Pacific Rim at 10: A Self-Contained Universe

Movies Features Guillermo del Toro
Pacific Rim at 10: A Self-Contained Universe

Some critics received Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 tale of bigass mechs and the bigger-ass Kaijus who lovingly sunder them, with dismissal; others, with praise; others still by taking as big a swing as anyone can make about fresh-off-the-shelf pop culture, and comparing it to Star Wars. Most of these breathless takes read as transparent attempts at getting in on the ground floor of potential franchise futures. But Hitfix’s Drew McWeeny took a personal approach, couching his experience with memories of his first time watching that seminal blockbuster, marrying it to his present-day cynicism over mainstream audiences’ reception to newness. 

The film’s buzz was justified, of course. Del Toro’s name carried, and continues to carry, weight. After making two Hellboy movies as proof that his aesthetic persists outside the frameworks of fairytales and straight ahead horror, the notion of a Neon Genesis Evangelion riff done in his inimitable style had instant appeal. It’s 2025, and mankind is on the back foot in the war against Kaiju: Interdimensional behemoths, once easy pickings for Jaegers, equally massive robots operated by teams of two or more pilots, and now grown so much larger in size and deadly in evolutionary traits that Jaeger production is outpaced by the routine emergence of  Kaiju from a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The plot’s anime influence is familiar, but soaked in del Toro’s meticulously detailed and lived-in filmmaking sensibility, it takes on a dazzling sense of invention.

Retired Jaeger ace Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), haunted by the death of his brother Yancy five years prior in a grueling Kaiju encounter, is called back into action by Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who rejects his peers’ plans to repel Kaijus with enormous coastal walls, mostly because the plan sucks and doesn’t work. Pentecost has, like so many grizzled old dog military types before him, assembled a team comprising the last Jaegers on Earth to do the impossible: Nuke the portal and stop the Kaiju invasion. Apparently, when “gun” won’t suffice to solve the problem, go with “more gun” as plan B. 

McWeeny expressed a genuine, clear-eyed enthusiasm for Pacific Rim, but at the same time rightly supposed that contemporary viewers’ hearts and minds aren’t easily snared by productions that lack direct foundation in preexisting IP. Picture a world where this movie scrabbled to the same heights as the MCU  juggernaut or Star Wars, one where merchandising outpaces production of sequels and spin-offs. Pacific Rim the anime. Pacific Rim the sequel. Pacific Rim the prequel. Pacific Rim the fast food tie-in, the t-shirt, the coloring book, the lunchbox, the flamethrower. We did get the first two of these: Pacific Rim: The Black, streaming on Netflix, and Pacific Rim Uprising, Steven S. DeKnight’s 2018 follow-up to the original; there’s a graphic novel, too, released June of 2013 and set 12 years before the events of the film, plus an ill-received video game and an interactive ride at an Indonesian theme park. We’re still waiting on the rest, especially the McDonald’s menu. (And the flamethrower.)

Pacific Rim’s foundered franchise potential doesn’t prove its most enthusiastic cheerleaders wrong, per se. It does, however, prove McWeeny very much correct; whether because Americans don’t have the warm and fuzzies about Kaiju or mechas structured after a World War II film, or because they’re incurious consumers wary of anything that doesn’t immediately spark their nostalgia, Pacific Rim fever didn’t sweep the nation. The heroic figures of Becket, Pentecost and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Pentecost’s adopted daughter and Becket’s co-pilot in the Jaeger Gipsy Danger, didn’t embed themselves in our collective pop consciousness; kids didn’t dress up as the Kaijus Otachi or Slattern for Halloween; Saturday Night Live didn’t invite Charlie Day, who plays aggro hipster nerd and Kaiju fanboy Dr. Newton Geiszler in the film, for a victory-lap hosting gig spoofing famous moments from the film. 

For the devout few sporting tattoos of Gipsy, the movie’s failure to achieve mass proliferation is likely a king bummer. Pacific Rim demonstrates what great blockbuster filmmaking can, and should, look like; it leans hard into its star colossi’s scale, relishes a rich color palette, embraces cinema pseudoscience without blushing, brims with performances that confidently blend pathos with B-movie cheese, and hits the peak thrills that a good tentpole action movie should, right down to hotshot Jaeger pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) whooping “kick his ass!” in the middle of a pitched battle in Victoria Harbour between Gipsy and Leatherback, a chonky gorilla-frog Kaiju with a bioorganic EMP defense mechanism. It’s understandable to ask for more of that. But rather than “keep playing the hits,” movies like Pacific Rim should inspire a different request: What other ideas ya got? 

Pacific Rim did enjoy box office success, its underperformance in the U.S. bolstered through international ticket sales; without foreign markets, del Toro’s efforts would have lost a ton. Money, of course, is primordial soup for sequels in this era of kneejerk sequelization to seemingly everything. So DeKnight brought us Uprising, a Pacific Rim film in concept but not in execution. DeKnight isn’t Guillermo del Toro. Until Uprising, he wasn’t a feature filmmaker, either. Taking over directing duties on the sequel to a blockbuster in a niche genre, from an Oscar-winning filmmaker who very much has earned the honorific of “visionary,” is a precarious career pole vault. Whatever talents DeKnight has, he sorely lacks del Toro’s capacity for balancing dramatic stakes and nuanced character with robots punching monsters, such that they can inhabit the same ecosystem in harmony. 

And he shouldn’t have tried; nobody should have. Even del Toro, who at one point had a script in hand and plans to direct in mind, probably should have thought twice about encouraging the franchise, with or without him. He got away with Hellboy and Hellboy II: The Golden Army in no small part because the character is a known quantity; Pacific Rim isn’t, and making a sequel when the first movie so neatly resolves its conflict feels like folly. In the end, the heroes blow up the portal using Gipsy’s nuclear reactor, which also means they blow up Gipsy, and prior to that, they blow up Striker Eureka, a Jaeger co-piloted by Hansen and Pentecost, who get blown up along with it.  The list of Jaegers and names for a second movie is left thin by the time Pacific Rim finishes up; Becket and Mori survive, and end the picture with a hug. Case closed.

Pacific Rim is a closed circuit. But the problem with meager attempts at franchisement isn’t exactly related to the closed-circuit quality of Pacific Rim; it’s more specifically that the movie’s solid commercial success should have led to more attempts at original blockbuster concepts. Not everything needs to be a franchise. But studios, even in 2013, before Disney and the MCU had established full dominance over entertainment and pop culture, didn’t and don’t consider commercial success as a reason to try new things; they see it as an excuse to keep milking the cow. Even critics aren’t immune to this sort of thinking, exactly what got us Uprising

Granted, we got The Black, too, and The Black is shockingly good. But The Black is an anime series, returning Pacific Rim to one of its strongest creative roots; it makes sense that spinning a show out of the movie would work better than a second movie. What would have worked even better than that is another movie, a different movie, a movie whose director and backers have identified what made Pacific Rim a success and funded other movies, spun from whole cloth, for the summer movie calendar. What the movies need now are alternatives to gasping extensions of properties whose core audience is aging out of routine trips to the multiplex. Pacific Rim is an excellent example of what that alternative can look like – or it would be, if its authors could have just left well enough alone. Not every film needs a universe.

Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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