I grew up on the cheesier end of the Shōwa-era Godzilla films (when Godzilla became more of a hero than an unstoppable force of nature), taping them when they appeared at unearthly hours of the night on Channel 4. They gave voice to a love of giant monsters fighting each other that had been present since Star Wars‘ AT-ATs, but these films haven’t appeared on terrestrial TV for ages and I’m starting to pine for them again (not to mention all the ones I have never seen, like the very original).
Hollywood hasn’t done particularly well in filling in the gaps. What was the last blockbuster monster movie — Cloverfield? That was a bit of a mess (but I never liked shakycam anyway). 1998’s Godzilla? No, he was a cheap knock-off (Jean Reno notwithstanding).
On the face of it, then, Pacific Rim seems like what I’ve been waiting for. Not only does it have giant monsters, but it has giant monsters and giant robots. Directed by Guillermo del Pan’s Labyrinth Toro and starring BBC crime drama darling Idris Elba, it sounded almost too good to be true.
But ahhhhhh yes, it was true and it was good.
Of course it begins with a giant robot fighting a giant monster. Much like the film’s plucky pilots, it pulls a whole load of fast punches to get the build-up out of the way and the action rolled in. Monsters invaded, we built giant robots to fight them (because what else would we do?), bigger monsters invaded, and so on. Then an actual monster battle. And that’s just the pre-title sequence — fast-forward years of furious but unseen monster-fighting and the actual film roars into gear.
I never thought I’d say this about anything, but the Australian jaeger Striker Eureka was definitely the coolest. Slightly anime-esque in its design, with the back-fins and stuff (not that I’ve ever actually watched a Japanese mech-anime), the “fastest jaeger ever” sadly spent most of its time in the shadow of the more conservative (and more than a little Bayformers-style) Gipsy Danger of the protagonist.
The Russian Mk. I Cherno Alpha was amusing but seemed slightly too top-heavy to be a plausible design, while the Chinese Crimson Typhoon had three arms and we all know what I’m like about symmetry. The Crimson Typhoon did look like it had a fabled face-laser, but sadly never unleashed such a weapon.
The thing that bugged me most about Cloverfield (apart from the entire film), was that when they finally revealed the monster and gave you a good long look at it, it didn’t look like it could stand up to the punishment it recieved. It didn’t look particularly powerful, and it had two big flappy breathing sacs that surely would have been easy for all those missiles to puncture.
The monsters of Pacific Rim have no such flaws. Following in the grand tradition of ancient Godzilla villains, they have knives for faces and obviously thick hide. Glowing eyes and veins provide reference points on these multi-limbed collossi (as their bodies are rarely seen in full) and they are satisfyingly hard to kill — but also not impossible to kill, each showing enough vulnerabilities to make them convincing enemies rather than being armed with irrational comic-book invulnerablility or resurrection. Giant swords make plenty of deep gashes, and when all else fails, punching them to death turns out to be an equally viable (and far more satisfying) strategy.
Brawling on a massive scale is a difficult thing to get right. The old Godzilla films kept the shots nice and wide so you had perfect visibility of every cheesy victory dance, while Transfromers II: Revenge of the Sith kept the camera so tight and motion-blurred that you could discern absolutely nothing.
Pacific Rim strikes a reasonable balance, coming in tight enough to give a sense of incredible scale without devolving into an unreadable mess of thrashing limbs. Even so, as a lot of the action takes place at night and/or in lashing rain you really do need all those headlights and luminescent bits to get a handle on what’s happening. A few more daytime shots and a few less fast cuts would have gone down nicely to get a really clear picture of what these monsters look like (because the designs are mostly very nice and we want more of that).
In terms of actual action, though — whew! Punching, swords, missiles, acid spew, grappling and body-slamming are all out in force, with a few improvised weapons to top it off for additional chuckles. Collossal splashes of glowing blood give plenty of gore for your money too.
The Human Element
I guess we do have to talk about the human element; you can’t really have a monster movie without one (or else the monsters may as well be human-sized). The romance subplot is cutely done but never overshadows the giant fucking monsters are invading main plot. The plucky hero has to gain the respect of a plucky anti-hero, Idris Elba gives a rousing speech… A few rushed bits of exposition seemed unnecessary and it is all beautifully hand-wavy, but it goes down quickly and gives all the framework necessary for giant robots punching giant monsters to death.
Otherwise, two daft scientists provide some comic relief to offset the horrendous destruction and implicit collateral massacres of thousands of people.
The tin… it does exactly what it says on it. Giant monsters? Check. Giant robots? Check. Slightly cheesy but mostly unintrusive pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumnbo to justify the action? Check.
Works for me!