludgeon– but there are a few intangibles at play here that people may be feeling, even if they can’t quite put their finger on it. Along with that are some lines of educated speculation that may point to this being Del Toro’s most balanced, accomplished film yet.
As is appropriate for a film about pilots using a binary neural system to pilot a massive machine, I’m breaking this down based on two broad concepts: substance and spectacle.
Warner Brothers has been out to prove that they have some films with punch this summer, be it the Man Of Steel previews that mix Malick with mayhem, or even The Hangover III trailers that promise a more violent, dangerous comedy (as weird as that turned out). Pacific Rim has fit right in, with trailers that have unabashedly sold the fact that this is a movie about skyscraper-sized robots punching monsters, and punching them, and punching them. In the case of Pacific Rim though, that has all been mixed in with a more general impression of a disaster movie, with some narration by Charlie Hunham and some allusions to the mind-meld mechanics on which the machines operate. We’ve gotten glimpses of the humans involved, but very little extended dialogue, and only the briefest hints of the drama that surely fill the gaps between brawls.
Don’t get me wrong; with the image of a Jaeger collapsing to the ground and plenty of monsters handing robots their ass in the trailer, there’s no doubt the film is full of conflict. But what about the human-scale problems?
Well, the most concrete evidence that there will be more than enough potent interpersonal drama actually hit the web yesterday in the form of a featurette in which the actors and director speak about the film’s mind-meld concept. You can see that here, and learn about the nature of “Drift Space” and the “Neural Handshake” which are part of the processes to merge to humans’ minds- necessary as a single human brain does not have the bandwidth to process the complexity of a Jaeger’s functions.
I don’t have to tell you how two people being privy to absolutely every thought and memory of one another is a recipe for drama with a capital D. Obviously whether the film actually pulls off interesting conflict and emotional change with that mechanism still remains to be seen, but the heartening thing is that this a choice that innately links the spectacle with the substance. The very nature of these machines is something requiring our main characters to face who they are on a profound level, to engage in a unique relationship with another person, all in the context of a global catastrophe with the stakes being mankind’s survival.
I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds a bit more thematically rich than whether or not Matthew Broderick gets his old girlfriend back before a pregnant lizard stomps New York, or whether Shia LaBeauf can keep a robot cube away from jive-talking cars. It’s that unique kernel at the heart of the story that makes classic scifi films stand out and last- the clever mechanism or hook that has turned films from Blade Runner through The Matrix to Looper into essentials.
The other interesting component to the film is the in medias res nature of the story which, at least as trailer suggests, seems to plant us into things well after the stakes are already established. Clearly we get some looks at how the world discovered it was going to be routinely attacked by inter-dimensional beasts, but it appears that this is a story that pushes us in once shit is already hot, and finds a more complex conflict than whether or not humans simply save the day. More simply: this does not appear to be the typical disaster story.
A clear reference point for the film is the anime Neon Genesis: Evangelion. One of the most phenomenally successful and influential anime series ever made (and one of the few I really like), it too is about a world plagued by routine monster attacks. That series actually takes place well after a full-blown armageddon, and is wrapped up in a great deal of bizarre and grotesque religious imagery, but there are plenty of reference points. In Eva, routine monster attacks (from “Angels”) are combated by giant man-made cyborgs (they’re as much organic creatures as robots) pilot by humans with special neural connections with the units. The comparisons end there as Del Toro’s universe is clearly much less fantastical, but I still suspect there will be a similar heightened quality to the human drama as we see people have their minds mushed around by massive, unnatural interactions with computers/machines. Having their souls laid bare and their memories opened up to other people will undoubted take these characters to the edge, while brawling with 3,000 ton monsters will do so physically. I’m extremely eager to see how Pearce and Del Toro have the emotional and mental side of this story wrapping up into the action side- Pearce has already shown with Iron Man 3that he’s not afraid to subvert expectations, nor is Del Toro.
This is where Del Toro’s unique worldview comes into play though- the man’s filmography is nothing if not a list of exercises in using genre imagery to reflect on how people view themselves and how they change in extreme circumstances. Be it the Hellboy series using cool-looking creatures to play with how outcasts relate to one another and find love despite their apparent issues, or Pan’s Labyrinth melding fairy tale horror into historical tragedy and childhood trauma, Del Toro has done fine work in this arena. While one can’t expect the tentpole summer blockbuster to take that component into full on “prestige film” territory (and who needs that?), it does fill one with justified hope that this will be a concussive action blockbuster with a bigger brain and a harder-pumping heart than we often see.
