It would be convenient to view Pacific Rim as a metaphor for its creator. Having abandoned the job of directing Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, in a widely publicized decision, Guillermo del Toro may have elected to make a simple story, pairing giant aliens versus megaton human-driven bots, as sprint from an “epic” commitment, or a means to playfully vent. For fans of his Pan’s Labyrinth, the departure may lead to such questions, though his Hellboy films aren’t far off. More importantly, Rim is del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham’s shot at the science fiction invasion film, be it a sell-out job or not. It would be the big screen sf-horror invasion of the summer, had Man of Steel not beaten it with a bizarre choice to make the most severe Superman film to date.
In light of the genre, Rim follows most of the rules. Characters exist as types and are hardly remembered after viewing – after all, the beasts (called Kaiju) and bots (Jaegers, built when traditional weapons fail) are the real stars here. And the film regretfully serves the needs of high-octane action fans. The rapid framing and editing of CG aliens and machines plays like scenes in other forgettable cinema attractions. That the aliens come from below, the hokum time-warp explanation of their inter-galatic appearance aside, adds a curious note. While fans will notice the Gojira reference – which del Toro eventually clarifies in a tribute to that film’s famous image of running victims – we have the earth spouting out its own destruction. This angle highlights our own obsession with disaster inherent to this genre, the zombie apocalypse, and in what I call the “character-disaster” film (see my forthcoming essay in Film International 3-4/2013). As destruction emerges from below, all we can do is scramble with technology to stop it.
We guess that the largely boilerplate framework didn’t bother del Toro much. His love is clearly the monsters, with the Jaegers a fun but requisite counterforce to them. Though the Kaiju rise, wail bloody death and destroy, they appear homey, more like Return of the Jedi‘s Rancor (the sad cave beast in Jabba’s lair whose death makes a caretaker cry) than the usual lizard-like beasts from the depths. The Kraken will roam forever as an influence, with its association to the sea’s power and humanity’s submission to it. The Kaiju offer something just as threatening but closer to us.
Del Toro has been open about his lifelong devotion to monsters, a product of a strict Catholic upbringing. His monsters in Rim align to the mythic, via an unlikely (for him!) course: J.R.R. Tolkien. In the famed author’s 1936 lecture “Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien argued that the Anglo-Saxon epic poem’s monsters, Grendel and the dragon, shouldn’t be reduced to realistic metaphors (Grendel substituting for pagan tribes) but as true fantasy figures. In this sense, the monsters remain vivid threats of the imagination and not conflated into shapeshifting cyphers. The dedication, in all its detail, comes through in Rim, in a genre that struggles to imagine the ultimate threat from beyond. The sf invasion film was a natural development in horror of the 1950s, as the atomic age, the space and arms races assured that the monstrous would come from the skies, not a gothic castle. And yet invading aliens are usually forced into metallic frigidity (see Zod’s invasion in Man of Steel), while del Toro’s offer a new life.
The narrative begins in medias res to channel an era of war like the Iliad’s, with voiceover storytelling and characters named Hercules to boot. With solo pilots unable to man the Jaegers, Rim introduces a need for dual pilots who “drift” to unify capabilities: a lackluster attempt to bring this action film into speculative territory. It also adds some camaraderie a la 80’s flight school films and eventually romance (no kidding). The “dual unity” aside, Rim lets its fighters and viewers become larger than life. While Cameron’s Avatar channels the excitement and humility of such an experience, Rim borrows more from Ripley donning robotics to fight the Alien. More broadly, the device grants humans a greater experience, like that of those hearing the tales of great warriors Agamemnon and Hector. For the time, their heroism felt something like 21st-century battlers wearing machinery to triumph.
The genre overflows with imposing aliens that always have an Achilles heel. Some entries combat this ennui, such as Skyline (a true doomsday SF invasion, even if the script suffers in the process) and District 9 (an invasion that’s actually refuse of slaves). Del Toro reworks by having his aliens emerge from the ocean floor, the Earth rising up against us. Like other home-borne threats, blocking the issue won’t help – a protective wall buckles when the Jaegers are deemed a failure. Technology permeates the film, as the Kaiju are identified as versions, contrapuntal to the Jaegers. And it’s hardly a surprise that an early model will carry importance, as in Real Steel, a much derided but diverting robot boxer tale (from the late Richard Matheson’s story, “Steel”). Overall, Rim is del Toro playing it safe but with ease.
Matthew Sorrento teaches film at Rutgers University in Camden, NJ. He is the author of The New American Crime Film (McFarland, 2012) and a contributor to the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Companion to the War Film.