21 July 2013

Review: Pacific Rim (film)

They don't even say "pacific rim" a single time in the movie.

I went into Pacific Rim with mediocre expectations1 but was very pleasantly surprised. I ended up loving it so much I felt a bit guilty about loving a movie with so much pointless action.

Just to spoil the first few minutes: The story is set a few years in the future. A portal has opened in the Pacific Ocean and giant monsters called Kaiju are invading from another dimension2. They cannot be defeated by conventional methods3 and their blood is very toxic and acidic4, which precludes nuking them to oblivion as the blood would spread everywhere. So the solution has been to build giant robots, "Jaegers", to challenge the unsavory invaders to a round of goode ole fisticuffes. The Jaegers, it turns out, cannot be piloted by one person safely, because the mental strain is too great5, but must be piloted by two people in tandem6. This is why I say the premise turned me off - it's simply asking me to just accept too many illogical things, even for a mecha movie. Happily, if you do accept them, the stage is set for an epic battle of giant robot on giant monster, which is very enjoyable!

I, for one, think non-anthropomorphic human war machines fighting anthropomorphic dinosaur monsters also looks really really cool.

And to spoil a bit more, I thought the sequence at the beginning had a lot of emotional impact, where we see the protagonist's brother and co-pilot get yanked out of the cockpit by a Kaiju. The way the characters are introduced, and the abruptness of the death is staggering, as you realize you are now watching what might as well be a movie about a pianist who broke his hands in the first few minutes.

Something that I really loved in Pacific Rim were the characters. They were like the characters of Street Fighter - every single one was larger than life, a combination of a fighting movie stereotype matched to a national stereotype. These surreal characters fit perfectly with the surreal mecha battle setting. The two scientists were something else, I loved watching their banter and friendly rivalry, and I loved how excessively, absurdly eccentric they both were. And lastly, I have to mention Ron Pearlman's character- he chewed the scenery like a great big scenery chewing thing, and every second of it was heaven. Briefly teaming him up with Newt, the scientist, was a great idea.

Mandatory mecha that fires a missile swarm from its chest.

Another nice surprise was a decent romance plot. Like in many action movies, the love interest has very little actual social interaction with the protagonist, so there is no time for them to discover how deeply compatible their personalities are, and so on. Attraction could only be physical, but since the movie is full of attractive women, then the question why the protagonist is so focused on her in particular comes up. This is nicely averted in Pacific Rim - the attraction happens as the two create the neurological bond. I'm not sure she can even rightly be called a love interest. The relationship seem to stay platonic for almost the entire movie.

Oh, so it's that kind of movie...

It looks beautiful, of course. Del Toro has put in a great deal of effort into building the entire cockpit interior for filming, and it's paid off. The in-cockpit scenes look great. The Jaeger CGI was also decent (the Jaegers themselves looked great but some of the weapons looked a bit too CGIish). My complaint with it is a minor one that's been raised elsewhere: Every single fight we see is set in night-time rain. While I appreciate the dramatic properties of such weather, is every single day in the Pacific now gripped in storm? Couldn't there be a few more scenes where we can just get a good look at the Jaegers?

The most bad-ass looking Jaeger, unfortunately its only purpose is to get its ass kicked by Kaiju to build dramatic tension.

Speaking of scenes, back to complaining: The whole backstory of Mako was done well, in terms of the emotional content of the scenes. However, I think the several cuts to young Mako were a bit excessive. One slightly longer Mako dream sequence scene would have been enough to tell the whole story and, and the screen time saved could go towards more cool giant robot fight. The whole movie had a bunch of scenes that showed things that were really blindingly obvious by the time they were showed, and it seems they were only included to keep the stupid people interested and ensure a good return (it wasn't particularly bad or damaging to the movie, so if it actually works, I'm okay with it - more good movies should perform better so that they keep getting made).

Pacific Rim isn't too attached to its secondaries, either. I have 2 problems here: First, the Russian Jaeger and the Chinese Jaeger were fucking awesome. Why did they have to be destroyed so quickly, barely having a chance to show off some of their stuff (especially the 4-armed Chinese one!)? Yes, I know, it's more dramatic this way... But I still wish I saw a bit more. Not to mention the death of the characters: It was just glossed over as something insignificant, even though these are elite, irreplaceable pilots and long-time heroes to the people.

I despise people who say "turn off your brain and enjoy it lol", and hold that whole genre in contempt. And I'll admit that Pacific Rim didn't really have anything artistic to it, except in its aesthetics (both the visuals as well as the characters and how the narrative progresses - the backstory is sloppy and lame, but the actual story told by the movie has some elegance to it). Despite that, I enjoyed it a lot. Perhaps the reason is that it wasn't manipulative or pretentious about delivering its dumb action (and didn't promise anything it didn't deliver).

