Pacific Rim (2013)

Do NOT watch this movie… on a plane. The real value is in seeing the amazing CGI fights, which somehow never devolve into loud, meaningless smashing. They’re—well, they’re colorful, for Pete’s sake. It’s no fun to watch on a screen six inches wide, but it’s joyous when you can see what’s happening! I enjoyed my second viewing much more than I expected to, thanks to the top-notch execution by Industrial Light and Magic of the stunningly detailed artistic vision of Guillermo del Toro.

Okay, so you’re not a fan of monster movies? Me neither, but this one does some magnificent worldbuilding. The prologue of Pacific Rim has its own prologue, strangely enough, and it was way less dull than at least two others I can think of. Perhaps us Westerners wouldn’t be able to stomach a movie that just started smack in the middle of a war with aliens, where giant military mind-melding machines are the new norm. Huge robots are par for the course for the mecha sub-genre of science fiction (cf Rahxephon), but they aren’t exactly Hollywood staples. This movie did well enough (on the strength of ticket sales in China and Japan) to spawn a sequel, coming to theaters next year.

Although I enjoyed the movie, it wasn’t what I’m used to, so it was hard to evaluate. The first time I watched it, I was confused by the story, either because I was stuck in an airplane watching on a tiny screen and started falling asleep, or because the plot was so straightforward I thought I must have been missing something. I kept expecting twists and turns that never materialized.

I felt better about the movie after I watched a couple of the featurettes included in this Blu-Ray package. The director explained that he wanted to tell a simple story about heroism using character types drawn in simple outlines. He didn’t want a lot of plot or expositiony dialog, he wanted realistic action coded with thematically appropriate colors. I’d say he got what he wanted.

Want to know more about the plot? Simple as it is, it was built pretty well. See below for a summary with SPOILERS in the form of a beat sheet in the style described in Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat.

My beat sheet for Pacific Rim

Opening Image
Stars in the sky: it turns out that’s not where the aliens actually arrive from!

Prologue to the Prologue
An alien came through a portal or “breach” under the ocean and killed a lot of people (ruining the iconic and perpetually vulnerable Golden Gate Bridge, of course). After the fourth attack by individual monsters or “kaiju” from the same portal, humans started to get really good at fighting them with giant mechas called Jaegers, piloted by teams of two. But the kaiju kept coming.

Two brothers fought a kaiju in Alaska; the older one died, and the younger one, hurt mentally by the experience more than physically, quit the Jaeger program and disappeared.

Humans got overconfident. They started losing battles. World leaders decided to build a bunch of walls instead of more fighter robots, and stopped funding the Jaeger program.

The kaiju break straight through the “unbreachable” wall in Australia. The head of the program therefore goes to Alaska to recruit the surviving brother, who in exchange for meager rations has been helping build the supposedly protective wall there.

The head of the Jaeger program, who takes some mysterious pills, finds the surviving brother, whose name is Raleigh. The name is appropriate because it sounds like “rally”—i.e., “to muster for a common purpose”. (The Jaeger boss’s name is Pentecost, which presumably makes him some kind of analogue of the Holy Ghost or something.)

Theme Stated
The Jaeger program boss exhorts Raleigh to come back and be a pilot again, because if humans are all going to die anyway, it’s better to die in a Jaeger. That’s the theme: Make your life—or your death, whichever—count for something.

Break into Two
Raleigh agrees to fight. They leave Alaska and travel to the base in Hong Kong.

B Story / Promise of the Premise
Upon his arrival at the base, Raleigh meets an attractive Japanese girl carrying a gorgeously hydrophobic parasol-style umbrella. He also meets the comic-relief kaiju research team, consisting of a socially awkward math geek and a socially awkward biology geek. He sees the nationally stereotyped team of three Chinese brothers and the nationally stereotyped team of two Russians, and exchanges mild hostilities with the younger member of an Australian father-son pilot team. He also sees his old Jaeger again, fixed up “better than new”. Gypsy Danger now has a dual-core nuclear engine. (That’s going to come in handy, doncha think?)

