PACIFIC RIM 10th Anniversary Retrospective

Looking Back at the Strangest Blockbuster of Them All

Ten years removed from its theatrical release on July 12, 2013, there is still no world in which Pacific Rim belongs.

Begin with the fact that is a truly original blockbuster film, with a budget listed somewhere between $180-$200 million. There’s no source material to cash in on, no larger universe to connect to or build off of. Other, comparable large-scale original sci-fi/fantasy efforts at least boasted proven movie stars as an insurance policy to get audience attention. The summer of 2013 alone saw Tom Cruise in Oblivion, Will Smith in After Earth, and Matt Damon in Elysium. Pacific Rim had no such backing with its ensemble cast of emerging talents, (leads Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi and Idris Elba) character actors, (Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Clifton Collins Jr.) and complete unknowns.

No, the star of the movie is the premise: Giant monsters (kaiju) have become a relentless attacking force against the world, so mankind bands together to create giant freaking mechs (jaegers) to combat them. Cue skyscraper demolition derbies and huge boats being swung like baseball bats.

Ten years ago, Pacific Rim seemed like a wild gamble: A studio risking a fortune on an original concept, a few promising Next Big Things, and, in director Guillermo del Toro, a cultishly adored filmmaker making a massive leap from even his own previous studio projects. At a time when there were already indications that studio heads had lost patience with precious auteurs and their expensive/expansive visions, when film studios were already showing reticence at best, outright terror at worst, of anything not backed by existing, already-popular IP, Pacific Rim was a big expansive/expensive auteur project that needed to generate the highest gross possible to be successful.

Did it work?


Ten years ago, Pacific Rim was a gamble. Today, it can only be described as an anomaly. Its like had never been seen before. It will probably never be seen again.

Pacific Rim was only possible at a cultural moment when geek tastes had achieved full mainstream acceptance. Sure, giant robots and/or giant monsters had been a part of our cultural lexicon for decades before this film, but watching Pacific Rim again recently it is striking how much the movie is steeped in the language of not only classic Japanese kaiju films, but in anime, comics, video games, etc. When Roland Emmerich brought Godzilla to America in the late ‘90s, he framed ‘Zilla through the template of the disaster movie (with a side order of Jurassic Park). This was also the approach adopted by JJ Abrams and Matt Reeves for Cloverfield, and it would be repeated again by Gareth Edwards only one year later with the next, better, effort at an American Godzilla film. In all cases, the strategy was to begin in a realistic world and to treat the incursion of the big scary monster as other films might a volcano going off, or an earthquake striking, or that one movie about twisters. What was that one called? It’ll come to me, don’t worry.

Pacific Rim doesn’t do that. Instead, the script, credited to del Toro and Travis Beacham from a story by Beacham, operates from the assumption that an audience conditioned by years and years of giant monster movies, Power Rangers, anime, manga, comics, other sci-fi films, video games, all that, that we don’t need this stuff carefully parceled out.

In 2013, del Toro could not only expect audiences to keep up, but he could actually sell a movie studio on that being the case. 2013 was just over a decade removed from X-Men and Spider-Man proving that there was a mass audience appetite for superheroes, with or without their iconic costumes. It was also a decade after the likes of Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings demonstrated how fully mainstream theatergoers would submit to expansive fantastical worlds. And it was eight years after Revenge of the Sith seemingly put Star Wars to bed, creating an opening for some other epic sci-fi adventure to capture hearts and minds the world over.

It stands to reason that a studio might look at that landscape and agree to a film that at times feels like the live-action adaptation of a 20-episode anime series that doesn’t actually exist. Hence, you got not only Pacific Rim but those other failed (or at least sharply divisive) attempts at creating new sci-fi/fantasy franchises that I mentioned earlier. Oblivion and Elysium made money but drew an ambivalent audience response and, like Pacific Rim, were so expensive that their tepid box offices can hardly be considered truly successful. After Earth was a disaster that took years for Will Smith to recover from, if he ever even really did.

At the same time that all of these films were struggling, Shane Black made a third Iron Man movie that people (wrongly) didn’t even like that much, and it still cruised to an easy billion dollars. Movies like Man of Steel, Thor: The Dark World, Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and Oz the Great and Powerful also came out in 2013 and were also greeted with something between general dissatisfaction and outright loathing. And yet, all did better, in many cases significantly better, than any of the original films I mentioned. Pacific Rim did better than any of those other originals, and it still lagged behind James fucking Franco and a shitty CGI talking monkey voiced by Zach Braff.

So, in a way, the gamble was correct. Audiences had indeed been primed to fully embrace high fantasy and oddball science fiction, to a degree that seemed impossible even a decade beforehand. But that acceptance was apparently only reliable when associated with brands and properties audiences already knew and trusted. Pacific Rim could only exist in its current form as a result of a specific cultural moment, but part of that same cultural moment was a hostility and wariness to the unknown and the eccentric, condemning the film to No Man’s Land before it ever played in a single theater.

When discussing the legacy of Pacific Rim, part of the conversation has to be the simple, unavoidable fact that plenty of people did show up to support the film in theaters, and just did not like it. Watching the film again ten years later, Pacific Rim’s flaws are part and parcel with its triumphs and no amount of love and admiration can overcome the places where del Toro missteps.

