So, there’s a big hole at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean created by some extra-dimensional (possibly extra-terrestrial) beings that have started sending huge skyscraper sized monsters dubbed Kaiju (literal translation ‘strange creature’ or ‘monster) Since it takes several days and enough armaments to end a small country to stop a small one in its tracks mankind decides to get its shit together and begins building giant robots named Jaegers (German for ‘hunter’) in order to properly fight the new menace. Piloting a gigantic robot isn’t easy, the controls are wired directly in to the human brain in order to optimise reaction times, it’s too much for one human brain however so two mentally and emotionally synchronised pilots are needed to avoid having their brains melted by the control system. It works at first as well, except the Kaiju is not some mindless force of nature as first suspected, they have a purpose and a goal and with each attack begin to shop the capabilities to adapt to combat the Humans tactics.
If it all sounds a little preposterous…. Well I don’t blame you. You might be familiar with the genre of film called Kaiju Eiga (literally ‘monster movie’) Godzilla of course is its most famous example, though the Americans got there first with King Kong in 1933, some 21 years earlier than the Japanese film. Godzilla certainly owed a great deal to Kong, the Japanese had turned out a silent knock-off back in 33’ called Wasei Kingu Kongu produced by the Japanese distributor of Kong.
Ironically the film is now considered lost due to the Atomic Bombings of world-war 2. Ironic because Godzilla was a parable about the horrors of Atomic warfare produced by a country that had seen the effects of the bomb close up. Godzilla was meant to represent the Atomic Bomb, created by Atomic energy he was an uncontrollable and unstoppable destructive force created by science that left death and destruction in its wake. Lots of sequels followed (including one where Godzilla actually got to fight Kong!) and the big reptile became a national institution. In fact he also became more the misunderstood monster and even at points a good guy as his popularity grew. The films were even popular in the west, the original was re-edited for the American markets and new scenes were added featuring Raymond Burr as a US Army captain in order to appeal more to the American audiences.
The director of Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro is definitely one of the many fans who grew up watching the films. A large portion of filmmakers and Fans caught the film on one of its many TV screenings over the years and the monsters look to be a product of someone who is a definite Kaiju Eiga fan. I’ve been a fan of Del Toro’s films for a long while now; he has a real gift for films with interesting and unique creature designs and ideas. In fact he started out working on effects in his native Mexico and has a real fondness for them. His first film Cronos was about a clockwork device created by an alchemist that could turn people into vampires. In spite of its low budget it marked him as a director to watch and still has some of the most interesting ideas to be found in any Vampire film.
As big an influence as monster movies were to Pacific Rim, the other big influence on the style of the film was the Mecha, or giant robot genre that is most popular in Japanese animated shows called Anime by its fans. Animation is viewed slightly differently in Japan, in the west it’s been mainly seen as a format for children’s light entertainment, to the east it’s a way of telling stories that could not be achieved in live action due to budgetary constraints. There are many types of robots that feature in these shows from the outlandish and unrealistic like Gravion and Mazinger Z where several craft can combine to form one giant Robot, while others like the famous Gundam series and Patlabor attempt to present them more realistically. While some plots differ (Gundam and Patlabor most notably) the structure of the shows matches the structure of Pacific Rim quite a lot. Every week a new enemy would appear and the mecha team’s tactics would need revising to match this new threat. Occasionally major characters would die or the super robot would get destroyed and all would look lost before eventually they would pull things together, a new team member would join or a new even better robot would appear and evil could be defeated. While in Anime shows this format would in some cases grow ever more esoteric Pacific Rim keeps things nice and simple. Del Toro is all too aware he only has two hours to get this story told and he fits it all in….just. The plot does feel a little crammed in, and some peripheral characters seem to be there just to exist as cannon fodder but then there’s only so much story you can tell in two hours.
You don’t NEED to know any of this to enjoy the film. It’s not high art, and if watching someone play chess is more your thing The seventh seal is pretty cheap these days (though Bill and Ted’s Bogus journey is cheaper) Pacific Rim is, however, a fun film and if you are a fan of Japanese monster movies and giant robots (like I am) it’s even more so. In a market that seems increasingly full to the brim of stupid, lowest common denominator remakes and shoddy sequels it’s a breath of fresh air whatever the case.
Interestingly Guillermo Del Toro still wants to adapt H.P Lovecraft’s At the mountains of madness to the big screen and I’m hoping this is a big enough hit that he’ll be able to make it some day.