Mecha, American style: A Review of “Pacific Rim” (2013)

Pacific_Rim_FilmPoster[1]It is the near future. Humanity was winning a war against huge monsters, called kaiju, which occasionally popped through a rift between universes in the Pacific Ocean. Conventional weapons weren’t cutting it, so naturally they made gigantic anthropomorphic robots, called Jaegers, to fight the kaiju. It’s possible ‘Jaeger’ is a reference to some German who helped design them, but we’re not told the origin of the name. Therefore I’m of the opinion that they are honoring all the Jägermeister they drank while concocting this idea.

We meet most of our primary heroes in the intro, namely Raleigh Becket and his commanding officer, Marshall Stacker Pentecost. Raleigh is having a bad day. His copilot, also his brother, is killed in a fight with a kaiju. The pilots are neurally linked (in the “Drift” in the parlance of the setting) in order to keep them coordinated as they pilot and fight, so Raleigh experiences the death in an intimate manner. Losing a ‘normal’ partner to say nothing of one who is a close relative is hard on, say, a police officer, so this devastates Raleigh who quits the Jaeger program.

The opening credits roll at this point and then we cut to five years after the death.

Things have taken a turn for the worse. The critters started coming with greater frequency and biggie-sized. Handily they use the hurricane scale to rate the aliens so we all have a vague conceptualization of how bad-ass they are. Kaiju of categories one through four have ravaged cities, but no category 5 kaiju yet. Cue the ominous horns in your head.

The Jaeger teams are not faring well and Pacific Rim nation leaders have decided to build huge walls to protect coastal areas. Raleigh is working on one of the construction crews. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by letting you the walls fail. The new, bigger kaijus bash through them in under an hour. So, yup, they will need Raleigh back.

It was interesting to watch Pacific Rim after watching and reviewing After Earth (reviewed here). I say this because all the things that I want a sci-fi movie to do to compensate for ridiculous premises, terrible science, and simplistic plot – which After fails to do – Rim does.

To whit: there’s a lot at stake, the world, and who doesn’t feel good when the world is saved? There are lots of cool things – giant robots, alien monsters, interdimensional travel and mad science. The characters, while simple, are likable. Some are cocky, but they pilot giant robots so this is understandable, and most of them are not so cocky that you hope they die soon to save you from the tedium of their cockiness. Naturally one of them is, but  that too is understandable, as it’s par for the course in this sort of movie. Most importantly, in the end the characters, even the cocky ones, know when to put the greater good ahead of their rivalries and assholery. In other words, you like them despite their flaws.

The movie has a sense of humor about itself and Guillermo manages it well. It needs this humor as a way to offset the ridiculousness of the premise and setting as well as the dark fate of humanity if they fail. There are other ways to offset this of course, but when you are a movie about cool mecha and super science, I think humor is the best way to go. My only ding on this front is that the two geeky scientists are a bit much at times. On the other hand though, Ron Perlman as the big man in the kaiju body part black market was as figuratively gold as the real gold on his snazzy shoes. Well done, movie, well done.

Contrast this with After where the only times the whiny son almost kills himself it is to spite his jerk of a father. The father who spends all his time trapped in the wreckage bereft of any way to usefully self-sacrifice even if anyone thought he might be so inclined. There is no greater good for the jerk characters to focus on just their bickering, so they just keep being tedious and unlikeable. The movie has no sense of humor, no introspection.

What else is good?

The idea that a black market for alien monster bits exists. Hell, what’s a rhino horn to a chunk of monstrous alien claw?

The Drift and the neural intimacy were nice twists. They added an emotional dimension to the teams which made them more sympathetic than simply being high-tech jock fighter pilots. As an aside, the neural linking reminded me a little of Embassytown by China Miéville, where only mentally in-sync individuals (generally twins) can speak a strange alien language.

In the inevitable fist-fight between our hero Raliegh and the cocky pilot, Raleigh wins, thus avoiding some sort of stupid and obvious grudge rematch. This also avoids reminding us of get-beat-up and knocked around and hang from ledges latest incarnation of Captain Kirk.

The baby alien does not imprint on Geiszler. (I am trying to keep this relatively spoiler-free, so you will just have to watch the movie if you want this explained. In the meanwhile, rest assured that had they had the baby imprint on him it would have been lame at best.)

What was silly?

In the first scene where Raleigh and his brother are suiting up, there appears to be a gold fluid in the visors of their helmets that drains away shortly after they put them on. There’s no explanation for this, nor do we see it again. I was baffled.

Titanium is still a magic metal despite not really being any stronger than steel. Its main benefit is that it’s lighter, so you get the same strength for less mass. However, if you are going fisticuffs with giant alien monsters, you probably want more weight, not less. On the other hand, they tote the 2,000 ton-plus robots around with half a dozen, maybe eight helicopters, so I think logical considerations of mass went out the window early on.

The geeks were using blackboards. Come on! They should be using whiteboards at least, preferably with built in scanners and OCR that groks mathematical symbols so they can image and save their work.

Anthropomorphic robots. Why? Why? Why? Walking around on two legs is hard, why make them so unstable? (I mean, I understand why they do this in the movie, so we humans can identify better with the robots, but, really, it’s a terrible choice given the other options.)

The idea that Raleigh’s new, super-mentally compatible partner came from another culture seemed iffy to me. Not having a native language or culture in common is a lot to overcome. Other than that though, I liked the Mako character well enough. She didn’t knock my socks off, but she bore me either.

The pilots sit in the helmets of the robots, not somewhere safer, like in the torso. They need mentally compatible teams that are good at fighting. You would think they would be concerned with keeping them safe. On the other hand, if an American man and a Japanese woman can become mentally compatible enough a couple days after meeting, maybe I’m overthinking this…

For no apparent reason, the Jaeger helmets (with the pilots inside) drop 50 meters (maybe more, the scale of these things is huge) to connect the head. Sure, it looks cool and is a little dramatic I suppose, but hey, is that kind of dangerous and hard on the robots and pilots both?

They tie the alien monsters’ arrival to the climate changes resulting from global warming. This random tidbit tossed out near the end of the movie was entirely superfluous. (And that’s saying something in the context of a film like this!) Plus, hey, this is a giant robots versus huge alien monsters action movie, do not get randomly preachy on us. It spoils the fun.

The Bottom Line

There are some other sillinesses as well as some other cool parts, but I think the above gets the point across. This is a fun movie. It is possible, easy even, to care about the ending as well as the characters. People are heroic, even when they are assholes or annoying gits. One is able to accept the ridiculous and bad parts are part of the genre instead finding them aggravating because the rest of the movie is tedious and stupid. Bottom line: watch it, suspend your disbelief and enjoy it for the candy it is.

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