There is an image in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim where the huge head of Gipsy Danger, the giant mechanical robot (called a “Jaeger,” German for hunter) built to combat alien “Keiju” monsters, is on par with the tops of skyscrapers as Gipsy Danger moves through the rain-soaked streets of Hong Kong. It is an image that hypnotized me as if from a dream and kept me returning to the theater to see the film two more times. I had to see that image again; I longed to re-enter that film-dream just as when I awake from an actual and particularly interesting dream I’ll hit the snooze button to try and get a few more minutes with it. And that image from Pacific Rim had, in fact, invaded my dreams, speaking to me not of violence and a world at war with aliens but simply of pure awesome power. I’m still not sure if I wanted to be the robot, control the robot or simply watch as it lumbered through the dark city. But not since James Cameron’s Avatar had film images so invaded my conscience that I felt unavoidably drawn back to the images, actually felt a need to experience them again, and again.
Personally I’m not hot on films where actors don suits and save the world with super-powers. I was not a huge comic book fan growing up, save for Heavy Metal magazine which featured futuristic landscapes and fantastical pasts as opposed to superheroes. Usually the sight of an actor in a cape and mask, whether human (Batman) or alien (Superman) makes me have to fight to keep from laughing, though I admit I was swept up in some of the sequences of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy. Still, this past summer I slogged through Man of Steel, Wolverine, etc., partly out of my desire to simply see every film I can in an actual theater and partly hoping to be swept up in the pure visuals. But I found myself underwhelmed with the 2013 summer blockbusters until, finally, September was closing in and there was only one big one left: Pacific Rim, with its dubious tagline of “To fight monsters we created monsters.” So there I was, on one of the last precious weekends of the summer, popcorn to the left, soda to the right, trying to remain hopeful as the first images of Pacific Rim came on the screen.
What unfolded was more like a dream than any Hollywood big action movie I’ve seen in years (Avatar, 2009). If anything, Pacific Rim reminded me more of the great silent films (Intolerance, Ben Hur) that created utterly believable realties in the biggest most visual way. Perhaps it was the fact that the heroes of Pacific Rim are not super-heroes; they’re normal humans (albeit highly trained at kicking ass) with flaws whose “suits” are machines they control. No magical powers here. Perhaps it was the dark and intense palette del Toro and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro employed, one might say too dark at times during some of the fight scenes but isn’t that how dreams are when you try and remember them? Alternately sharp as reality and fuzzy at the edges. In fact, in addition to the image mentioned above, I found other images pleasantly invading my dreams, such as the robots being air-lifted and dropped into the churning ocean to do battle, or Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) losing control to the drift (the neural connection between the two pilots needed to operate each huge Jaeger) walking in an ethereal landscape into the memory of a nightmarish experience with a Keiju she experienced as a child.
This is the stuff move theaters were made for. Grand scale and a world that is fantastical but believable. And it all starts with a 16-minute pre-credit sequence that brings you immediately into that world. When the title finally comes up in a borderline-cheesy font, you just know you’re in for a fun and intense ride à la John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. Within days of seeing the film, I wanted to be on that ride again and so within the week I returned to the theater and amazingly, enjoyed it even more, knowing the story now, able to focus more on the details. By the third time, it was like going to see a band perform whom I had seen many times before; I knew the “music” so well I could take time to focus on the edges of the screen, the edges of the scenes. A fourth time would have been absurd and I didn’t want to wear out that warm feeling, but now that Pacific Rim is out on DVD, I am trying to convince all my friends and film-goers who avoided it to give it the chance it deserves.
Is Pacific Rim a perfect film? No. Problems that were apparent in the first viewing only magnified upon subsequent viewings: the main character has no real arc; the greatest moment of victory comes during the penultimate fight not the climax. And why, if the aliens are clones, is one pregnant? These are hiccups along the way (and perhaps that pesky clone question will be answered in the sequel) but they fall away compared to the visual splendor, the pure visual excitement that del Toro and his team have created. Pacific Rim will be much smaller at home and for those who will only see it that way it will not have the impact it did in the theater. But for those who love action films, who truly love movies that take you into another world, I hope you’ll see it at least on DVD. I think you will be very pleasantly surprised.
Although Pacific Rim is not an independent film, as one of the most enjoyable films of the last five years or so I thought it worth writing about. Mike Fishman