It's hard to keep enthusiasm for Pacific Rim in check. From the film's opening moments, we are thrown into a kaiju extravaganza, the likes of which we have only dreamed of seeing. There have been mile markers along the way indicating such a film was possible - Clash of the Titans' Kraken, or the more recent Mountain Battle scene found in Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey being just two of many possible examples - but this is the first time in modern cinema where someone put all of Hollywood's resources into an all-out kaiju film and pretty much nailed it. If American kaiju films have a future, this is probably what it will look like.
Most of Pacific Rim's sizable stable of kaiju have familiar signifiers to help separate them. There's the Guiron-inspired knife-headed kaiju. There's the incredible gorilla kaiju. In one of the film's best surprises, there's a nasty Rodan-esque kaiju. Guillermo del Toro even manages to not only pull of an Ebirah-like crab kaiju but somehow makes it the most terrifying of the bunch. Not every kaiju is so recognizable, however. Toward the end, as we see more and more of them, they begin to lose their distinguishable identities.
But that's a minor issue. The primary achievement of Pacific Rim's kaiju is that they look vicious. They sound intimidating. They attack like animals. They are frightening. Del Toro knows what we want from them as kaiju fans and delivers.
Pacific Rim succeeds not just in terms of its kaiju design, but in its illustration of scale, probably the second important element for a film like this to get right. The Western kaiju films examined in this series have all done well with this, even Emmerich's Godzilla. But Pacific Rim does it best, if only because it enjoys so many more opportunities for monster mayhem than, for instance, Cloverfield. Del Toro renders the size of these creatures and the destruction they cause completely understandable, particularly in the film's city scenes, triggering our awe constantly. It's one thing to know that a giant robot hitting a giant monster in the head with a huge ship is cool. That's always going to be cool. But Pacific Rim makes it feel cool, too.
Pacific Rim tells you right off the bat that it is special. The film opens with a massive exposition dump that takes you through years of kaiju fighting in a matter of minutes. Immediately we see the monsters, the army response, the destruction - all the tropes we came for. And just as quickly, del Toro wipes them away for something relatively new: the Jaegers.
I say relatively because giant robots fighting giant monsters is not in and of itself new. Pacific Rim not only displays a strong anime influence, but bears more than a passive resemblance to the Mechagodzilla entries from Godzilla's Millennium series. That's not just in terms of plot concepts, either; these influences greatly inform Pacific Rim's human characters as well, from their names to their armor to their specific archetypes.
Still, to most Western viewers Pacific Rim offers a largely unprecedented cinematic experience by combining giant creatures with giant robots and gluing them together with a high-stakes story of old-school heroism. The film may be derivative, but it is also original enough that it runs the risk of missing the zeitgeist completely (though Asian markets should ensure a worldwide success regardless of what Americans think).
There does seem to be a cultural buildup to this film, however. We love big creatures in our films. We love large-scale action. We love big robots. There's really nothing presented in Pacific Rim that audiences haven't already shown a willingness to support. Just in terms of this essay series, you could say Pacific Rim combines the big-budget, visually heavy monster tentpole expected from Godzilla with the superior creature design and destruction scale of Cloverfield along with the dramatic world-building of Monsters. Amazingly for the normally monster-friendly del Toro, King Kong's kaiju humanization is the only element missing.
But a couple problems do limit Pacific Rim's potential. For one, the all-out monster war film many people might be expecting kind of takes place during the brief prologue. For all the highly detailed world-building going on, we only get to witness the tail end of Pacific Rim's conflict. The small-scale story (the plot revolves around a one big, desperate, all-or-nothing mission) makes Pacific Rim feel like little more than a preview of something bigger. It is often more compliment than complaint to say a film left you wanting more, but Pacific Rim is particularly unsatisfying, like an appetizer when you wanted a full meal.
Furthermore, the effects displayed in Pacific Rim, jaw-dropping as they are, finally make certain the supremacy of practical kaiju. This is probably as good as such a thing can get, and yet it all feels like a cartoon, albeit an incredibly executed and visually awesome cartoon. Not only does most of the film takes place at night, but everything moves at too high a speed to take in all the way. Sometimes simpler is better, and while Hollywood will probably never rely on practical monsters and destruction again, a case could be made that even the best CG in the world has nothing on a guy in a rubber suit.
But this is not the kind of film you want to pick on. Guillermo del Toro is clearly a fan and appears to have done everything humanly possible to deliver what will have to go down as one of the all-time greatest kaiju films ever made. While shiny and new, Pacific Rim both honors and willingly relies on kaiju tradition enough to make it a new step forward for the subgenre rather than an abandonment of what made it special in the first place.