This Japanese girl, Mako, sure seems to know a lot about Raleigh, and she seems to have a powerful wish to fight the kaiju in person, as it were. Surely we knew when he met her that she would be Raleigh’s co-pilot, right? Well, duh. But oh, no, the boss man says it’s not to be. Supposedly Raleigh has to choose some other candidate from a list Mako has prepared. Raleigh fights a bunch of them with sticks, but when it comes right down to it, he unsurprisingly discovers Mako suits his fighting style best. The boss relents: yes, she can be his co-pilot.

Raleigh and Mako, who has never been in a real Jaeger, link to each other and the  machine. Mako gets stuck in a memory of a kaiju attack and nearly destroys the base, thus proving it was a bad idea for the boss to let her fight. The testy Australian fights Raleigh in the hallway. Raleigh reveals to the boss that, having seen Mako’s memories, he knows the real reason the boss doesn’t want to let Mako fight: she’s his adopted daughter.

The boss’s plan is to detonate a bomb when the breach opens for a new attack. The math guy is predicting an attack soon, and it’s going to be the world’s first double attack. Biology guy says he wants to try to “drift” (form a neural link) with a piece of kaiju brain, but obviously that’s too dangerous so… of course he does it anyway. We see some of his memories and parts of the world of the kaiju. When he resurfaces, he reports that the kaiju aren’t just dumb animals stumbling in from another universe: they’ve been sent to eradicate humans to prepare the way for another race. Bio geek gets the go-ahead to source an intact kaiju brain from a black-market dealer in Hong Kong to do more research.

Bad Guys Close In
The attack happens. The Gypsy Danger is grounded, so the boss sends the Chinese and the Russians to fight and the Australians to guard the coast.

All Is Lost / Dark Night of the Soul
The bio geek learns that because he stupidly drifted with a kaiju brain, now all the kaiju are connected with him, because they’re clones and they think with some kind of hive mind. The Chinese and the Russians, who are never well developed as characters, predictably die, yelling or muttering in their foreign tongues. The Australian robot is disabled by an EMP from the alien that also knocks out the power in the control room in the base… and all of Hong Kong. Not only are there five pilot deaths, and no men or machines left to fight the aliens, it is literally dark everywhere at this point.

Break into Three
Raleigh and Mako take out the nuclear-powered Gypsy Danger and kill the two kaiju, saving the stranded Australians. Bio geek, with the help of the black market dealer, gets access to the brain of the kaijuu that was defeated on land, or rather, the brain of its nearly unborn offspring.

There are two usable Jaegers remaining, but one of the Australians can’t fight. The boss reveals that the pills he takes are to treat radiation poisoning and that therefore he was always going to die an early death. He suits up with the younger Australian, who decides to put others before himself for a change and go on what is obviously a suicide mission with the boss. He does a goodbye-I-love-you scene with his dad and skedaddles to bomb the breach. Raleigh tells Mako on the way to the final battle that it is only now that he is thinking of the future; I guess that’s his way of saying he cares.

The control room spots two kaiju, though the math geek says there should now be three. A fight begins on the edge of the breach, injuring the boss’s Jaeger. Meanwhile on land, the math geek decides to help the bio geek with his research. Together they learn that the breach only opens when it recognizes kaiju DNA, so a bomb or a Jaeger can never get through. Back in the ocean, a third, stronger-than-ever, “category 5” kaiju attacks the two Jaegers.

The boss and the Australian set off the nuclear bomb, which kills them along with the two weaker kaiju. The Gypsy Danger then embraces and kills the strong kaiju, passing successfully through the breach. Mako’s life support fails; Raleigh gives her his oxygen, then discovers that he has to manually activate the nuclear self-destruct sequence, manages to do so, and still manages to launch himself back through the breach in an escape pod before the portal closes. On the surface of the sea, Mako revives and discovers that Raleigh seems dead in his pod, but thankfully he’s not. The Jaeger program staff, and a bulldog, and all humanity, rejoices.

