I mustn't run away, I mustn't run away
There can be no doubt that Guillermo Del Toro is a huge fan of Neon Genesis Evangelion. His latest epic (and they keep getting more and more epic for this director, though he oscillates between those and smaller features) draws broadly and heavily from the anime classic. Let's not mince words: it's a straight-up love letter. Where many homages turn into something less than the thing they were inspired by, Pacific Rim manages to walk the rope with skill - until it eventually plummets off.
Instead of plowing through an hour of setup where we experience the first kaiju attack (big monsters erupting from an oceanic rift) and witness how the jaegers (huge, humanoid machines built by the combined nations of the world) are constructed, this is all glossed over in a snappy and effective blast-off montage. Here's another detail that might slip by: the way the movie mixes Japanese and German is typical for a specific brand of anime from the 90s.
Smart is how Pacific Rim builds up its own mech lore by forcing two pilots into the jaegers, who have to mind-meld to control the giant. Straight out of Evangelion is their 'level of synchronicity', not to mention the various interfaces in the hilariously named 'shatterdome' command headquarters. Let's get Tina Turner to make that into a song. The decision to include the inimitable voice of GlaDOS (Ellen McLain) from the Portal games is a fun wink, though understandably underused. A single caustic remark would've been enough to complete the reference, but head the film into schtick territory. I could list a ton of references and fun things Pacific Rim gets oh so right, fortunately (Giant Robo, anyone?), but suffice it to say the movie shines as the aforementioned love letter.
The dumbness arrives in some of the narrative choices and pitfalls occurring later in the film. I don't mind the exaggerated dialogue and simple character development. It's part of the gloss that belongs to an environment where food may be rationed and humanity is at the brink of disaster, yet characters still find the time to dye their bangs to cutesy blue perfection. Rather, it's the way the world functions. For all its impeccable detail and granularity (I imagine there would indeed rise a black market selling the remainders of fallen kaiju), it makes of a lot of the people seem really dumb. Why do the jaeger pilots employ no strategy at all? Throughout every single fight, their tactic is to stand still and wait for the enemy to hit, then somehow recoil and engage in giant, nuclear-powered fisticuffs. Halfway through the movie one of them draws an overpowered chainsword and starts hacking through monster limbs. I'm not one to shout, but why the hell didn't they do that earlier, or all the time? This is Power Rangers logic, where the best attacks are saved for last for entirely inscrutable reasons.
Then there's the disappointing lack of further developments. After setting up a characteristic premise and promising characters (notably two comic relief scientists and a marshall named Stacker Pentecost), Pacific Rim leaves it at that. The first half is full of discovery, the second sputters to a halt. Another examination of Evangelion is instructive here: that show delivered surprise after surprise. The mechas were not what they seemed, and at the end the anime turned out not to be about the battle between giants at all, but the troubled personalities of their pilots. Those fulfilling developments remain absent here, with the movie content to be 'just' about the big machines, who are in the end merely machines, and their pilots simply brave soldiers doing their best. Shying away from any complexity, it turns into Independence Day. The lead pilot, by the way, is a tremendous bore. That doesn't help.
By its own admission, Pacific Rim is a kid's movie. That's what Del Toro was going for. Exhausted by the modern, cynical take on superheroes and action flicks, he wanted to make something that exuded the wonder and fun of old kaiju films (Godzilla and its ilk). Rampant destruction without a care in the world, cities leveled without nasty, real world ramifications. I appreciate the sentiment, but can't help but notice it hamstrings the film. A little more depth, a little more genuine, grown-up drama (without necessarily becoming cynical!) would've really done wonders here.
Now we have a finale that is a predictable, dull, happy affair. Any opportunity for psychological complexity is left untouched, out of fear to make it too dark and brooding. What remains is just not very interesting for the adult viewer. The mechas and battle suits are splendidly designed and your eyes won't want for anything. Visually nothing short of amazing, Pacific Rim stumbles on making any of it meaningful or transformative. It's all incredibly fun, but Del Toro's choices for this passion project prevent it from truly making a mark.