Too often, the translation of a pulp genre to the Big Screen feels like an ill-fated game of genre Jenga, where directors and screenwriters—including quite talented ones—flail about, removing crucial planks that can bring even the sturdiest mythos or can’t-miss source material crashing down. All one has to do is look to Ang Lee’s Hulk for an example of how difficult the capturing of pulp essence can be. In 2003, just three years after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which Lee perfectly captured the action and melodrama of the Chinese wuxia tradition, the future Oscar-winning director mangled Marvel’s big green machine so badly that Marvel Studios rebooted it just five years—and zero sequels—later. That a director of Lee’s caliber (and a studio with a winning streak that rivals Pixar’s in length) could stumble so badly shows how difficult it can be to mesh studio goals and directorial vision with even the most beloved, resonant fables and traditions.
For a lover of pulpy fictions, no matter the particular genre or sub-genre, “can’t-miss” misses like Lee’s are particularly painful. Most failed genre efforts already represent a double whammy for fans: the execrable Dungeons & Dragons (2000) was not only a cinematic tea-bagging of D&D players everywhere—it also meant the risk-averse movie industry would not be making a serious attempt at doing it right for at least another decade. But Hulk felt worse because there was so much anticipation, so much hope. (With Dungeons & Dragons, one just hoped that, maybe, just maybe, it wouldn’t be that bad.)
And yet, for all the anguished mental cries of “Jenga!”, every so often the crucial pieces are left in place. Whether through inspiration, talent or perhaps most importantly, just paying close attention, a director does it right (not necessarily perfectly, but right). Peter Jackson delivers a sprawling, definitive Lord of the Rings; Sam Raimi gives us the Spider-Man we’ve been waiting for (for two movies, at least); Joss Whedon lays a billion-dollar-plus box office smackdown with The Avengers.
And now, with Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro has reinvigorated the Kaiju film, one of those rare pulp genres that’s actually native to the silver screen. In doing so, del Toro pulls off an even rarer feat, creating a movie that both distills and perfects the tradition from which it’s drawn. (Del Toro also delivers a few lessons in genre storytelling that many of the top names in sci-fi and fantasy would do well to emulate.)
As monster movie genres go, the Kaiju tradition is pretty simple: Kaiju films involve at least one or more skyscraper-scale behemoths emerging from the depths (of ocean, earth or space) to terrorize (or defend) a large, coastal metropolis (most frequently in Japan, the home of the genre). After a few single-monster movies, most Kaiju films featured at least two monsters duking it out. Thanks to Godzilla, the most famous Kaiju of them all, and to King Kong, his retroactively inducted American cousin, most moviegoers have, whether they realize it or not, seen at least one or two films in the genre.
Even in the 15 years following Roland Emmerich’s poorly executed, genre-dampening reboot of Godzilla (which could have been subtitled “Green Eggs and Hammy”), a few kaiju managed to reach our cinematic shores. Thanks to Peter Jackson, King Kong made it back to the Big Apple in 2005, while 2008’s Cloverfield inverted the usual perspective of the Kaiju film, presenting the classic template crammed into a found-footage, puny human point of view. (One could even make the case that Michael Bay’s Transformers films are distant heirs of the efforts of Toho Co., Daiei Film Co. and other Kaiju film studios.)
But del Toro seems to have decided that for the next Kaiju film to be a great one, it needed to embrace the genre rather than play with or subvert it. To that end, Pacific Rim focuses on hot, steamy giant-monster-on-giant-robot action from start to finish. From a prologue that swiftly brings the viewer up to date on how the world became one where the best way to fight fire (giant monsters!) is with fire (giant robots!), to the main story in which the Kaiju have turned the tide in the battle with the human-piloted robots (called Jaegers), del Toro keeps the focus firmly on the magnificent machines and the monsters they fight. Oh, the human elements are there—the trauma-laced backstories, the Top Gun-flavored pilot conflict, the occasional comic relief—but it all takes second billing to the battles. Strangely, this yields a movie in which the Jaegers and Kaiju are drawn with the exacting specificity one usually looks for in a human cast of characters, while the human characters themselves are presented in large, general strokes. Be it as traumatized Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), traumatized aspiring Jaeger pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), wacky scientist Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) or wacky scientist Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), the human characters of Pacific Rim are emblematic shorthand for the viewer rather than subtly drawn character portrayals. As Stacker Pentecost, Idris Elba almost breaks free of these constraints through sheer acting muscle, but it’s not really a weakness to overcome. (As a young, terrified Mako Mori, Mana Ashida’s performance is also worth noting, if just for the palpable, visceral terror she projects in an extended flashback—it’ll make any parent of a toddler wince.)
With the human characters so relegated, that leaves the beautifully designed Jaegers (and the techno-industrial complex that supports them), and the menacing Kaiju as the stars of the movie. The U.S.-built Gipsy Danger, along with the Chinese Crimson Typhoon, the Russian Cherno Alpha and the Australian Striker Eureka are the principal performers in a series of exhilaratingly paced battles throughout Pacific Rim. The clashes are shot with a care and choreography that would do the most scripted WWE event proud—and when it’s a giant handful of shipping containers, instead of a folding chair, smashed across the head, it just looks cooler.
Ultimately, Guillermo del Toro’s film is less an homage to the Kaiju film than the long overdue perfecting of it using technology that has finally caught up to the genre’s demands. (In this, it shares much with the superhero film efforts of the last decade or so.) Pacific Rim is the Kaiju film Ishiro Honda would have made had he $200 million and the technology of today to spend it on. And regardless of its box office success, it’ll be the standard against which future Kaiju films are judged.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writer: Guillermo del Toro, Travis Beacham
Starring: Crimson Typhoon, Cherno Alpha, Striker Eureka Gipsy Danger, Knifehead, Leatherback, Otachi, Onibaba (Oh, and also Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Ron Perlman, Charlie Day)
Release Date: July 12, 2013