Pacific Rim is a work of art

Over the weekend I went with some fellow graduate students to see Pacific Rim. It’s not a particularly complicated movie, there are some gaping plot holes, the technobabble reaches facepalm levels and it fails the Bechdel Test. All that being said, Pacific rim was one of the most enjoyable science fiction movies I’ve seen in a long, long time. It’s much better than the current crop of superhero flicks (with possible exception of The Avengers and the Batman movies) and the last movie I liked this much was probably District Nine.

So why do I like this movie so much? It’s hard to put my finger on it, exactly. The concept is simple, but interesting: giant monsters rise out of the depths of the Pacific Ocean and humanity assembles giant robots piloted via a neural link. Crucially, these machines must be piloted by two pilots at time, leading to interesting character interactions who share the neural link. Over time, humanity grows complacent, the robot program gets scrapped and the defenses are left to rot until finally the apocalypse is nigh and only a handful of fighters stand between us and oblivion. Not the most novel premise in existence, but the magic is in the details.

The characters are at once both larger than life and fatally flawed. The imagery is classic Guillermo del Toro: beautifully detailed while being rough and gritty resulting in something that is clearly imaginary while being strangely believable. The giant robots have been neglected for years: they’re banged up, dented, rusty, constantly being repaired (think more Matrix Revolutions and less Oblivion). The last line of defense is a small, cramped base in Hong Kong. Everyone lives in cramped, mostly dirty conditions. This is not humanity’s finest hour. And with that as the background, humanity’s last line of defense is provocatively international: American, Russian, German, Australian, Chinese, Japanese and more. At the end of the day, scientists and engineers prove to be just as important as the gunslingers and military commanders. A smuggler and gangster helps put in place a core piece of the puzzle. Families are broken, important characters fall and fathers live to see their sons die. Accept the premise and forgive the technological stumblings and the movie is oddly human in comparison to your standard sci-fi flick.

And then there are the fight scenes. They are, to say the least, interesting. Though we see giant robots battling sea monsters, the battles are more martial arts than technological warfare. It’s as much about the pilots in the machines as it as about the machines themselves. Through it all, the anime influence is clear. The robots, termed Jaegers, are equipped with plasma cannons and missiles as well as swords and spinning blades. The camera angles are often imperfect and the lens is often wet or scratched. Crazy? Yes. Fun to watch? Absolutely.

In many ways,  Pacific Rim stands out because of what it is not. It’s not your run-of-the-mill action hero story, the characters and actors aren’t well known and hence open to both interpretation and evolution. You know there’s going to be an epic battle at the end, but there’s enough unknown in between to keep you from getting bored. It bears more in common with an old western than a modern superhero or scifi movie. It’s a reminder that people are still capable of coming up with an original screenplay that’s good and worth watching.

Should you go watch it? Absolutely. If you’re a scifi buff, keep in mind that it take the word “science” very liberally and definitely doesn’t take itself very seriously. If you’re not, then don’t worry, the science isn’t really a key part of the movie. The characters, their histories and interactions carry as much as the action sequences. Pacific Rim definitely takes it to my list of science fiction that I’ll recommend to people looking for something new.

(PS. If you’re interested in getting some insight in what went into the movie, this interview with Guillermo del Toro is definitely worth reading).

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