At the 2018 Golden Globe Awards, Guillermo del Toro accepted the Best Directing award for his movie The Shape of Water. In his speech he stated, “Since childhood, I’ve been faithful to monsters. I have been saved and absolved by them, because monsters, I believe, are patron saints of our blissful imperfection, and they allow and embody the possibility of failing”. Anyone familiar with del Toro’s work will know his love and fascination for the monstrous and unknown. It’s evident in his movies as well as interviews talking about his influences. While many of his films like The Shape of Water and Pan’s Labyrinth have reached critical acclaim, one of his often overlooked pieces is Pacific Rim. Despite not reaching the critical highs of his other works, Pacific Rim is one of the most loving tributes to the classic canon of movie monsters and serves as a wonderful modern addition to the long running pantheon.
Released in 2013, Pacific Rim was lost in shuffle somewhat. In an era dominated by massive franchise films, the film’s box office returns were slightly underwhelming. The film had a massive budget and the domestic take wasn’t much to write home about. The film saw much more success in international markets, pushing the film to a $411 million gross. Many critics enjoyed it but nowadays the film is often lumped in with Michael Bay’s Transformers films and other critically panned action blockbusters that are often seen as style over substance.
However, Guillermo del Toro understands monsters and monster movies. He knows that the best of them are more than just action spectacles. To understand del Toro’s approach to monsters, one must first look at his influences, which he even has the courtesy to list in the film’s end credits. Del Toro dedicates the film to Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda, two pioneers within the genre. Harryhausen, famous for his stop motion works like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Honda, well regarded for his role as director on the original Godzilla and a large portion of the Toho Studios monster films of the 1950s and 60s like Mothra, Rodan, and Matango.
At this point most people know that the first Godzilla film was an allegory about nuclear weapons, but Honda’s catalogue if full of all sorts of themes and messages. Mothra and Mothra vs. Godzilla are about the destructive nature of corporate greed. All Monsters Attack is about the struggle of working class families in Japan and how specifically the lives of children are effected. Monsters movies can be entertaining spectacle, but they so often are cautionary tales, or stories addressing serious issues, and not just the nuclear angle that most people jump to first. The best of these monster movies are able to combine the fun with drama incredibly well.
One of the plot elements Honda uses in his films very frequently is the idea of the world coming together for a common interest, putting aside petty differences for the greater good. Honda was drafted in World War II and even was held as prisoner of war at one point. After his experiences, a good portion of his movies would feature anti-war messages. After seeing all the horrors brought about by the conflict, it’s no surprise so many of his films strive for an ideal world where countries are united and there’s no need for war, instead effort is directed at stopping something else like a space monster on climate change brought about by mankind.
Del Toro understands this message completely. If there was single word to describe the core theme of Pacific Rim it would be “unity”. Within the film the countries of the world band together to stop the onslaught of monsters known as “Kaiju” with huge mechanized giants known as Jaegers. The Jaegers by design can only be piloted by two people who are perfectly in-sync with one another. As the war with the Kaiju nears its end, it takes the combined efforts of people from America, Japan, Britain, Russia, China, and Australia to ultimately win the war and save the world. The lead Jaeger is piloted by an American man and a Japanese woman and who overcome the trauma and losses they’ve endured to bring about an era of peace. This places Pacific Rim comfortably among all of Honda’s works several decades earlier.
Pacific Rim’s story is a hopeful one. Del Toro’s message here is that humanity is strong, and that good people working together can accomplish just about anything when petty differences are set aside. While some may see this kind of message as blindly idealistic, it’s good to see a film that pushes for such optimism. Especially at the time of the film’s release a lot of the big blockbuster movies were dark and grim, sometimes overly so. There are of course moments of darkness in Pacific Rim, but that just makes its hopeful ending all the more poignant. It’s a statement that light will always shine through in the end.
Even beyond the thematic messages of the film, del Toro pays great tribute to the monster films of old through the aesthetics and look of the film. While del Toro isn’t putting people in rubber monster suits, it was important to him to have something tangible in all the scenes. The pilot outfits and interior of the Jaeger’s control room were entirely without green screen and CGI. It could move and jerk around also was constantly being sprayed with real water. All if this was done so the actors could interact with something tangible and the audience could see something that was actually there in front of the camera, just as monsters like Godzilla and King Kong were made with practical means, giving them a sense of life and realism not found in CGI.
This design process even extends to the CGI creations of Pacific Rim. The Kaiju and Jaegers move with the realistic weight and heaviness that would be found if they existed in our world. Moreover it matches the slow movements necessitated by the heavy rubber monster suits worn decades earlier. In addition to having the Jaegers move realistically, they were designed the way they would be in our real world. When a Jaeger turns or raises an arm, you can see the mechanisms activating, the pistons moving. It’s the same naturalism mentioned earlier, and is also the same feeling that helps separate it from something like Transformers, where machines move with a level of speed and grace that just doesn’t obey our laws of physics. Del Toro is able to work film magic to the point where you believe that these Jaegers could actually exist in our world.
It should come as no surprise to fans of Guillermo del Toro that he has a love for the classic monster films of the 20th century. “Kaiju” is even the colloquial term used to describe the monsters of Japanese cinema. Del Toro goes beyond just being a fan of monster movies. He understands on a fundamental level the history these films have and the types of stories and messages they try to convey. In Pacific Rim he does a wonderful job of bringing those ideas to the forefront. And while Pacific Rim has spun off into its own franchise without del Toro’s involvement, often to very poor results, it remains clear that there is a genuine love and appreciation here. As long as del Toro continues to make films, there’s no doubt that his masterful understanding of monsters will come into the limelight again.