Since its release, the most consistent target for criticism has been Charlie Hunnam’s lead performance as Raleigh Becket. del Toro has long argued that Raleigh is the Luke Skywalker of the film, and as such his simplistic characterization and squeaky-clean earnestness is necessary to holding down the center of the complicated fictional world. Having a blandly heroic figure doing the narrative heavy lifting enables del Toro and Beacham to go as berserk as they want to with the mythology of their world, and with the larger-than-life characters that fill the margins of the story like Day’s gonzo scientist or (especially) Perlman’s swaggering underworld kingpin Hannibal Chau.

You see this same approach used for many a densely packed fantasy property with countless colorful supporting characters and Some White Guy as the actual star (nobody with the last name Stark was ever the most interesting character in any given scene of Game of Thrones). But it never sits particularly well on Hunnam, a good, often excellent, actor who seems crushed beneath the weight of carrying such a huge enterprise, especially when saddled with an unfortunate American accent that swallows up whatever charisma and personality he’s demonstrated numerous times in other projects. He’s far better served in his next collaboration with del Toro: the excellent Crimson Peak, which again casts him as the square-jawed earnest hero, but deploys him as a parody of that character type, one who proves to be a hindrance rather than a help to Peak’s heroine.

The other core problem with Pacific Rim is a bit of structural wonkiness: The movie just peaks too goddamn early. Midway through the film, del Toro stages one of the great sustained pieces of modern blockbuster action with a brawl between multiple kaiju and jaegers. As the various machines and monsters reveal escalating series of hidden powers and weapons, you can feel del Toro and his army of designers and visual effects artists having the time of their lives coming up with bigger/wilder/stranger action beats, their incredible imaginations unleashed by their budget and the most cutting-edge visual effects available.

Without fully embracing the shakycam aesthetic of so many other blockbusters of that era, del Toro makes sure that his digital camera has a tactile, weighted presence. This is spectacle that actually feels spectacular, establishing a visual language for how to capture humongous CGI creations that Edwards would deploy to tremendous acclaim the following year with his Godzilla (want to be clear: not trying to say Edwards ripped del Toro off, since that’s not how production schedules work. It’s just noteworthy).

There are many terrific sequences and moments in the remaining 40 minutes that follow the Hong Kong battle. Idris Elba gives a speech about cancelling the apocalypse, I mean, come on, that shit rules. But the movie downshifting to more long chats of exposition and melodrama is wearying after such a sustained shot of uninhibited gleeful destruction. Not helping that sense of balance is the actual climatic battle, which happens deep underwater. Not only is the setting dark and murky, but it’s so huge and empty that the size of the jaegers and the kaiju barely registers anymore.

Pacific Rim isn’t the only major blockbuster film to peak in Act 2 and then sort of sputter out in the second half. It isn’t even the worst offender, not by a long shot. But if you compare it to the likes of unequivocal original sci-fi hits Inception or Avatar, those are also films that spend a great deal of time inelegantly ladling in pages and pages of blunt-force exposition to explain the rules of their worlds and the personal stakes of the narrative for the protagonists. But once they get done making the audience eat every last scrap of vegetables, those films in their second halves become pure sugar rush, treating the audience to relentless, sustained, ecstatic action and soaring emotional crescendos.

It doesn’t help Pacific Rim that both of its leads, Raleigh and Mako, complete their respective emotional arcs during that mid-film sequence when they successfully overcome their personal traumas and Drift with one another and defeat the kaiju. Once this has been achieved, both Raleigh and Mako become little more than passive observers to a movie they had previously been driving.

This tracks with the themes of Pacific Rim. It is after all a film about how humanity as a collective can overcome any obstacle, rather than a story ‘only’ about two individuals coming to terms with their painful pasts. But, to butcher a line from Inception, emotional catharsis trumps thematic neatness every time, and so resolving both Raleigh and Mako’s arcs with 40 minutes left to go saps Pacific Rim’s final act of the feeling of triumph that it otherwise would have earned.

In the decade since the release of Pacific Rim, American media has only further embraced science fiction and fantasy as the genre(s) of choice for big budget mainstream entertainment. Everyday people can speak at length on the functions of Infinity Stones. A movie about the multiverse just won Best Picture at the Oscars. The big hit show of the year so far was a video game adaptation about depressed people dealing with mushroom zombies. del Toro won multiple Oscars for his movie about the torrid love affair between a mute woman and fish-man during the Cold War. Following the release of Pacific Rim, its studio, Warner Bros., launched “the Monsterverse”, providing a steady stream of movies (and now TV shows) featuring Godzilla and King Kong and the rest of their plus-sized brethren. There is no need to try to come up with new icons when you can just buy some that already exist and trust that folks will show up.

The nerds won.

It kind of sucks.

And even so, even as we’ve achieved geek-overload, there’s still nothing quite like Pacific Rim. Credit that to its sincerity, its optimism, its gorgeous Gothic/anime aesthetic, its massive practical sets married beautifully to CGI creations that still look excellent ten years later, or simply that del Toro loves every character and every creature here, and that love is palpable into every last detail of this imagined world, but Pacific Rim is still totally and completely singular. Maybe it’s as simple as the fact that Guillermo del Toro is a goddamn genius, and so he’s going to wring a whole lot more out of a couple hundred million than the plethora of non-geniuses that typically get entrusted with these things.

It’s easy to imagine that after another decade, we’ll still look back at Pacific Rim and scratch our heads as to how such a thing was ever allowed to be made, much less achieve something even resembling success.

And ten years from now, I probably still won’t know how this could have happened.

But I’ll still be glad that it did.

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