My anime phase was a relatively brief one that lasted for only a few years in late high school through early college. I’ve tried to check out stuff that I hear buzz about since then, but generally I don’t watch much new anime. Of the anime that I did watch during that period of my life, very little of it revolved around the giant-robot-and-monsters genre. If I think really hard about it, the only series that I can come up with that fit that mold were Voltron (which I watched when I was a kid before I knew what anime was; also, just the one with lion robots) and Neon Genesis Evangelion. I also happened to be in that special American generation that was the first wave of fans of the Power Rangers franchise (I distinctly remember thinking that ‘ranger’ was a weird term for a superhero, but they piloted giant robots so I didn’t care that much).
All this is to say that I am not an expert on the giant-robots-and-monsters genre, but I’ve been exposed to some of its most prominent entries, so I feel qualified enough to talk about Pacific Rim.
Now, unlike when I went to see Man of Steel, I had high hopes for this movie. This promised to be a giant robot action movie that was, above all things, fun, unlike a certain other giant robot movie franchise that is nothing but hard to watch action scenes, juvenile humor, a bizarrely fetishistic obsession with the military, and unapologetic objectification of every person with a vagina (*cough*Transformers*cough*).
Pacific Rim is none of those things. Not a one.
Let’s go ahead and get the obvious things out of the way. This film is absurd. The conceit that the best way to fight giant alien monsters is with giant humanoid robots, with all the physical limitations of the human form intact, is ridiculous. You cannot take it seriously. Also, every character in this movie is a straight up type that you’ll find in most giant robot anime. They’re all played completely without irony.
All of this is okay. It’s charming and contributes to the appeal.
Once you get over the silliness of the conceit, what you find is a movie that clings hard and fast to my favorite mantra about absurd fiction. Don’t think too hard about the reasons you wouldn’t conduct an interdimensional war this way, just enjoy the way it’s being conducted.
At the heart of many giant robot shows (which, if you want to get technical actually do have two distinct flavors: ‘realistic,’ which goes to a lot of trouble to highlight how the logistics of fighting in giant robots is handled, and everything else; Pacific Rim straddles both types and laughs at my subcategorizations) you have the melodrama surrounding the psychological issues of the heroic pilots. Psychodrama is usually entertaining, so it makes sense from an entertainment perspective that the heroes in the giant robots would be subjected to all kinds of weird psychological issues. At the same time, from a pragmatic perspective, this is a horrible idea because the organizations in charge of these machines should probably be screening pilots to avoid this kind of stuff. There’s a war on, after all. Pacific Rim acknowledges both points by depicting a rather rigorous screening process for picking the new copilot for the protagonist, Raleigh, and at the same time ultimately choosing to go with the person with the most emotional issues that are similar to Raleigh’s, the rookie pilot Mako. The explanation for this decision comes from Pacific Rim’s imagined giant robot technology that requires two pilots cooperating in tandem through a neural interface where they share each other’s thoughts and memories while they’re in the cockpit. If the pilots aren’t compatible enough, then the giant robots don’t operate as smoothly.
So yes, for a perfectly plausible logistical reason, the pilots in Pacific Rim have to have intimately parallel psychological profiles, which typically include some major emotional issues.
I mentioned that the characters are all standard types from traditional giant robot shows, and it’s true. You have everything from the battle-scarred ace to the quirky scientist to the stern but compassionate leader. What’s amazing about these characters though is that they still feel fully realized on the screen rather than just tired tropes. I cared that Raleigh was still grieving over his brother while trying to mentor Mako as a Jaeger (giant robots) pilot. I cared that Newton had a serious fanboy crush on the Kaiju (giant monsters) while he was busy trying to track down an intact Kaiju brain for his crazy experiments. I cared that Marshall Pentecost (Marshall’s his title) felt protective of Mako, and had to come to a point where he was ready to let her stand on her own as a pilot (which isn’t really the case, because pilots always work together and the bonds of friendship are a huge theme of this movie).
Most thankfully of all, I was so happy that there was no romance in Pacific Rim. The story revolves around the friendship of Raleigh and Mako, and while there may be some attraction between them, what’s more important is that they learn to trust each other as partners. There were a couple moments when I thought they might be moving toward a romance, but it never turns out that way, and I think that’s a good decision. It’s refreshing to see a relationship between a man and a woman that’s just about friendship and not predicated on romance.
So, if you haven’t seen Pacific Rim yet, then go see it. It’s incredibly good fun, and it’s a good story on top of that. Don’t be surprised if you catch yourself grinning while you’re watching it because the things happening on screen are just too awesome for words. That’s part of the charm.