In 2010, Guillermo del Toro announced a dream project: He would be adapting H.P Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, a work long considered unfilmable. But del Toro had been working on his script for years, and some of the biggest names in the industry had signed up, including James Cameron as producer and Tom Cruise as the lead.
He’d gotten as far as pre-production, but negotiations with Universal rendered the movie unacceptable for the Hellboy director. Emailing a writer for The New Yorker, he wrote that his insistence on an R-rating had doomed the movie. After a string of unrealized projects, losing Madness hurt most. But once he was free in 2011, he quickly moved on to Plan B: Pacific Rim.
Pacific Rim is a movie about giant robots fighting monsters which come from an interdimensional portal in the depths of the ocean. Pulling from mega-hits of the past like Independence Day, there’s a very clear story here: A group of pilots who control giant robots called Jaegers unite under the banner of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), a marshal in the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, to fight and defeat the mysterious kaiju.
There’s a lot that might feel familiar in Pacific Rim; explicitly calling the monsters kaiju is a clear homage to the Godzilla movies of the 1950s. But Pacific Rim is no one’s second-hand movie. Del Toro would probably hate someone saying that he “elevates” the giant monster genre, because he loves giant monster movies. But Pacific Rim is a truly excellent one.
While a quick plot summary about saving the world may resemble Independence Day or Armageddon, screenwriter Travis Beacham told Diabolique that he “drew anti-inspiration from previous disaster films, like mainstream American disaster films, in which other countries and what’s going on in the rest of the world is generally treated like a footnote.”
With a reluctance for “landmark stomping,” as Beacham put it, the movie focuses on character. Along with ignoring the typical American playbook for action movie settings, it also ignores the standard American convention of focusing on a lone hero. Early on, the viewer learns that operating a massive Jaeger is too much of a task for any one person. So the robots need to be piloted in pairs, including Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his older brother Yancey (Diego Klattenhoff).
Through a rapid but affecting montage, del Toro shows the monsters wrecking havoc and the world uniting to fight back. He zooms through memorials for the dead and mocking game shows once it appears the Jaegers have found ways to destroy the kaiju whenever they emerge. Pilots quickly become celebrities, and the world gets very good at winning, as Raleigh says in his monologue. Until they start losing.
Raleigh loses Yancey in a brutal kaiju fight and barely escapes with his life. Suddenly the tide has turned, and the world abandons the Jaeger program in favor of building giant walls. But when this fails and people start asking, “Hey, why did we shut down that giant robot program?” a scrappier version starts back up.
Beachem tells Diabolique, quoting del Toro, that Pacific Rim is “not a story about a country changing the world, it’s a story about the world saving the world,” and this becomes clear when we see the new Jaeger home base, the Shatterdome. Here there are Russian, Chinese, and American robots, each designed with references to their home countries. If everyone just had a giant robot, del Toro seems to be saying, maybe we could all get along.
Raleigh needs a co-pilot, and that turns out to be Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Pentecost’s assistant. The two struggle to pair, or drift, as the movie puts it, a process necessary for piloting the giant machines that requires opening up their memories to each other. Once they start improving Raleigh learns about Mako’s own loss to the kaijus, bringing personal stakes back to the spectacle.
From Pan’s Labyrinth to Nightmare Alley, the details have always made del Toro movies stand out. From the memorial to the dead in the opening montage, to a fabulous gag of a robot knocking an office desk toy of clacking balls, Pacific Rim is a movie for people who love observing the details.
But at the end of the day, it’s about the giant robot fights. These scenes absolutely deliver, with del Toro getting across how huge the stakes are with each punch. And for shots inside the machines, the actors worked with puppeteers in small boxes called “Conn-pods.” Forgoing mocap suits for physical work was a wise choice, as it really looks like a challenge to navigate one of these things.
Stunt Coordinator Branko Racki told Variety that working on Pacific Rim “was a massive spectacle. It was like, ‘Wow. We’re working here today?’ You were in awe every single day.” Her experience also describes watching the movie. Del Toro makes it all work, and even if it wasn’t his first choice of movie to direct, he put everything he had into making those giant robots and monsters fight.
Pacific Rim is streaming on HBO Max.