Pacific Rim (2013)
Pacific Rim (2013) reminds us that alien invasions can come from different directions. Conventionally, the pesky beasts load themselves into star ships and fly here. This gives us some time to prepare as our telescopes pick up these large unidentified objects heading in our direction. But, of course, the more advanced aliens can open wormholes and fly between two points in space just by pressing Go. This takes Earth’s defences by surprise and, with such formidable technology to call on, they beat us without waiting to collect the $200 for pressing Go. This film takes the wormhole idea one step further and has an interdimensional door opening in the middle of the Pacific. But instead of the aliens coming through personally, they send through Kaiju, rather large dinosaurs somewhat akin to Godzilla and similar Japanese favorites. They can be beaten using conventional weaponry, but it takes time and while they are being slowly shot to pieces, they do an enormous amount of damage. This seems to be an incredibly stupid way of trying to take over a planet. These aliens have the technology to clone ever larger beasts with great fighting skills. Wy can’t they reverse this process and develop tiny creatures called bacteria or a virus which can be unleashed to kill us all without them having to break sweat (assuming the aliens perspire as opposed to randomly seeping ichor)? From the human perspective, we have a single entry point so submarines with nuclear torpedoes could wait there and kill the beasts as their heads emerge. Polluting the sea is a small price to pay if it saves lives.
At this point, it’s perhaps relevant to mention director Guillermo del Toro’s interest in H P Lovecraft. Cthulu lives and dreams in a city deep under the South Pacific. It’s called R’lyeh. Notice the hero of this film is called Raleigh. We may therefore speculate this is the minions of the Elder Gods softening up Earth before Cthulu wakes up and the other Mythos beings arrive. Appropriately, evidence emerges suggesting the aliens tried this before with the original dinosaurs, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite the right mix and they died out before they could clear out the indigenous lifeforms. Now we’ve had several centuries polluting the place, the atmosphere is just right for the larger scale dinosaurs to return. This time the aliens’ monsters will clear off the vermin, i.e. us, leaving the aliens a great planet to call home.
Knowing conventional weapons will not keep us safe for long, Earth comes together and builds giant robots called Jaegers. The timing of this is interesting. While these monsters are popping up out of the ocean, we can develop the technology and build these robots in a few months. Yeh, right (sarcasm intended). One person interfaces are not strong enough to control these machines. It needs two minds working together. Brothers Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy Becket (Diego Klattenhoff), were never star athletes but they were compatible when slaved together to drive the robotic Jaegers. Two-person teams like them become rock stars. They beat the Kaiju. Life begins to go back to normal. Then a Category 3 Kaiju appears and the game swings back in the aliens’ favour. The brothers are beaten and, while connected, Yancy is killed. This leaves Raleigh psychologically damaged. The Kaiju are adapted and start to win more frequently. The ranks of the Jaeger are thinned. As is required in films like this, Earth’s politicians decide to build walls around the biggest cities. Hilariously, the elite retreat three-hundred miles inland and leave the rest of the plebs in these more exposed places. Not that this will save the leaders-from-behind, of course. But the elite can delude themselves they will live longer than the masses. The remnants of the Jaeger team are sent to Hong Kong with funding for only eight months. Led by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), they turn themselves into a last chance defence of the city, prepared to take on all-comers. The rest of the cities hide behind walls. Unfortunately with nothing between the monsters and each wall, the beasts can just hit it until it comes down. Raleigh Becket is recalled to the front line and teamed up with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). As a pilot, Pentecost rescued her from a Kaiju attack and raised her as his daughter. Now he’s holding her back until the plot requires him to make the adoptive parental sacrifice. The new partnership has to build trust. After an initial misfire, it’s obvious they will be winners. With Idris Elba to do the recycling of the Shakespearean trope, it’s once more into the breach dear friends as, on St Crispian’s Day, the heroes set off to cancel the apocalypse.
OK, so what’s right about this film? Well, some of the CGI is very impressive. There’s a nice attention to detail and a real attempt to give a sense of the mass and momentum of both the monsters and the robots. Unfortunately, that’s all I can say is good. Staying with the CGI for a moment, almost all the scenes are at night and many of the battles are partially obscured by rain or sea water lashed up into the air. I have an interminable list of everything wrong with what we see. Frankly, translating this idea from the far superior anime forerunners like Neon Genesis Evangelion is a robot too far. It’s a problem of perception. When you see these vast machines as anime, it’s easy to suspend disbelief. You don’t have to relate them to real-world physics or metalurgy. You can just sit back and watch the inspirational story of heroism unfold. But the more realistic you make the robots, the more questions you have to answer. Like just what metals go into the manufacture of these machines? And why do they not get bent out of shape or dented every time a Kaiju taps them with a claw? Yes, they get damaged (eventually), but they get thrown all over the place, crash through buildings and even get dropped from a great height. But they just get up, dust themselves down and start fighting again. And they are all atomic powered? What’s the risk of having them fight inside a city? Even if they don’t blow up, damage could spread radioactive fuel and leave the area uninhabitable. No, wait. They fight in the sea so leaks of the fuel just kill all the fish we eat. And how can a couple of helicopters can pick one robot up and drop it into the shallow sea without breaking it? And why is the seabed always flat when the robots go into battle? And later they are like submarines that can swim down to the bottom of the Pacific without the pressure crushing them? And is that supposed to be an oil tanker being carried as a weapon by one of the robots? I don’t think so!
Integral to the plot is Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) not quite named for his appetites, who harvests everything useful from the fallen Kaiju. Killing the beasts is good business for him and the Asian men who pay vast amounts of money for Kaiju parts as aphrodisiacs. Initially the scientist double act is there for light relief. Meet Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) the let-me-talk-to-its-brain guy and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) the math wonk. But later they prove essential. As to the technology on display, the drift or neural bridge is quite an interesting idea. Two minds slaved together — think left and right brain — to control the robot. The question, of course, is how the minds stay focused on the job in hand and avoid becoming immersed in memories or other primal urges. Now back to the scientists. If a human was to mind-meld with a Kaiju, that would be a two-way link — not that the aliens would need to know much about us. In this, the baby Kaiju is an amusing touch with two scientists sharing the load to get the inside dope.
This leaves me disappointed. It might have been possible to craft a good story on this theme of monsters vs. robots, but it certainly didn’t appear on the screen. At 130 minutes, the whole thing just takes too long with the human interaction not strong enough to fill in between the set-piece battles. I suspect even the fanboys are going to find Pacific Rim heavy going.