The Human Heart of 'Pacific Rim'

Why the New Disaster Movie Improves on Its Predecessors

Charlie-Hunnam-in-Pacific-Rim-2013-Movie-ImageThe Summer Apocalypse Sweepstakes crashes on. It seems that cities of Earth are attacked every week at theaters near you, whether by superhot exploding people in “Iron Man 3,” or a eugenically enhanced terrorist in “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” or by superhuman Kryptonians in “Man of Steel,” or by vast waves of zombies in “World War Z.” In “After Earth,” an environmental cataclysm has rendered earth uninhabitable by humans but a breeding ground for big dinosaur-sized creatures. Am I missing anything? Oh yes, “This is the End” has famous comedy stars playing themselves facing the Last Days of Earth.

This tired old spinning ball is getting a real beating this summer. And it ain’t over yet—now we have really large beasties coming out of a fissure in the Pacific to trample cities, following in the giant footsteps of great-granddaddy lizard Godzilla. Has any other year seen so many imaginations of disaster at the multiplex?

Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” the Hellboy movies) has always loved creature features, and “Pacific Rim” is his homage to all those Japanese giant robot movies and animated series like Voltron, Gigantor, or even the old Transformer series. The moviemakers of today are feeding off the pop culture of their youth, whether it’s Quentin Tarantino with the spaghetti-Western-inspired “Django Unchained,” or Peter Jackson, who loved the original “King Kong” so much as a kid that he decided to become a filmmaker, and eventually remade the big monkey movie.

Like another catastrophe movie mentioned above, “World War Z,” “Pacific Rim” starts out with a montage of media clips introducing us to the beginning of Earth’s dangers. In this case, however, after conventional war tech failed to stop the invasion of monsters, the U.N. (also the regime overseeing the resistance in that zombie movie—making both these films fantasies) developed the construction of giant robots, large enough to go hand-to-hand with the big, brutish nasties.

But the giant robots needed human pilots—in fact, because of their technological complexity, they required two pilots, neurologically linked to control the bi-pedal mega-machine’s movement and weapons. These paired pilots must be psychologically simpatico, able to stay in the conjoining mental “drift,” to share memories and work as one unit. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is paired with his younger brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) to serve as the brains of their robot, named Gipsy Danger, and they are a winning team, destroying monsters and protecting humanity in their “Jaeger” (German for “hunter”), as the giant robots are called. But one day they find that the monsters are somehow learning how to fight back. It’s not giving away much to explain that early on Raleigh suffers a loss that will drive him toward his destiny and a new partner.

The film is a mindmeld of two Japanese-sourced genres, the “Super Robot” and “Kaiju” (or “big monster”) stories. Most Americans are more familiar with Kaiju, which include Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and so many more. My cursory exposure to these films and giant robot animated television series was enough for me to recognize how closely del Toro followed the conventions and characteristics of each and how he was able to fulfill their innate narrative potential, particularly the Super Robot genre, which often featured the giant robots controlled either remotely or inside the machine by a young child. The empowerment fantasy connection is pretty easy to see in those but this being a 21st century live-action feature, having two young adults is more, er, believable in a movie about giant rock ’em-sock’em robots.

And of course what the audience wants to see here is robot-monster throwdowns. George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic delivers what must be 99 percent CGI-animated rounds of big complex action sequences, some with so much detail that you might momentarily lose track of what’s going on. But the story builds smoothly to a desperate final battle, taking us into the heart of the threat.

Naturally, this movie tends to be compared to Michael Bay’s Transformers features, but it feels dramatically weightier, with better-staged fight sequences. Del Toro’s film is dedicated to the two masters of creature features, Godzilla director Ishiro Honda and stop-motion wizard Ray Harryhausen (“Clash of the Titans” and so many more), who died in May. Both creators’ works inspired avid fandom, and it’s clear that del Toro is on their wavelength in creating monster mashes with an awe-inspiring vibe.

And unlike Bay, del Toro knows that with such high-tech concepts, you must have a high-touch human element to ground viewers in some degree of reality. “Pacific Rim’s” robot resistance is led by the memorably named Marshal Stacker Pentecost, played by Idris Elba, who cannot give a bad performance. Certainly the next wearer of the gravitas mantle after Morgan Freeman, Elba’s Pentecost compels respect with his aura of command, but we are allowed to see the soft parts behind his hard exterior. In a nice nod to the film’s spiritual country of origin, Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi plays Mako Mori, the top expert on the Kaiju, who has her own personal reasons for wanting to become a monster fighter. In fact, the film seems especially well-designed to appeal to the international market, particularly the burgeoning Asian region, with Hong Kong being a major location but with other nationalities represented in the cast.

In a story dominated by towering robots and ugly monsters, it’s essential to make us care about the tiny humans who have so much to lose. Watching old Godzilla films, you can always feel the narrative disparity between the spectacle of the Big Guy’s destructions and the relative insignificance of whatever human interaction was taking place on the ground below. Whereas in this movie, as the layers of plot and character build up, the story finds the beating heart within the atomic core driving these metallic behemoths.

The buff heroic resistance fighters, as in all good science fiction movies, require brilliant scientists to explain the plot points necessary to understand the stakes. Drs. Geiszler and Gottleib (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) are the salt and pepper bickering brainiacs, and provide much needed comic relief while providing the necessary information about the monsters. They and the other members of the team must struggle to overcome personal and emotional obstacles to working together against a common foe. The linking of two minds is a pretty clear metaphor for the connections required to work and fight together despite the wounding memories of the past.

Co-screenwriters del Toro and Travis Beacham create character arcs that, though not always that original, are executed by the cast with finesse and lots of heart. By the time the cost of the ultimate confrontation become clear, I was surprised at how much I’d come to care for these little humans in big metal robots.

Image copyright Warner Bros.

Alex Wainer teaches communication, media, and film classes at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

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