Today marks 10 years since the premiere of Pacific Rim, in which Guillermo del Toro brought his unique sense of warmth and humanist sensitivity to a story of giant robots and even more giant animals punching each other very hard in the face. Michael Bay might have triggered more explosions than any director alive, but his Transformers movies simply can’t match up to Del Toro’s gargantuan achievement.
Pacific Rim is one of Del Toro’s best movies – and there’s plenty of very strong competition for that title – and tells the story of humanity’s last line of defense against the Kaiju. In this world, Kaiju are enormous sea monsters that periodically emerge from deep beneath the ocean after years of hiding, subsequently rampaging through whatever human settlement is nearest to where they hit the shore.
In order to prevent them from simply leveling city after city, the human race invested billions of dollars into building Jaegers. These are titanic robot warriors, piloted by two people whose minds have to operate in perfect harmony in order to make the machines a match for the Kaiju. The stage is set for one of the best monster movies ever.
You’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds a little like the Transformers movies. But, in the battle of the best robot movies, it’s no contest. Pacific Rim is special, and it’s special for a number of reasons that Bay’s Transformers can’t come close to. In fact, even the non-Bay Transformers stuff – check out our Rise of the Beasts review for our thoughts on the latest movie – isn’t anywhere near Pacific Rim.
First of all, Pacific Rim has the courage to be silly. Guillermo del Toro knows that there’s something fundamentally funny about fighting robots punching big lizards, and he embraces that. The color palette is varied and idiosyncratic, as opposed to the sludgy CGI of Bay’s world. Del Toro also allows the monster fights to be exactly what they are, rather than shrouding everything in a po-faced, militaristic world – of the kind Bay loves so much.
These are talking robots, so it’s absurd to see them come off as business-first military minds as the likes of Optimus Prime do in Bay’s franchise. It’s telling that Bumblebee is by far the best Transformers movie, because it allows its titular bot to be a slapstick goof.
Even the most serious character in Pacific Rim is played with tongue firmly in cheek. I mean, his name is Stacker Pentecost, for goodness sake. Idris Elba‘s performance – Tom Cruise turned the role down, apparently – is completely straight-faced, but all involved know what’s going on. It’s more akin to the joyous stupidity of the Fast and Furious movies than Bay’s ultra-moody Transformers world, especially in the Independence Day pastiche of Pentecost’s climactic, pre-battle monologue.
It’s also notable that Pacific Rim has something else the Transformers movies have never cracked: visual coherence. In a Pacific Rim fight scene, you see every blow land, and the visuals are clear and colorful enough that you’re in no doubt about who is hitting who. It’s surprising how rare that is in the world of CGI-heavy blockbusters.
The quick-cut chaos of ‘Bayhem’ doesn’t allow for this at all. If you put a gun to my head and asked me to explain the last 30 minutes of Transformers: The Last Knight, I’d pull the trigger myself rather than even attempt it. The metal thing hit the metal thing, while the humans ran around looking scared. Am I close?
But the other important factor is heart. Pacific Rim has an essential humanity at its center, depicting a planet full of people at their lowest ebb, fighting against impossible odds to save the day. And they don’t do it with a rippling American flag or by having a bigger gun than the other guy; they do it via cooperation in its purest sense. The essential metaphor that Jaegers won’t work without two pilots operating in complete mental harmony might not be a subtle one, but it hits home.
It’s also important to note that the eventual triumph at the end of Pacific Rim does not occur under the flag of any nation. The Jaeger pilots of Pacific Rim are from America, China, Japan, Russia, and Australia. The fight against the Kaiju is a global one, forcing humanity to scrap the paranoia of political borders in favor of fighting against a shared enemy. That idea is even more resonant now than it was back in 2013.
Pacific Rim isn’t the sort of nuanced fable we’ve come to expect from the best Guillermo del Toro movies, but it uses its robot combat as a Trojan Horse for some of the director’s pet themes. Even the sequel, 2018’s joyously stupid Pacific Rim: Uprising starring John Boyega, has more wit and charm in one robotic leg than in the entirety of Bay’s Transformers series.
We haven’t had another Pacific Rim since then, but there has been an anime series on Netflix, and the prospect of a Pacific Rim sequel is still raised with Del Toro all the time. Certainly, these giant robots left their mark. Sorry, Autobots, but I’d rather roll out with the Jaegers any day.
For more from the world of the Transformers franchise, find out why the new Transformers movie was blessed by a shaman. You can also read our Steven Caple Jr interview about directing Rise of the Beasts, and learn if Transformers and GI Joe are in the same universe.