Mecha Anime, the Movie: Review of Pacific Rim

pacificrimHuh. So apparently, Hollywood is making anime now.

Oh, don’t be fooled. Pacific Rim might look like it’s a live action Hollywood movie, with its Guillermo del Toros and Idris Elbas and Ron Perlmans. But at its heart, it is 100% grade A mecha anime. Add to that a heaping helping of classic kaiju movies and silly summer blockbusters, and it’s a perfect storm of geeky interests.

Yet for some reason, Pacific Rim has not been doing as well as people expected, despite a huge amount of positive word-of-mouth. Is it worth going to see? Is there more to this movie than a love letter to Gundam and Evangelion? Can you really say that much about a movie about giant mechs beating up giant monsters?

 

Cancelling the Apocalypse

In the year 2013, an interdimensional rift appears at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, letting forth a series of gargantuan alien monsters, known as kaiju, that wreak havoc all over the Pacific. To counter the new menace, humanity initially develops the jaegers, giant mechs that can only be controlled safely by two pilots. Through the drift – a merging of memories – the pilots sync with each other and the jaeger, using it to pummel the kaiju into submission. Unfortunately, the kaiju are getting larger and more dangerous, soon beating jaegers faster than they can be manufactured, and the world’s governments pull the funding for the program in favor of walling off the Pacific Ocean. Yes, because THAT’S going to keep the pissed off monsters in line!

Pacific Rim follows the story of Raleigh Becket, a crack jaeger pilot who suffers a traumatizing experience in the line of duty. Five years later, he is called back into action by ex-Marshal Stacker Pentecost, head of the now-unsupported jaeger program, to pilot one of the few remaining jaegers as part of a last-ditch effort to seal the rift. Stacker’s protege, Mako Mori, soon proves herself the best mental and physical match to be his copilot, but her inexperience could cause serious problems in the drift. There’s also a brash, egotistical Australian pilot, a pair of maverick scientists looking to unlock the mystery of the kaiju, a black market kaiju organ dealer, and…

…and as cool as all this is, it’s really window dressing to the heart of the movie: giant mechs beating the crap out of giant monsters.

 

Super Robot Wars

The one thing that comes through clearly with Pacific Rim is this: Guillermo del Toro wants you to know that he really, really, REALLY loves mecha anime. The entire movie is an elaborate Hollywood tribute to shows like Evangelion, Gundam, and Gunbuster, from the pilot syncing to the mech design to Mako screaming, “For my family!” in Japanese while decapitating a kaiju. From the dialogue to the design to the combat, it’s a none-too-subtle nod to the entire history of mecha anime.

Speaking of kaiju, there are certainly a lot of homages to monster movies like Godzilla; indeed, the entire genre is known as “kaiju” movies, thus making the monsters themselves a homage. Of course, there’s more than a little sprinkling of good old Hollywood action cheese on top of the whole thing. The maverick pilot, the military general who serves as father to his men, the geeky scientist, the significant countdown clock, the dramatic moments at mission command, the shots of military personnel cheering and hugging each other after victory… it’s like Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich decided to have some sort of otaku love child.

Between mecha anime, kaiju movies, and basic Hollywood blockbusters, you’d better believe that there are more than a few cliches to go around, and oh GOD, does Pacific Rim have some cliches. Make no mistake, this is not a movie that shocks and wows in terms of original script. Almost every plot point, every story beat, follows the well-worn steps of those that have come before; avid anime or action movie fans can predict exactly what’s going to happen long before the plot gets there. It’s all very broad and, to be honest, a bit on the “dumb” side, with unironic inspirational speeches out of Independence Day (complete with cheering), large plot holes to tumble into, and a host of “quirky” stock characters. In theory, this should be a tedious plod of rehashed themes and cliches.

In actual practice, Pacific Rim is anything but, partly because it embraces those very same tropes with so much joy. At times, it feels almost like parody, but while parody mocks common cliches, Pacific Rim revels in them without any irony at all. The movie is very self-aware of what it is, but it eschews the usual cynicism and hipster sarcasm self-awareness usually generates. Instead, it flings itself onto the tropes with the sloppy, joyful, infectious enthusiasm of a puppy dog. It knows EXACTLY what kind of movie it is (and what kind of anime it is), and it celebrates all the ludicrous, silly beats of its genre with unapologetic glee. Of COURSE the Russians have the big giant brick of a mech! Of COURSE there’s a flashback of Stacker’s jaeger haloed in angelic light! Of COURSE there are stupid one liners! Of COURSE we’re going to have a stirring, cliche-dripping inspirational speech before the final battle! Why wouldn’t we?!

