Posted on Saturday, July 13th, 2013 by David Chen
I’ll be the first to admit it: the summer movie season is starting to wear on me. Every week, it feels like we’re subject to another mindless big budget blockbuster, another craven attempt by a big studio at minting a money-making franchise. I wasn’t sure how many more time I could witness the entire world being imperiled, only to be barely saved by our heroes-of-the-week.
Then I saw Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim.
For me, Pacific Rim stands above the summer box office fray. Not since I first saw Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day back in 1996 have I felt as entertained and as awed as I did when I saw this film (and if you find that comparison off-putting then Pacific Rim probably isn’t the film for you). This movie was so ridiculously fun that it actually made me feel more negative about all the other films I’ve seen in the past few months. Below, you’ll find five ways I think the film succeeds where other summer films have failed. Note that there will be minor spoilers, so if you don’t want to know anything about the movie, you should probably stay away from the jump.
It is willing to kill off major characters - Some people have complained that Pacific Rim feels like the ending to a TV series or a movie franchise that we didn’t see the beginning of. But the film didn’t feel like it was some big setup for a money-making venture down the road. The story had a beginning, middle, and (admittedly ludicrous) end, but huge cities are destroyed spectacularly and major, likable characters die. The latter point alone feels like the film is taking bold chances, especially when we are actually seeing movies this summer where main characters are killed and then brought back to life 20 minutes later.
Movie(s) that failed at doing this: Any film in which the main characters must survive for sequel purposes.
The world building is excellent - I’ll grant that a lot of exposition and plot developments are delivered via an opening voiceover, but I deeply enjoyed the world-building of Pacific Rim. Small touches like the religion (and business) that have been built up around the Kaiju, and the history of the other Jaeger pilots provided intriguing glimpses into what feels like a fully realized world. Even the way the fight sequences seamlessly connect the events inside the Jaeger cockpit with the CG madness outside is impressive, and rarely seen in sci-fi films. (Side note: am I the only person who feels like the bridge of the USS Enterprise feels strangely separate from the crazy destruction we see in external shots?) I wouldn’t say I would ever want to live in the world of Pacific Rim, but for the film’s 2+ hour runtime, I believed that it could actually exist.
Movie that failed at doing this: After Earth, Star Trek Into Darkness
It makes you care about even the side characters - Sure, this movie is a hodgepodge of every action movie cliche known to man, but it at least attempts to give character a motivation for their actions. There’s the Jaeger pilot who’s trying to overcome his fear of a past tragedy (Charlie Hunnam), the hotshot father-son team (Max Martini and Robert Kazinski), the student with something to prove (Rinko Kikuchi), and the teacher whose prior valor has put him on death’s door (Idris Elba). Even the scientist characters, played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, are out to vindicate their Kaiju theories. And while it doesn’t bring too much new to the table, it’s able to leverage each of these plotlines for maximum emotional impact. I have to confess that when [certain characters] were saying goodbye at the end, I couldn’t help but be moved, even as I recognized how Del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham were using incredibly well-worn stereotypes to achieve their ends. Sometimes, you don’t fix what ain’t broke.
Movies that failed at doing this: The Lone Ranger, Iron Man 3
The battles progress - Okay, so it was never going to be easy to show two gods fighting each other. But with its wanton destruction of civilian property by seemingly invincible beings, Man of Steel’s fight sequences got…well, kinda boring at times. Snyder had the difficult challenge of creating fights that were exciting and showed some sense of progression, and I think he failed to a significant extent. Pacific Rim has an easier task. By dealing with large-but-killable creatures and fragile man-made robots, Del Toro has the ability to demonstrate a progression in his battles that feels exhilarating and intense. Kaiju body parts are crushed and ripped off, throats are slashed, and acidic blood is spilled. Jaegers suffer critical damage too, and the fate of each Jaeger pilot had unexpected impact. Through it all, you feel like every blow matters, and no moment in battle is wasted.
Movie(s) that failed at doing this: Man of Steel
It’s not racially insensitive - Okay, so this one wasn’t a very high bar to cross, but Del Toro did more than just meet the minimum standard of any respectable film: in a move reminiscent of how Danny Boyle cast Sunshine, he populated his cast with international actors, each of which play a key role in the film’s plot. After all, if the apocalypse was about to take place, wouldn’t we want the best people from all parts of humanity to come together in our species’ defense? In an interview with Salon, Del Toro opined, “The other sort of big summer movies often feel to me like it’s about one race, one credo and one country saving the world, and I wanted to make it about the world saving the world, no matter what skin color you have, what race you have, what belief you have.” This isn’t just lip service, and that was too, too refreshing to see.
Movie(s) that failed at doing this: The Lone Ranger