Pacific Rim is, for a large portion of its runtime, a pornographic recreation of my childhood. It’s an amalgamation of cartoons, comics, video games, and Japanese anime turned up to a visual volume that no cartoon, comic, video game, or anime can compete with. If the things Pacific Rim references resonate with you, it will be hard to deny the goosebumps of excitement every time an epic battle between Jaeger (robots) and Kaiju (monsters) begins. It also makes it easier to laugh it off when someone says something incredibly dumb.
For everything Pacific Rim seemingly references, one of my favorite animes as a kid seems to sit at the heart of it: Neon Genesis Evangelion. The similarities are uncanny — giant robots fight giant monsters that appear from nowhere with regular frequency, pilots form an intense bond required to drive the robots, they’re delivered to the fights in epic fashion, and the battles are overseen from a metallic fortress where commanders shout orders under the neon lights of computer screens. At one point, one character even suggests that the Kaiju come from the heavens as some form of punishment for humanity’s sins, which is more or less the actual reason for the monsters in Evangelion. It got to the point where it was impossible for me to avoid comparing the two.
The problem with the comparisons is that Pacific Rim only dabbles in concepts that Evangelion went whole hog on. From the battles themselves, to the mental toll they take on the pilots and the utter hopelessness of humanity’s final hour, Pacific Rim sets a stage nearly as dark and potent as Evangelion, but it loses its edge in the final act.
There is no doubt that Pacific Rim sets the stakes incredibly high early on. The story of the Kaiju arrival, the creation of the Jaegers, and the ensuing war is told in prologue form at the opening of the film, and needless to say, Pacific Rim’s apocalypse is dire. It takes every resource humanity has to keep the threat at bay, and when those resources start failing it paints a sense of hopelessness few “end of the world” films attain.
We learn a lot about the Jaeger pilots, who must “drift” with their co-pilots, sharing memories and forming powerful bonds so that they can split piloting duties. These scenes are some of the film’s best. We see the trauma the pilots must share with each other and the ways the system can backfire if a pilot lets their emotions run wild. Again, this has a lot in common with Evangelion, where the only people capable of piloting an EVA are pubescent teenagers in the most irrational and emotional stage of their lives. But while Evangelion embraces the internal struggle of the various pilots, Pacific Rim gives up its best themes before the climax.
It wouldn’t be a huge problem—this is a summer blockbuster after all—except the film replaces its admittedly simple bit of thematic depth with a ton of ugly apocalypse cliches. You’ve got everything from the wacky scientist outrunning a giant monster in comic relief style, to an inspirational speech delivered so blatantly on cue that “EPIC SPEECH TIME” should have started flashing at the bottom of the screen. Most of the film’s third act plot points seem to be cribbed from the US Godzilla remake and Independence Day, and if it wasn’t delivered with Guillermo Del Toro’s child-like charm we’d be talking about a very different kind of disaster movie.
The battles and special effects remain awe-inspiring and hard-hitting from beginning to end, but the plot and themes driving that action wither and die before the end of the film’s 131-minute runtime. It’s an undeniably fun and exciting ride, but it trades in potential depth for cheap cliches so swiftly that its hard to ignore.
Maybe I was expecting too much. That’s the inherent danger in homage. If you’re going to reference material brimming with pathos and philosophical questions, you’d better be willing to do more than dabble in those concepts yourself. Perhaps the references are meant to be superficial, and I’m having some unfair expectations squashed, but either way I was disappointed. Many will find the simple cartoon joys of Pacific Rim entertaining enough, and I’ll surely watch it again one day just to experience those epic fights all over again, but I’ll always reach the credits hoping for a little more to chew on.