Score: 4/5

1: Having seen the premise beforehand, I thought it seemed badly written, and suspected a "turn off your brain" movie which covers up bad acting with flashy CGI. Idris Elba is also one of my favorite actors, and I was a bit jaded with how Idris Elba's talent was wasted on a boring role in another big-budget recent film, Prometheus.

2: I never understood what this means, exactly. What other dimension? Length? Width? Time? Mass? Why can't sci-fi writers stop using this stupid cliche and just say the portal is a wormhole to another universe (well, technically the word "universe" implies there isn't any other, but anyway), or even better, a distant part of our universe? I gather that the intended meaning is that the "other dimension" is in fact a space accessible by moving from our familiar space along a dimension we are unaware of, but it still sounds silly and technically wormholes would cover this anyway.

3: This is one of the flaws that bothered me a bit. It is never quite explained why it is so hard to assault these large, hulking, lumbering monsters with tanks, airplanes and battleships. One could even devise ways of adapting conventional weapons to cause mainly blunt force trauma, such as artillery firing large, slow, solid metal rounds, helicopters dropping big wrecking balls, low-explosive yield cruise missiles which drive long metal rods into the Kaiju, and so on. We see some fighter airplanes do a fancy strafe of the Kaiju, flying between it's arms, legs, one getting caught in the jaw... This sequence was very annoying. Those airplanes were F-22s or F-35s (I couldn't get a good look, probably F-35 if this is the future). They do not engage with a machine gun. As a rule, jets from the late cold war onwards almost exclusively engage from dozens of kilometers away, with missiles. The GAU-12 cannon carried by some variants of the F-35 has a range of several thousand meters. It is an utterly stupid thing for these VTOL-capable supersonic planes to be flying right into the Kaiju's face to use their cannon (and not also using missiles). Why aren't they sending A-10s or just plain old bombers for a pure ground strike mission with no AA, anyway?

4: Another thing I don't like. Giving the Kaiju toxic blood seems like a great way of justifying giant robot fights, but it creates problems: First, if the blood is so toxic, why don't the Kaiju just cut themselves, and run all over important human areas, spreading their toxic blood everywhere before running back to the portal, to break the logistical capabilities of humanity with chemical warfare? And why isn't fighting them with giant robots just as harmful to the environment (the fights are shown to get very bloody quickly)? Even if the blood is that bad, one could lure the Kaiju into some kind of crater or volcano, and then nuke them; the blood would just stay in the crater.

5: Yet another thing that annoyed me. This is a common fiction trope, but utter bullshit. The brain is not like a toilet that clogs if you try to flush too much stuff in it. It just processes what it can get, and ignores the rest. It is impossible (assuming no neurological diseases) to injure your brain by "overworking it", the most that will happen is you will get a slight headache, and your brain will work so poorly from exhaustion that you'll be forced to rest (or you'll just fall asleep). When you try listening to 10 conversations at once, do you collapse in an epileptic seizure because of "too much information"? No, you just can't follow most of them, and the noise annoys you a little. The movie also portrays this "overload" by having characters lose consciousness with a nose bleed, which implies more of a blood pressure problem than a "brain getting overloaded" problem. Lastly, even if "brain overload" was a real thing, the pilots are asked to simply move their limbs, which the robot detects and copies - something we do all the time, every day. I don't see how you can possibly overload your brain by flailing your limbs around in a harness.

6: First, it's a bit odd that the "load" of a Jaeger just so happens to be too much for one person, but not too much for two people. What a coincidence! It could have been 10 people, or 50, why not? And if a second pilot is all it takes, couldn't you make a simpler Jaeger (maybe with no upper body and just some jet engines instead?) that is safe for 1 pilot? And, if you were going to divvy up the work of controlling a Jaeger between two brains, why divide it with complete symmetry? You could just do what modern tank crews do: One person is commander (and gunner), one person is driver, optionally a third person is a dedicated gunner. The commander could handle Jaeger ranged weapons, talking to command, watching the maps and sensors, keeping track of damage level, devising strategy, while the driver only moves and fights close combat. This would also reduce the burden on each brain, but you wouldn't need any particular synergy between pilots, so it's an open question why this design was not used by the Jaeger project executives.


  1. we still think about you in ghub, yo

  2. What bothered me most what the chest missile. The last Jaeger used it to finish off monsters, so apparently it was the most powerful punch of that model. So here's my question: WHY ON EARTH CANT THEY JUST MOUNT THE MISSILES ON CARRIERS OR SHOOT THEM AS ICBMS DIRECTLY ONTO THE HEAD OF THE KAIJUNS???