Pacific Rim is a movie that I experienced the full range of opinions on before I even saw it. From the posters, which showed a giant robot and read “to fight monsters, we created monsters,” my first thought was “this is what’s wrong with society.” Not action movies or sci-fi or monster creation, I just assumed that Pacific Rim would be another CGI mess with no real contributions to dialogue, plot construction or even visual design. Then I started hearing more about Pacific Rim: it’s directed by Guillermo Del Toro, who did Pan’s Labyrinth, and is generally well regarded. Everyone kept saying it was “interesting” in some undefined way. After a month from the initial impression, Pacific Rim was the movie in theaters I most wanted to say. Now, having returned from the breach, I can declare that Pacific Rim is not everything that’s wrong about big budget explosion movies, it’s what’s right about sci-fi. Here’s why:
1. Pacific Rim has fun science concepts that are neither stupid nor hard to understand.
A lot of the drama of Pacific Rim revolves around specific futuristic technologies that don’t exist in our world, but are not hard to grasp conceptually. Everyone has thought about merging minds with someone else. Most people have a basic sense of how genetics work. We’ve seen enough sci-fi to be aware of inter-dimensional gateways. Pacific Rim manages to have fun with those concepts without making the drama about the technology. That’s what good sci-fi does: explores an imagined future scenario in terms of how it would affect who we are as people.
2. You can tell what’s going on in Pacific Rim’s fights scenes.
There’s a recent trend (looking at you most recent Batman movies) of making fight scenes a blur of close shots where it’s impossible to tell what is going on. Guillermo Del Toro’s fight scenes are still big and intense, but not so close that it’s just an audio-visual cacophony of monsters and robots. Pacific Rim reminds you of the days that fight scenes were satisfying.
3. Pacific Rim doesn’t waste the whole mind-meld technology thing.
The concept of mixing minds with someone is inherently interesting, because everyone has thought about it and no one can do it (probably). Pacific Rim uses mind-merging as a way to explore its own characters, as an obstacle in the plot and in another fun way that I won’t reveal.
4. The characters are comic booky, but develop over the course of the movie
Yes, it’s a shame that this is a point in favor of Pacific Rim, but really the overarching point here is that Pacific Rim gets all the basics right. It’s a satisfying sci-fi action movie that doesn’t feel deeply pointless (looking at you Transformers series). A big part of that is how Del Toro deepens and nuances his characters over the course of the movie. They are stock types, but stock types are fine as long as they grow something of a third dimension as the movie goes on.
To put it another way, a few times after a character got introduced, my first thought was, “I know exactly how that guy is going to die.” I was one for three. That’s just to say that Pacific Rim hits all the sci-fi tropes but does more interesting stuff with them than your average Hollywood film.
5. Neither the acting nor the dialogue suck
You don’t go to a robots vs. aliens movie for the dialogue, but bad dialogue and acting can kill any movie. Like I said, the dialogue and characters feel like they hopped out of a comic book, but Pacific Rim found writers and actors who respect their audience. That’s at least half the battle.
6. Ron Perlman!
Ron Perlman shows up in Pacific Rim to inject a little flair. He fits into weird sci-fi the way Ian McKellan fits into fantasy. If you want an awesome old guy who looks like a wizard, you get McKellan. If you want an awesome old guy with a scratchy voice who will be way groovier than anyone else in your movie you get Perlman or Tom Waits.
7. It makes the big screen worth the money.
Everything is more fun on a giant screen, but usually the cost-benefit analysis favors waiting for it to show up on Netflix. Pacific Rim is as good a justification as you’ll get for going big. It’s about enormous robots fighting enormous aliens AND it’s well shot. Guillermo Del Toro knows the difference between good visuals and expensive visuals, so we get the benefit of both.