Final Image
Hugs and high fives all around when the “war clock”, long employed to indicate the time since the last kaiju attack, is halted for good. Humanity is safe again.

Nits to Pick

You don’t want to suspend your disbelief. Fine. Be that way. Here are some excuses you can use:

Those stupid walls. Why would anyone believe a bunch of walls would stop the monsters? Especially since we later learn that some of them can fly? Of all the stupid, waste-of-time projects… geez. Makes those politicians look really dumb. I hope that in the sequel we will see people tearing down those walls, or decorating them or something.

Mysterious drift technology. What does it mean to be “drift compatible”? There’s some pretty vague handwaving going on there. Do you have to be family? Can you be a romantic couple, or is that too emotionally risky? Do you have to prepare your mind by meditating or something? Moreover, what are the other possible uses and abuses of mindsharing technology, apart from piloting giant robots? Surely there are therapeutic, medical, or educational possibilities, as well as criminal ones? Or even just other military applications? Doesn’t this tech give us new crime-fighting techniques, even if the world powers are all cooperating? If not, why not? Too expensive or dangerous?

Foregone conclusion. Like I said, it’s pretty obvious Mako is going to be the co-pilot. Why all that beating around the bush with the other candidates?

Evil overlord mistake. Why would the aliens start by sending only one attack dog? Why would they gradually increase the number of attackers according to a mathematical formula? It kinda looked like they were learning about humans and refining their designs. Why wouldn’t they have gathered intel, then launched, like, twelve or a hundred monsters all at once? Is there a manufacturing bottleneck? An energy threshold they have to save up for?

Chaos ex machina. Wait, if the kaiju are clones that are manufactured by other, smarter aliens, why is one of them pregnant? Are these things born or made? Looks like both. How convenient for that particular scene.

Does it go up to eleven? What were the “category” numbers measuring? We categorize earthquakes on the Richter scale and hurricanes according to category using actual measurements, but how could humans measure the monsters? They had some kind of scanner that was recognizing monster “signatures”, but the numbers just sounded lame. It was very obviously a shorthand for “the situation is becoming ever more dangerous”. The number FIVE didn’t sound terribly fearsome in any absolute sense. If they were going to start from category one, it would have been more dramatic if the numbers increased exponentially, or Fibonacci style or something. Dragonball fans are only impressed if the reading is over 9000.

Walking in place. I get that the pilots have to move their arms and legs around to control the robots because it’s more dramatic that way. As it is, you need physically fit, trained fighters, and you get to see them fight with their own limbs. In some ways, though, it would be more “realistic” if the mind interface could control the robots without the need for actual movements. The pilots might still have to be physically trained to fight so that their brains contained the memories of all the necessary movements, or maybe they could even learn fighting mentally, like Neo in The Matrix, but either way, they could just think the movements, right? That would look boring on screen, though, so you’d have to spend more camera time outside on the robots and less on the human characters, which would make a less good movie… Still, all that literal walking in place in the cockpit struck me as ridiculous. Especially since apparently the Pacific is only knee-deep on the Jaegers (?!).

Selective nuclear damage. Why does the underwater nuclear explosion kill the two pilots who set it off, and the two lesser kaiju, but not the heroes or the other kaiju? They’re all pretty much in the same physical location!

Shield of Hollywood. Raleigh should have been dead ten times over. I don’t know how he was able to activate the nuclear self-destruct sequence without any oxygen, and he didn’t have nearly enough time to escape that second blast. I prefer the last moments of the finale of Big Hero Six: the danger is real and Hiro’s escape through the closing portal is both more logical and more emotional, even though Hiro is the hero and therefore has the exact same chance of dying that Raleigh has.

Gone forever… probably. Can’t the aliens just open their wormhole thingy again? We weren’t told that, as in Tomb Raider, all nine heavenly bodies had to be in perfect alignment, or some such thing. Why do the humans think they’re safe from another breach? Maybe the attack will be in the Atlantic next time. Haha, of course it won’t! The Pacific is deeper and more mysterious— and much more surrounded by countries that buy tickets to mecha movies.