Sci-Fi Movie Review: Pacific Rim

[Pacific Rim. Released July 1, 2013. Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Writers Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham. DVD/Blu-Ray released. As usual, this “post-viewing review” contains many spoilers.]

Among the fanboys (and yes, they’re often boys and great fans of shoot ’em up games), Pacific Rim is the heavily argued new gold standard in action movies. If you want to be paternalistic about it, this does not disqualify Pacific Rim from being a good, if not great movie. Like most genre movies, if you like the genre, then this is a very good movie. If you ask, “What genre is that?” Well, that’s a good question.

Nominally, Pacific Rim is science fiction. It takes place in the future, roughly the 2020s. It incorporates aliens, monsters and other elements familiar to sci-fi. The story is the creation of the director, Guillermo del Toro who co-authored the script with Travis Beacham, and it reverberates like a pumped-up woofer with pieces from many other science fiction movies (Star Trek mind-meld, Transformers giant mecha [robots] etc.). It’s also a member of two sub-genres of science fiction, monster movies and mecha movies, which are sometimes teamed into a hybrid genre like this one. Each genre has its own fans, including del Toro, who dedicated the movie to Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda, who more than most established the monster movie genre.

The tradition of monster and mecha movies, which always involve game-like and cartoon-like elements, has its own suite of conventions – heroes and heroines, frequent pitched battles, massive city-smashing destruction, and the good-guys-win endings. Pacific Rim does not deviate from these traditions and will remind people of cartoons (print and movie) intended for the kids (if perhaps somewhat older kids), which is what director del Toro said he wanted. In fact, so much of what del Toro said he was shooting for in this movie, he achieved: focusing on “…big, beautiful, sophisticated visuals….” The idea was to make something slick enough to appeal to adults (like a love story built on respect instead of sexual attraction), but action-packed to “introduce a new generation of kids to monsters and mecha.”

If it sounds like del Toro, as director and story teller, is crucial to this movie – you’ve got it. He is. This is not only his movie; it’s his vision, his love of the material. That’s what lifts Pacific Rim above the level of so many similar movies. There are details that only a strong director would dare to include. My favorite was the moment where Gypsy (the good guys’ mecha) punches a massive metal fist into a building, crushing walls and glass halfway into the interior offices when in a magical moment it comes to a slow halt and just nudges one of those steel-balls chain reaction toys into movement, click, click, click.

I could analyze the symbolism of that moment of slowed-momentum, but what for? This is not the type of movie in which analysis reduces to anything more than, “Well it was fun, if you like that sort of thing.” Personally, I can see myself watching Pacific Rim again – can’t say that about any other movie of its (hybrid) genre. Yes, it’s derivative, predictable, violent, and noisy. Flip these another way and you get, comfortably familiar with interesting variations, anticipatory of dramatic satisfaction, moment to moment exciting, and pulsing with sound and fury. It has also a kind of human realistic sense to it, something I attribute to del Toro, who is a self-proclaimed humanist. Maybe that’s enough depth for you. Maybe not.

Science Spoilers
Sci-fi conventions in this movie substitute for science – mind melds, especially with aliens, temporal rifts in the Pacific Ocean floor, and even the mecha are not the stuff of currently plausible science. They’re more like science fantasy, or fantasy that’s dressed to look like science. In any case, with a move full of such conventions, critiquing the science makes no sense.

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