Guillermo del Toro plays with robots and monsters on a large scale
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
There’s a lot more than meets the eye in Guillermo del Toro’s robot-monster mash-up “Pacific Rim.” We’re told from the start in voiceover narration from protagonist Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) the threat mankind always assumed would come from outer space has, in fact, arrived from the oceans. Aliens have developed breaches – extra-dimensional portals allowing skyscraper-sized monsters to emerge and attack coastal areas. Thanks to conventional weaponry, humans fought off the initial onslaught – which was limited to a single creature at a time – but the toll was heavy. Massive loss of life, cities devastated, we needed better means of defending ourselves from this enemy, dubbed the Kaiju.
The response came in the form of the Jaeger program, a united global initiative that led to the production of robotic warriors with humans piloting from inside. To effectively send these new age combatants into the field required two-person teams linked through a mind-melding process that allows them to share a central nervous system, but more intimately, thoughts and memories. That’s a heady notion to throw into the mix in a rock ‘em, sock ‘em action adventure.
This idea and its execution speaks to a speculative nature that has been on display recently in films like “Another Earth” and “Sound of My Voice,” (I would include both of Shane Carruth’s films – “Primer” and “Upstream Color” – along with Steven Soderbergh’s “Solaris” in this discussion as well) films from the smaller, more independent realm where such musings can add flavor without a significant uptick in the budget. Soderbergh’s “Solaris” is a slightly different example, since he had backing from a studio and the presence of a star like George Clooney, but the soul of that story and the others I mentioned gains substance from the exploration of human connection in the face of situations beyond the ordinary.
“Pacific Rim” traffics in the clash and bash of metal and alien flesh, the images of our robotic creations clubbing the Kaiju with whatever happens to be lying around – in one scene, that would be a hopefully empty boat in the ocean. The simple and obvious comparison is to Michael Bay’s “Transformers” franchise, but del Toro operates in rarified air. His frames are infused with myth and the fantastic, not just the data-driven 0s and 1s generated inside computer hard drives. Working from inside the worlds he imagines means that del Toro understands the scale and scope and wants the audience to see these elements in play. So the battles between Kaiju and Jaeger – and there are many of them – are never reduced to blurs and whistles. We see details, all of the dings and dents on the robots, the ripped and ravaged alien flesh that we learn gets harvested and sold on the black market by men like Hannibal Chau (del Toro mainstay Ron Perlman in a tasty, hammy minor role).
But lurking around the fringe, the speculative philosophy tickles and teases the sensibilities of the true geeks. We want to see more of these links between the human pilots, many of whom are portrayed as family members – for instance, at first Raleigh partners with his older brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) before settling in with the haunted young program leader Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) who is secretly tied to General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). There’s a melodramatic tension simmering throughout that rarely takes center stage in the proceedings, but that was what I longed for. I wanted more, much more of the human drama where the stakes are high. That’s what true survival is all about.
Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at Film@DaytonCityPaper.com