I also expect Pearce and Del Toro have at least some amount of the old Gojira dynamic in mind, in which the force-of-nature catastrophe is juxtaposed with the individual human efforts to right the collective wrongs of humanity, or at least buy us a second chance…
Here’s the fun part!
In terms of pure spectacle, I want to start by pointing out just how distinctive and gorgeous the look of this film already appears to be. From the rich, practical production design of the inside of the machines to the command center- I love the advanced but weathered look of the suits. As importantly, the cinematography is just stunning. 3D conversion notwithstanding, I’m floored by the look the Guillermos (Del Toro and D.P. Nevarro) have come up with. Some seem put off by the amount of nighttime action, but I couldn’t be more entranced by the rich blacks and vivid neons rippling across the alloy surfaces of the Jaegers and the dark hides of the monsters concealing that phosphorescent glow. It’s a unique look for a summer movie, one filled with rain and snow and moonlight. On top of that, the CGI just looks plain awesome. There’s no doubt in my mind the film will be a beautiful one.
Moving on to the filmmaking though, a little context might be useful.
Earlier this year there was some silliness that emerged when a trade tried to imply there was beef between Michael Bay and Guillermo Del Toro. It was mostly nonsense, but it did highlight the fact that Guillermo and his Jaegers are stomping into a genre dominated by a billion dollar toy franchise. The comparisons are inevitable.
Now let me start by saying that I’m actually (and have always genuinely been) a big fan of Michael Bay, including his work on the vast majority of the Transformers franchise. Though he never seems to have run across a rough draft of an action film he wasn’t ready to shoot as is, it’s inarguable to my eyes that Bay has a command of action grammar with a sense of singular style that few, if any action directors have these days. Impressionistic yet coherent, I’m all about Bay’s direction of that franchise.
All that said, there’s a striking difference between the Autobots and the Jaegers: size matters.
This is not just true about Bay’s films, but there has been an overall course in action filmmaking in the last decade that many find distasteful. While I think the “chaos editing” and “teal & orange” detractors out there are often missing the trick, it’s certainly fair to say that action in which a clear narrative of spectacle is presented in ways that allow viewers to actually see and soak in cool imagery has become increasingly rare. Some directors are great at the new, more impressionistic style, while others simply fling the camera around and cut for coverage. This is the reason why you can practically hear the collective sigh of geek relief when a film like Attack The Block or The Raid relies on action you can actually see and still get pumped up about.
Bringing this back to my “size matters” comment, we have to note that the monsters and robots in Pacific Rim are all averaging something like 300ft tall. These aren’t machines that can slam, smash, and fling around in the same way a person or even a tractor-trailer-sized robot can- by their very nature they are lumbering fighters. From the trailers we’ve already seen rocket punches and a general pace of action that makes it clear these are far from slow-moving slugfests between giant robotic sloths. What this does mean though, is that in order for Del Toro and his team to communicate the scale of these creatures, they must be filmed different than Greengrass films Matt Damon smashing toasters into people’s faces or Peter Berg films rolling robot bombs tearing up battleships. This isn’t just as simple as slowing down action- it affects where cameras are placed, the perspectives we switch between during the action, the sound design, the editing… everything. Even with trailer editing in play, you can already see in the teasers how Del Toro’s filmmaking is soaking in the carnage, and using clever camera placement to add dynamics to his frame without losing the sense of titanic combat.
Hell, they’ve even got these machines diving into the ocean for a fight. Think of how clever the filmmaking will have to be and how powerful these creatures/machines will look having a proper fight in water. Imagine yourself trying to do kung-fu in a swimming pool and tell me that wouldn’t take some inventive filmmaking to make that awesome…
On a pure “fuck yeah!” level, this is the most exciting single aspect of this film. This goes back to the Kaiju films that are so much the DNA of Pacific Rim– specifically the kind of filmmaking that made guys in rubber suits and miniature cities seem big and epic. The film even boasts a unique twist that harkens back to my childhood with Power Rangers– which for kids like me acted as a live-action Toho-lite genre where the large scale combat was juxtaposed by the interior actions of the humans inside*. My favorite edits in the trailers are those that match the action of the Jaeger pilots with the resulting movement of the machines. Just a simple step from the pilots in their suspended motion rig cut against the powerful, rhythmic stomp of their unit has been enough to give me chills. It’s that kind of visual conceit, which lends an inherent architecture to all of the action we will see, that so often makes the best action films stand out.
Merge that sensibility with the near-infinite freedom of VFX tools and Del Toro’s proven track record with exciting, followable action and I couldn’t be more eager for the chaos to begin. How about you?
Thanks for reading!
*Yeah, I know Voltron and shit, but Power Rangers wins. It was also a great gateway drug for proper Kaiju films, so keep it to yourself.