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Blockbusters Should Strive to Be as Bold as ‘Pacific Rim’

By Allyson Johnson | Film | July 13, 2023 |

By Allyson Johnson | Film | July 13, 2023 |


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Released ten years ago, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is a marvel. The film eschews the norm for blockbuster filmmaking, embracing a level of vibrancy that makes the cement colors of Man of Steel — released the same year — appear dull in comparison. The original screenplay from Del Toro and Travis Beacham displays a clear reverence for its inspirations, drawing from classic kaiju stories, and mecha anime such as the classic Mobile Suit Gundam, Gainax’s Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Gurren Lagann. Bold, brash, and vibrating with a clear, joyous passion for the story it’s telling, Pacific Rim may not be Del Toro’s masterpiece (though ask me after a few drinks, and I might argue so), but it’s possibly the best blockbuster of the past decade.

The film’s plot, set up by an early voice-over from Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh, is simple by design. He explains the state of the world and how, through an interdimensional portal dubbed “the Breach,” massive alien monsters referred to as “Kaiju” have emerged, causing immense, catastrophic damage across coastal cities. In response, humanity comes together for the first time to face a common threat, building massive robots called Jaegers, which require co-pilots who share mental links in order to operate. We meet our characters on the precipice of the annihilation brought about by these increasingly active and dangerous creatures.

The world and its rules establish themselves with determined swiftness. The script by Del Toro and Beacham understands that a strong blockbuster event refuses to relent; the speed at which we get to the main action and heart of the film is integral to our enjoyment.

A major part of why Pacific Rim is a valid selection for the best blockbuster of the decade, in comparison to something like a Marvel movie (even the really good ones like Endgame), is an execution of a tone that Marvel only aspires to. With its bold color palette, declarative anime one-liners (typically spoken by Hunnam), and the sheer scale and volume of the world, the film creates a playful, yet expertly handled, ambiance. Its playfulness, derived from visuals — from a Jaeger dragging a ship into view to use as a battering ram against a kaiju, to a beat later where the kaiju’s face ripples from the impact in slow motion — contrasts with superhero movies which are over-reliant on quips and a density of pop culture references for humor, instead of focusing on creating engaging sequences through spirited direction.

Del Toro’s direction and respect for craftsmanship create an all-engrossing film. There’s scale to every scene, with Jaegers’ footsteps shaking city foundations, and clearly marked bunkers for civilians to evacuate to. Entrails and beating pieces of the kaiju heart are constructed with depth and weight. The production design understands the necessity to build a tangible place for these monsters to wreak havoc and for us to feel it. Consider how often we get shots of the monsters from ground level — an element that’s crucial yet missing in so many modern blockbusters.

The film’s vibrancy is evident in the designs of the kaiju and the Jaegers. Each individual monster is given its own shape, characteristics, and identifiers, while lights decorate the giant mechs that face off with the destructive aliens.

Performances might be a point of contention. Only a few are above average, with Hunnam not entirely in his element when dialogue is involved. However, there will be no Raleigh slander here. His character, who spends most of the film supporting Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), arguing on her behalf, and adoringly praising her bravery, is a delight. Despite his limited acting range and chemistry with Kikuchi, Raleigh becomes the perfect male hero. Kikuchi’s performance isn’t her finest, but both characters are structured archetypes that orbit each other and allow for the bombastic world to be built around them.

The strongest performances — by Charlie Day and Del Toro regular Ron Perlman — demonstrate the benefits of taking risks in casting and incorporating character actors.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a likely contender in this argument, and deservedly so. It’s a brilliant, heart-shredding film. But that movie is stressful. Pacific Rim, on the other hand, is never without tension but maintains an optimism that energizes the story and keeps it light on its feet. Despite the looming gravity of the situation and the ever-growing worldwide threat, it never touches the anxiety-inducing chaos that is “Fury Road.” Pacific Rim provides viewers an escape.

The film’s hokey nature can be divisive, especially for those who prefer their blockbusters laced with self-seriousness. However, if you can embrace the level of camp and theatricality of the film, the enjoyment multiplies. The film isn’t trying to be grounded in reality or press any overlying message onto us. Its main objective is original, engrossing entertainment, honoring the narrative’s inspiration. Watching the fight scene in Hong Kong, as the score by Ramin Djawadi swells, and as Raleigh and Mako’s Jaeger brandishes a sword in its final, last-ditch efforts, it’s impossible not to be caught up in the action.

Pacific Rim is a blast. It eschews the fleeting fun often found in blockbusters, choosing instead to deliver memorable moments that stick with you long after the film ends. The film is a work of passion and inspiration from a director who wears his many influences on his sleeves. It remains a thrilling ride ten years later, not because it changed the game, but because few directors seemed to learn from it. Pacific Rim operates with a constant thrum of excitement at simply existing — there’s clear, tangible joy in the craftsmanship and direction of this film. In the modern era of blockbuster filmmaking, this sense of joy is often missing, replaced by a machine-like production focused solely on revenue generation. Pacific Rim was a film that inspired joy with an original premise, from a director known for making films he is passionate about. It’s this enthusiasm that’s missing in many of today’s blockbusters.