GUILLERMO DEL TORO'S LOVE LETTER TO THE SUPER ROBOT GENRE
Pacific Rim in a nutshell.
PACIFIC RIM begins with its premise laid out plain and simply; in 2013, a dimensional rift opens in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, from which emerges monstrous Kaiju (Japanese for "giant beast") who proceed to trample and demolish coastal cities. With conventional military unable to effectively dispatch them without horrendous loss of life, the world unites their resources to construct giant humanoid weapons to combat the beasts head first ("To fight monsters, we created monsters"). Called Jaegers (German for "hunter"), each mechanical giant is driven by two mind-linked pilots, chosen for their compatibility and passion to fight together over physical or mental competence. These Jaeger teams soon prove effective in holding off the tide of increasingly frequent Kaiju attacks.
If this sounds like a 70s-era giant robot anime "monster of the week" plot, you have correctly named the inspiration that del Toro and fellow screenwriter Travis Beacham drew for their robot vs monster blockbuster. However, rather than using it as an excuse for a parade of expensive and visually stunning special effects battles (though don't worry, the movie has plenty of those!), they have laser focused on what is often the most overlooked aspect of the genre; the human factor.
FIGHT THE HURRICANE
First and foremost, PACIFIC RIM is a Man vs Nature story writ large, in which Man harnesses the power of science (very soft sci-fi) to overcome Nature in the most visceral and emotionally satisfying way possible; by punching it in the face. This is the drama that drives every Super Robot story, in which the impossibly large, impossibly strong and resilient giant robot provides the brawn, while the passionate, hot-blooded pilots provide the brains and the will to fight against staggering odds.
Had PACIFIC RIM tried to tell this story in a more conventional Hollywood fashion, it would fall flat on its face and be practically unwatchable. But the movie makers know their roots, and thus rather than dancing around the silliness of its premise, they push it completely over the top, becoming almost self-parody at times while keeping events moving at blistering pace; you almost don't have time to catch your breath before the next Jaeger battle, the next pilot confrontation, or the next deal on the streets with a shady as hell blackmarket dealer named Hannibal Chau.
THE DEEPER THE BOND, THE BETTER YOU FIGHT
Key to the movie's premise is the concept of "Drift", the merging of one pilot mind with another enabling them to control their enormous war machine in tandem. This connection favors those with already close relations; twins, triplets, father and son and what not. It's a double-edged sword though; pain felt by one pilot is felt by the other, and a pilot dying while connected can be traumatic for their partner. It's also possible to get caught up in reliving past memories ("chasing the rabbit" as the crew calls it).
The concept of Drift is compelling enough to have warranted more attention, but aside from one scene where trainee Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) is caught reliving the Kaiju attack that killed her parents as a child, there really isn't much done with it. Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) tries to snap her out of it, but is mostly cheerleading from the sidelines. It would have been interesting if he had to actually interact with and reassure the memory of Mako as a child, breaking down the boundaries of what's real and what's a memory. Dealing with and overcoming psychological trauma (and sometimes, not) is a big part of the genre, and I feel the movie could have done much more with these segments.
HOMAGE: OR, CRUEL KAIJU'S THESIS
As a send off to the Japanese Super Robot genre, it's natural that there will be nods towards similar series and films. While many tropes like the enthusiastic but dim-witted protagonist and surly rival pilot are too common to be specific references, many characters, mechanical designs, and situations bare striking resemblences to series like NEON GENESIS EVANGELION and GUNBUSTER (perhaps del Toro and Beacham are Gainax fans?)
Observant viewers may also catch references to western movies like DR. STRANGELOVE and INDEPENDENCE DAY. In the end though, the homages are just that; fun references that sci-fi and anime fans will pick up on, but otherwise do not make the story.
CANCELLING THE APOCALYPSE
PACIFIC RIM starts with the more familiar premise of Godzilla attacking, and then presents us with a worse nightmare; what if it never stops? What if Godzilla keeps coming back, keeps destroying our cities and killing thousands, then millions, then all of humanity? This necessary struggle against the end of the world is what justifies the high-stakes action as pilots are beside themselves with battle rage while wrestling Titanic-sized foes.
The audience is taken along for this ride as well. The audio and visual work is first rate in this film, filled with the grinding wail of steel on carapace, the earth shaking impacts of each overhand fist blow, and at one point, the crushing results of an underwater nuclear explosion displacing the deep sea ocean -- only to have it come crashing back down.
The visuals also sell the giant monsters and robots as real, rather than clearly out of place CGI. Machinery is dirty and worn, pilot suits have paint chips and battle damage from previous engagements, and water pours off Kaiju hide in torrential sheets to emphasize their sheer size. Movement is slow and ponderous, with every movement crumbling buildings and landscapes, while the sudden bursts of speed from the Jaegers are literally rocket-propelled, to emphasize the weight and energy behind the battles.
PACIFIC RIM was a risky venture; it's an action movie with an original screenplay not based off a licensed work, of a very niche interest. It took a love of the genre and its conventions to make this movie a reality, and it shows. Fans of giant robots versus giant monsters will enjoy the high-budget treatment of their fantasy battles, while movie-goers not familiar with the concept will get a very strong impression of what excites the fans about the premise. This is not a movie to wait for DVD/Blu-Ray; see it in theaters (3D or not; I saw the regular version) for the full experience. By the end you too will want to strike a pose in a giant robot, and find nothing strange about it.