Movie Dissection: Pacific Rim

I saw Pacific Rim last Saturday as part of my low-key birthday entertainment. I’d had pretty high hopes for this movie, especially given the many good reviews I’d seen. Ultimately, although I thought it was entertaining and it might even be something I’d buy, it was a bit of a disappointment.

Spoilers below the cut.

I think one of the main reasons I loved the premise of the movie was because I enjoyed Neon Genesis Evangelion before it went weird, and I’ve always had an interest in the genre. From the second I saw the trailer, I was hooked. Giant mechas fighting kaiju? The voice of GLaDOS? Unrepentant sci fi? YES PLEASE. But mecha-on-kaiju violence can only go so far, entertainment wise. Make it about the pilots.

Pacific Rim does that, more or less. I mean, don’t get me wrong, there are tons of barely-coherent fight scenes. With all the flashing lights and bursts of phosphorescent alien goo and exploding robotics, the fights become a blur of chaos, and the only way you can tell who’s winning is by the reaction shots of the spectators. But the main conflict in the film is between Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a woman with a lot of natural talent for piloting who wants revenge for her dead family, and Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), a former pilot who now runs the mecha (they’re called Jaegers in this movie) program. Stacker saved Mako’s life when she was a child and has cared for her ever since, and doesn’t want to put her in danger as a pilot. But she is the best pilot for the job, since she’s the only one compatible to work with the hero of the film, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam).

Mako and Stacker aren’t the main characters of the film. Raleigh is the hero, and his main conflict is that he and his brother Yancy were pilots until a kaiju killed Yancy. Raleigh retired to build some sort of wall thing that would apparently stop kaiju, although the mechanics of that were vague. The Jaeger program was shut down in favor of that wall project. Stacker kept the Jaeger project going and eventually tracked down Raleigh to work as a pilot again, even though Raleigh no longer had a partner to work with, and every Jaeger needs to be run by at least two people. But that’s not a conflict. Raleigh didn’t face any particular concerns about returning to piloting. He didn’t have any sort of dilemma to face or really any character development. The main story was about Mako, and her quest to become a pilot and finally get revenge against the kaiju.

Does she eventually get to be pilot? Well, obviously. Despite a false start where Mako gets a little overwhelmed with the traumas of her past, she rallies enough to work together with Raleigh and save the day. Sort of. She passes out at the last minute and Raleigh sends her swooning body off to safety while he makes the manly sacrifice, so Mako can weep over his apparently-dead corpse for a bit before he wakes up and they share a relieved hug.

It would have been nice if there were more than two named females in the entire film. The other named character, Lt. Kaidanovsky (Heather Doerksen), was a pilot who spoke one line in Russian before being killed off. Since the movie makes it clear that females can be pilots, it’s a little bizarre that nearly everyone in the movie is male. Going through the IMDB page cast list, of the 70 cast members listed, 9 were female. Only two were given names. This movie was incredibly far from passing the Bechdel Test (the three requirements of the test: 1. there must be at least two [named] women 2. who speak to each other 3. about something other than a man). I did appreciate that Raleigh didn’t even hesitate over Mako’s gender before deciding that she should be his new partner. But still, given that women make up (more than) half the population, wouldn’t you expect there to be a few more naturally occurring females in the film? It’s not like the Bechdel Test is that hard to pass. Pacific Rim doesn’t have a lot of excuses there.

The movie had other issues too, mainly racial ones–for example, it’s set in Asia, but there aren’t any Asian male characters with lines, and only one Asian female. I hear the original script was worse. Apparently Tom Cruise was originally supposed to play Stacker Pentecost (??!?!??!?!). Glad they dodged that bullet.

To be fair, Pacific Rim actually did a lot better than many movies of its ilk. The cast was made up of many people of color. Mako Mori was not a coy, two-dimensional love interest–in fact, the love interest angle was entirely cut from the final script, which was a relief. I enjoyed seeing Burn Gorman as Gottlieb, since I was a fan of Torchwood. I loved Ellen McLain’s cameo, and wished that hadn’t toned down GLaDOS’s voice so much. (Side note: I just looked her up on IMDB and saw that she was the voice of the witch on Left 4 Dead 2. How did I not know that??)

In conclusion, yay giant fights with mechas and kaiju. Wish they had been more coherent and exciting. Wish I’d cared more about Raleigh. I think a lot of sci fi/fantasy movies have to walk a line between spectacular fanserving violence and actual character development, and they tend to fall too far towards the spectacle. Pacific Rim should have been better than that, but it wasn’t. Yes, I’ll buy this movie on DVD. I’d really like to see it again, and I’d like to support more original sci fi films of this sort. I just hope future films can do a little better with the gender/race issues.

I feel like this review has been more negative than I intended. I’d give it 3/5 stars. I enjoyed it! It just wasn’t good enough to overcome its failings. Yes, go see it in theaters if sci fi is your thing. The fight scenes are great. It’s a fun movie. But if you’re a content creator, think hard about how you’re going to avoid making the same mistakes Pacific Rim made.

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3 thoughts on “Movie Dissection: Pacific Rim

  1. Maybe there should have been more to do with the characters and story, but at least it was fun for what it was. Good review Bennett.

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