Balancing out the indulgent wallowing in well-worn tropes are some subtle story choices that keep things feeling fresh even as we follow the well-worn plot. For one, although Becket is nominally the main character, the film feels more like an ensemble piece, with a lot of side characters contributing heavily to the plot or having their own character arcs. It also manages to escape the usual “America saves the world” cliche by having a very diverse and international cast; while our “hero” and a few other important characters are American, the rest of the characters are Japanese, Russian, Chinese, Australian, British, and so on. Just a simple choice like this results in the loss of “jingoism” and “rah rah [insert country here]” in exchange for a more powerful theme of human unity, of putting aside differences and cultural/national boundaries to just all throw in together and get stuff done. The victories feel like group efforts, and the mood of the movie, despite all the destruction, is astonishingly hopeful and upbeat. It’s a nice change from all the grimdark stuff.

Pacific Rim also gets props for Mako, who could have easily been just “the chick” or “the love interest,” but instead distinguishes herself as a co-protagonist in her own right. She arguably has more growth than Becket (who’s mostly there to serve her character arc despite being the “hero”), and while she has her vulnerable moments, they manage to be endearing rather than irritating. And while a few scenes do hint at a romantic attraction between the two (hooray for a “Female Gaze” moment of ogling!), it’s deliberately given second place to the growth of their professional and personal friendship. It is clear that they interact on a level of mutual respect and understanding, and it’s a credit to the screenplay and actors that the whole, “wow, our minds merge so seamlessly!” comes off less as TWU WUB and more as an incredibly strong partnership.

But Pacific Rim‘s greatest strength is its absolutely flawless pacing as an action movie. Let’s face it, for all the interesting characters and plot elements, we are here for GIANT ROBOTS, and Pacific Rim knows almost exactly to the millisecond when to get out of the way, wrap up the exposition, and bring in the giant mechs and monsters. It even neatly avoids the common trap of making the movie a jaeger “origin story”; instead of getting bogged down in narratives of R&D, prototypes, rookie protagonists, and set up, we have a couple lines to sum up jaegers, then get straight to it with a veteran hero.  This is the movie Transformers SHOULD have been; five minutes of set-up, then make way for the goddamn robot fights. And oh, what robot fights! The jaeger designs are practical and distinct, while also soaked in the familiar aesthetics of mecha anime. Seriously, look at the Gipsy Danger mech and tell me that’s not something out of Gundam. The kaiju are a bit harder to pin down – they’re dark and sometimes difficult to make out onscreen – but they show twisted parallels to real life creatures (crabs, snapping turtles, sharks, etc) while still being sufficiently alien and threatening. The fights are a joy, a mishmash of wrestling and classic kaiju/mecha mechanics, and again, they never overstay their welcome. Thanks to the expert sandwiching of little bite-sized nuggets of exposition or character development, the whole big dumb wonderful thing goes down like a treat.

Also, there’s a scene where a giant mech uses a freighter as a melee weapon and beats the monster with it. And yes, this is as awesome as it sounds.

See You in the Drift

There are definitely problems with Pacific Rim, including more than a few plot holes (e.g. they build up how only certain people can drift well together, then toss that out with a half-assed explanation in the last ten minutes), but really, it’s secondary. Pacific Rim is not Shakespeare. It doesn’t need to be. It doesn’t even want to be. It’s too busy making sure you’re enjoying yourself while you watch it. While I don’t think it would be on my list of top 10 movies ever, I can say that not only did I willingly watch it two nights in a row, I enjoyed it just as much both times. And I don’t even LIKE mech stuff most of the time.

If there is even a cell in your body that likes mecha anime, you should watch Pacific Rim, no questions, no hesitation; in fact, you should get up off the computer and see it immediately. If you don’t like mecha anime, or even hate it… you should still give it a shot. Despite its slavish devotion to its chosen genre, it still manages to elevate itself above it through sheer force of personality, making its own spot as one of the better examples of mecha action out there. Here’s hoping Hollywood provides us geeks more “live action anime” as good as this.

 

What did you think of Pacific Rim? Liked it? Hated it?

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