In Defense of Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pacific Rim’

If there’s any action director we took for granted, it’s Guillermo del Toro. Few recall that he did Hellboy. Even fewer remember Blade II. Admittedly, this is a hard thing to raise hell over especially with his recent Oscar-winning glory, one felt by critics and devoted fans. Del Toro is a critical darling who’s achieved occasional box office success, which is perplexing considering he’s done both the superhero and the summer blockbuster. Of his mainstream films, I can’t think of a more sorely overlooked summer movie than del Toro’s Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim had everything a surefire blockbuster needed: monsters, giant robots, a whole lot of destruction, and a prime summer release date. Pacific Rim opened in the middle of summer 2013 and it got bested by Despicable Me 2 and (*shudders*) Grown Ups 2.

That’s fucking infuriating.

Why didn’t the film do better? Why didn’t we do better?

It’s a film that suits our current blockbuster climate. Pacific Rim’s got nothing to hide in that regard. This is all you need to know going in:

Two words only slight variations of the other. (“To fight monsters, we created monsters of our own.”) The joy of cinema is the joy of beholding something larger than life. Pacific Rim is so massive, the screen can barely contain it. When a Jaeger’s in the frame, it is the frame. To watch Jaegers and Kaiju do battle is, in a word, epic.

To understand del Toro’s ambition with Pacific Rim is to understand how he was starved for a franchise. Del Toro was previously attached to direct The Hobbit. He along with Peter Jackson and Phillipa Boyens – the team behind Lord of the Rings – collaborated on the script, drew up designs and storyboards for over a year.

New Line Cinema partnered with MGM on The Hobbit, but MGM infamously went bankrupt. Numerous delays and premature start dates led to del Toro’s exit in 2010. But that wasn’t the worst part. Del Toro immediately set his sights on adapting H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness for Universal Studios. (He had been working on a script since 2006.) Neither filmmaker nor studio could find a compromise between a $150 million budget and an R-rating, forcing him to bid his passion project farewell. Days later, he signed on to direct Pacific Rim for Legendary Pictures. Turns out filmmaking is A LOT like playing The Floor is Lava.

Del Toro channeled all that pent up creative energy and frustration in this mammoth opening. I mean…That first wave of Kaijus could’ve easily been the subject of an entire film. For del Toro, it’s mere exposition. The sheer pace and momentum of that opening sequence is a thing of beauty, from the onset of the Kaiju-invasion, the ensuing devastation, the quest to find a solution leading to Gipsy Danger’s ill-fated clash with Knifehead.

This might be a high-concept movie, but del Toro’s cerebral storytelling and conscious referencing are still present. It’s essentially the age-old dragon slaying myth with an update. Ever the film fan, del Toro pays his debt to monster features like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Godzilla, King Kong, and of course pays tribute to ‘90s Saturday morning fare (Voltron and vintage Power Rangers). He’s also drawing from the epic Old English poems of Beowulf (his eponymous third battle) and the Greek mythological showdowns against the Leviathan, the Kraken, the Hydra. Elsewhere, he’s fusing the cosmic horrors of Lovecraft’s rogues gallery with the size and grandeur of Francisco de Goya’s The Colossus.

Pacific Rim is a veritable clashing of the titans brought to gargantuan life while sporting its own social, political, and economic fantasy. The film casually makes reference to a clock, anticipating the next Kaiju attack, otherwise highlighting very real nuclear anxieties. (Our real-life world-ending scenario, basically.) Del Toro mines this 11th hour trope as a dramatic tool.

The world is on the brink and nations have set aside their differences and pooled together resources. It’s one of the more reassuring sci-fi allegories, where the world’s destruction isn’t caused by some technological breakthrough that backfired on us (2001, Blade Runner, Terminator, The Matrix). This time, our creation saves us.

Even more impressive is the film’s restraint. The opening Kaiju battle is over in a brisk 4 minutes. (Gipsy only has four moves, but my god do we feel each one.) The next set piece doesn’t happen until an hour in, after establishing story, character, and taking time for del Toro’s best storytelling attribute: world-building. The Kaiju black market (an echo of animal poaching) and things like “drift compatibility” and “neural handshakes” (the breakdown of racial and gender barriers to work together) are so deliciously rich in critique and concept. Even the mad scientist experiment of Newton drifting with a Kaiju is an inspired plot point and a wonderful fusion of del Toro’s obsessions. Film is a lot like the drift – the melding of cinematic memories as a conduit to creatively channel oneself. Raleigh and Mako express themselves through fighting. Del Toro expresses himself through art.

Regardless of how you feel about Charlie Hunnam’s performance, you understand his reluctance to fight again even though the plot dictates he’ll be back in the cockpit in t-minus 30 minutes. What it lacks in performance, it makes up for as a strand in a larger story. Because Pacific Rim isn’t Raleigh’s story. It’s Mako’s. 

