The short answer here is that if you have not seen this movie, get thee to a theater, posthaste1. It’s got giant robots and water monsters beating the hell out of each other. What’s not to like? Alright fine, I get that it’s perhaps not everyone’s thing, but it’s the most fun I’ve had in the theater all year, and it’s one of those movies that really should be seen on the big screen.
The longer answer, of course, is that this is much more than a movie where giant robots and water monsters (in the movie’s parlance, Jaegers and Kaiju respectively) beat the hell out of each other. Well, the monsters are just monsters. Awesome monsters, but clear, unambiguous, villainous monsters. There’s something intelligent behind them, but we don’t get much of a look at them, and we don’t really need to. The monsters are well designed, huge, and destructive enough to raise the stakes of the story. What else would you expect from the likes of Guillermo del Toro, who is famous for this sort of thing…
The Jaegers are also well designed, huge, and awesome, but what’s important about them are the pilots. The story is all about the pilots, which is what puts this ahead of other giant robot movies like Transformers or *ahem* Robot Jox (even though that movie features a giant mech with a chainsaw jutting out from the crotch, for reals). Now, this isn’t a slow character study or anything, but the characters are well drawn and fleshed out enough so that when they do hop in their Jaeger to beat some Kaiju ass, you’re fully invested in what’s going on. To drive a Jaeger, you need two pilots, and they have to be mentally linked together, so what ends up happening is that the pilots need to have a meaningful connection outside of the Jaeger. This means that a lot of pilots end up being related (we see brothers, twins, etc…) and that pairing people up is very important. Naturally, this provides opportunity for all sorts of drama… I even liked the goofy scientists who were researching the Kaiju, played by Charlie Day (who is basically playing Charlie from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia if Charlie existed in a world with giant sea monsters) and Burn Gorman, who don’t get a ton of screen time, but provide some comic relief.
The story begins with a bit of exposition, which usually induces groans in an audience, but this was actually a pretty fantastic way to establish the world the story takes place in. Indeed, most movies would linger on the destruction of, for instance, the first Kaiju that appears in San Francisco. Here, we get a glimpse of the giant sea creature destroying the Golden Gate Bridge, but then we move on to explain how the monsters kept coming at regular intervals, and how humanity pulls together to build giant Jaeger robots to defend themslves… only to be overrun by the ever growing tide of Kaiju, who are getting bigger and bigger and appearing more and more often.
It gives the world a terrifically lived-in quality that you don’t normally get in big summer action blockbusters. The world has clearly changed because of this stuff and it didn’t happen overnight, the way it seems to in other big action movies. For instance, when all those buildings are getting demolished in Man of Steel, everyone wonders what is happening to all the people in those buildings. In Pacific Rim, you kinda assume that a lot of that stuff has been evacuated. Heck, they’ve built their cities around the bones of fallen Kaiju, establishing Kaiju shelters and whatnot.
The production design is utterly superb. The Jaegers are huge and awesome machines, but they’ve all got their share of scrapes and scratches and flaking paint. Even the suits the pilots wear have that well-worn character. These aren’t shiny, gleaming machines covered with Abrams-like lens flares, they’re weapons that have seen a lot of use.
It might seem silly to say, but everything in the movie is named well, starting with just “Jaeger” (which is German for “Hunter”) and Kaiju (which is Japanese for “strange beast” or “monster” and also refers to a sub-genre of movies popular in Japan, typified by Godzilla), but they also have various classification systems and names. The main Jaeger base is called “The Shatterdome” which is just all kinds of awesome. Cherno Alpha is a Russian Mark-1 Jaeger piloted by a husband/wife team. Crimson Typhoon is a Mark-4 Jaeger piloted by triplets. It has three arms, which allows them to utilize something called the “Thundercloud Formation”. I don’t really know what that means, but it’s awesome anyway. Striker Eureka is an Australian Mark-5 Jaeger piloted by a father/son team that we actually get to know reasonably well in the movie. And finally, Gipsy Danger is an American Mark-3 Jaeger, originally piloted by brothers, one of whom dies. The remaining brother is basically the main character in the movie, and they spend a fair amount of time getting him back in the cockpit with a new co-pilot. The Kaiju also have names and categorizations, and are basically treated like Hurricanes. We actually don’t hear their names that often in the movie, but their categories are an immediate indication of how much trouble our heros are in.
The action is well staged, clear, and since you care about the characters, it’s very engaging. It’s funny, but the Jaegers are actually relatively slow. Their movements have a certain gravity to them that actually makes a lot of sense, even if this isn’t a movie that you’d ever want to nitpick.
All of which is to say, if I was 12 years old when this came out, I’d be all over this stuff. I have to imagine that kids will fall in love with this movie, creating their own Jaeger names and fighting Kaiju of their own design(“That would make a great Jaeger name” will be the new “That would make a great band name”). On the other hand, this hasn’t quite done the blockbuster business I was hoping for. It’s made lots of money, I guess, but it’s a movie that screams for a sequel (though they weren’t so presumptuous as to set up a sequel in the movie itself, which is a good thing) and I think it’s going to have to do better than it is right now in order to make that happen. Not sure why people aren’t flocking to this right now. Perhaps people got worn out by early summer blockbusters and are sick of big explosions and whatnot. I guess there’s a possibility that it will have long legs, and I’m sure it will do gangbusters on video, but if you haven’t seen this yet, please do.
So overall, it’s an amazingly fun movie. Sure, you could probably nitpick it to death, but what are you, a monster? (Er, kaiju?) This movie is just so joyous that none of that stuff matters. It’s certainly derivative, but in a loving way, and that love really shines through in the final product. The worst thing I can say about this movie is that I wanted more of it. I wanted to see more of Cherno Alpha and Crimson Typhoon kicking ass. I wanted to know more about the monsters. I didn’t necessarily need that and yeah, I know, be careful what you wish for, but this movie has excellent worldbuilding. Again, it’s a ton of fun, and you should totally go see it on the big screen.
1 – In spellchecking via google for this, I learn that “posthaste” is derived from the historical notion that postal carriers traveled quickly, by horse and whatnot. This doesn’t quite capture how quickly I think you should go out and see this movie. You should probably use a horseless carriage, at least.
Update: Ohmygod, 4th String Jaegers is amazing (favorites are Whiskey Ginger (Ireland’s Jaeger) and Lady Parts (a pink Jaeger)). See also, Radio Free Echo Rift review, the Jeff Rubin Show review, and the /Filmcast review.