Raleigh deals with adult trauma. Mako is wrestling with childhood trauma. She lost a family, a home. (Populations have huddled together on every major land mass, meaning the archipelago of Japan is either eradicated or abandoned.) Through her we discover the resolve it takes to pilot a Jaeger. Her triggered memory puts us in her corner.

Here we find another del Toro trope – his fascination with fairytales symbolized in the red shoe. A callback to the ruby slippers in Wizard of Oz which enabled Dorothy to return home. Mako is without a home but finds a father figure in Stacker Pentecost. It’s the “missing” shoe that del Toro fixates on. Like the story of Cinderella, she is deemed the “right fit” to co-pilot Gipsy Danger, but her real journey happens after the fact. She has to confront her trauma before she can do battle. The calibration sequence is preceded by warnings not to “chase the rabbit,” inevitably leading us down this rabbit hole nightmare. 

The memory inhibits Mako the same way Stacker holds her back from her potential. She’s still a little girl beholden to her knight in shining armor. She can’t be free from the memory until she dons the armor herself, so to speak. The story of Mako is the hero’s fairytale. In Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia’s fairytale is one of immortality. For Eliza in The Shape of Water, it’s about love. For Mako, it’s catharsis by way of slaying the dragon.

And to think, the character of Mako is in no way sexualized. Studio blockbusters require an object of the male gaze and a romantic subplot. The only couple we see in Pacific Rim are the Russian pilots and they don’t even kiss. If you thought Raleigh and Mako were going to lock lips, you might have been conditioned to expect as much. They’re both wrestling with survivor’s guilt. They help each other, but this emotional bond forges a tried and true friendship. If anything, it’s their foreheads that meet at the end.

I can think of 5 directors who would’ve gone for the kiss. I can name 5 more who would’ve exhausted the Jaegers vs. Kaiju concept. Instead, del Toro savors the spectacle of a childhood fantasy brought to life. Like Mako, he makes us earn it. This restraint is what makes Pacific Rim the kind of crowd-pleasing event that epitomizes the summer blockbuster experience. 

Del Toro is the kind of filmmaker we often clamor for, but don’t deserve. We say we want Hellboy 3. We didn’t even show up for The Golden Army. We say we’re tired of sequels and lament the lack of original ideas. Pacific Rim got beat by Grown Ups 2. GROWN. UPS. 2. Pacific Rim was also the most pirated movie of 2013. It’s no wonder it took so long to greenlight a sequel, and this was only after Legendary Pictures went under and was bought out by a Chinese media conglomerate, where China was the only major market that Pacific Rim succeeded in.

It’s a shame del Toro didn’t get to helm Uprising, though I suppose it was for the best because he made The Shape of Water and the rest is history. We were lucky to get a film like Pacific Rim in the first place. It’s taken us years to recognize that, even longer to recognize del Toro. Frankly, we deserve a Grown Ups 3.


6 thoughts on “In Defense of Guillermo del Toro’s ‘Pacific Rim’

  1. I saw this in the theaters and thought it was fun as fuck. Guillermo is a filmmaker whose films I will always see. He just has a better understanding of storytelling as well as be able to find the soul in the monster and not take it too seriously. He is a guy that loves monsters and robots and knows what to do with it. Plus, he also knows where to put humor into the film such as that scene of Charlie Day hiding with a bunch of people and they’re all saying “he wants the little dude”.

    1. Lol that line still gets me. This movie was SO MUCH FUN. Del Toro clearly had fun designing the mechs, the monsters, this entire world. It’s inventive and a total blast from concept to execution. That’s the most reassuring thing about del Toro. Even when he goes big, he never loses his identity as a storyteller. There’s always depth, always a bit of weirdness, and, even though the world’s ending, it doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. Glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks so.

  2. Excellent post. Pacific Rim was one of those movies I got dragged to see but I ended up being blown away by how impressive it was, visually and storywise, and I was horrified to see it got beaten by Grown Ups 2. This happened with del Toro’s Crimson Peak, too – an above average film that didn’t get enough attention. It’s such a shame.

    1. Not a bad movie to get dragged into seeing amiright??? I saw Pacific Rim twice opening weekend, both of them in packed and rowdy theaters. You can imagine my shock when it wasn’t the case across America and learning later that it had flopped domestically (I have a theory that every Transformers movie that has come out since then is our due punishment).

      Crimson Peak yes is another one. Sold as a horror movie but was really a gothic romance. It just came and went… Such a lushly told story too, gorgeously rendered. Del Toro is sorely underappreciated even after his Oscar win, I feel. He was either born too early or too late, I can’t decide.

    1. I gotta disagree with you my man. It’s got a higher IQ than Transformers (though I suppose that’s setting the bar low), even higher than current summer blockbusters. Pacific Rim 2, however, takes the cake. Idk if you had the same misfortune as I did and saw it, but WOW they killed nearly everything I loved about Pacific Rim. Needless to say, I will NOT be writing a review on Uprising lol

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