Pacific Rim (2013) – A Look Back

It isn’t unusual that original science fiction properties generate a certain amount of fan support, with many of those supporters simply excited for the film’s concept.  Of course, most haven’t seen the finished work in advance screenings, so their championing of a project was based on trailers or other promotional material.  As a result, it wasn’t surprising that “Pacific Rim” became a sort of geek cause of the moment in spring of 2013, but it was surprising that “Pacific Rim” had a larger than usual marketing budget and overall film budget than many of the passion projects that the geek community might usually rally around.

Director Guillermo del Toro had chosen “Pacific Rim” as his next project after leaving development on “The Hobbit” films and then seeing his big-budget passion project “At the Mountains of Madness” be dropped by Universal over budget issues at the last minute.  The broad geek interest in “Pacific Rim” began rising in 2011 at the San Diego Comic-Con with del Toro describing the film as “Giant f***ing robots versus giant f***ing monsters.”  Fans saw a more extensive look at the film at the 2012 edition of the Comic-Con with Legendary Pictures giving “Pacific Rim” a strong push.

During that multi-year build-up to the release of “Pacific Rim,” I’d gone through a cycle of anticipation.  I started by being intrigued with the descriptions and was able to read an early draft of the script but my excitement for the project slowly transformed into cynicism that grew amid the ever-increasing hyperbole that “Pacific Rim” began generating amongst genre film fans online.  Harry Knowles, whose “Aint-it-Cool-News” had evolved into a poster boy for genre film, provided a stereotypical overreaction in his 5,000 word love fest of a review.

One struggle for me in reading those advance reviews was trying to reconcile review remarks with what I’d read in the original screenplay for “Pacific Rim.”  It turned out that “Pacific Rim” was a textbook case in how a writer-director could take ownership of someone’s spec screenplay and radically overhaul it.

For a summer blockbuster (note the qualifier), the original “Pacific Rim” script by Travis Beachham was a pretty solid script.  It was not as brain-dead as a “Transformers” films that were similar at a surface level for featuring giant robots, but it also contained many of the same ‘oh isn’t that convenient’ character situations that viewers tended to knowingly forgive with such blockbusters.  Again though, it was probably the best script of a major blockbuster in that particular early-2010s era, certainly in the original content non-hard sci-fi category.

Unlike what would appear on-screen, the script’s depiction of the giant robot versus giant monster action was pretty vague or sparse, at least until the final thirty or so pages.  Ironically, it was that last act that would see the biggest changes in the final film.  Of course, del Toro and his crew brought in a very particular vision and they were the people who would be filling in the details.

Along those lines, one major factor in fan interest was surely the visuals.  In that regard, del Toro and company took the script up a level when making the film.  Perhaps bowing to pressures to make the film more-international and include foreign locations, the film became less United States-centric and included Hong Kong as a major centerpiece in the film’s climax.  In fact, the film’s primary location shifted from Tokyo to Hong Kong and that change presumably didn’t hurt the eventual box office success that “Pacific Rim” experienced in China.

Regarding the characters, I had a mistaken notion prior to seeing the final film that Idris Elba was the main star, but that was not the case.  Elba instead took on the role of the wise old commander who spent most of his time back at headquarters.  He provided a certain voice of authority while also having the honor of landing a climax rally speech similar to the one that Bill Pullman delivered for the 1996 film “Independence Day.”

Most of the film’s central characters involved international teams of young up-and-comers and their character dynamics were altered a great deal in the translation from script to screen.  For instance, a major romantic sub-plot that appeared in the film wasn’t a part of the script and its absence in the script made the story arguably unique.

The notion that it would take two pilots to effectively run one of the film’s giant robots was certainly a unique spin on the giant robot norm.  Obviously it offered a way to introduce character drama as well and, while that might have been somewhat contrived, the notion was one of key differentiations of “Pacific Rim” and it was present in both the original script and the final film.

While the robot pilots were the stars of the film, they were only in half of the storylines.  The other storylines involved a reporter and some scientists and their purpose in the final film was similar to their purpose in the original script with a greatly re-worked execution.  Viewers familiar with “Independence Day” could probably guess as the plot beats involved in their quest.  Oddly though, those supporting characters were neither as quirky nor memorable as the supporting characters were in “Independence Day.”  Simply put, there was no scene-stealing Jeff Goldblum in “Pacific Rim” and certainly not a career-breakthrough up-and-comer like Will Smith amongst the pilots.

While the dramatic scenes that those characters inhabited in “Pacific Rim” ultimately felt more like they were occurring on movie set than I would have guessed the world outside of those sets looked impressively authentic.  A shortcoming of the script that the final film embraced was the idea that the characters were living in a world where a regular destructive presence by giant monsters was ‘normal.’

The geek population has often tended to like ‘realistic’ dialogue in their science-fiction and “Pacific Rim” was lauded on that front by fans.  I could see why the nerd population loved “Pacific Rim” for that reason, but that technically-astute dialogue might have eventually caused the film to fail to connect with the lowest-common-denominator “Transformers” audience that “Pacific Rim” needed to reel in for wide success.

The film found some quirky comedy success in its lines though.  An example was the ad-lib comedy involving a Hong Kong bunker resident responding to a giant monster attack by  suggesting that a supporting character be sacrificed.  “The kaiju wants the little dude!” he said.

Del Toro spoke publically about how he was surprised that “Pacific Rim” wasn’t awarded a PG rating and the fact that it instead received a PG-13 rating certainly lessened its potential as a particularly broad family-friendly film.  The on-screen loss of population life that the monsters inflicted was shockingly small given some fallout shelter loopholes that were worked into scenes involving vast destruction.  The romantic elements in the story weren’t explicit and swearing in the dialogue was limited, while the violence was intense but most involved robots with people inside and monsters.  Still, there was a certain post-apocalyptic intensity that surely factored into that PG-13 rating.

My quibbles about the set design in “Pacific Rim” aside, the overall visuals of the film were spectacular but perhaps that was to the film’s undoing.  In a climate where the only big-budget films being produced tended to have some sort of pre-established comic book or toy line behind it, it was amazing that “Pacific Rim” was granted a $180 million dollar budget.  Unfortunately, that financial level might have done the film more harm than good since it was hard for “Pacific Rim” to be financially viable at that level.

Had the budget of “Pacific Rim” been a more-prudent $100 million, sacrificing some of the visual excellence for something with slightly less polish, history might have looked back on the film as being a bigger financial hit.  I’ve loved Japanese monster movies since I was a child, but I also realized that that was a small niche of the greater science fiction genre and that diving into the minutia of that world might not be very marketable.

Trying to sell “Pacific Rim” to mainstream audiences was perhaps the biggest issue that the film ultimately faced.  Despite the success of the “Transformers” franchise, the marketability of “Pacific Rim” shouldn’t be confused with somehow being similar.  It also was not as appealing to the average moviegoer as a modern super-hero film.   For reference, I could probably get most people in my life – meaning family or friends – to watch a super-hero film with me.  I would have a much harder time getting them behind a ‘giant monster’ film.  Hence, it was very hard to get much interest in rounding people up to go see “Pacific Rim” at the time of its release.

One last point that unfortunately couldn’t be communicated to audiences outside of the “Pacific Rim” trailers was its surprisingly-strong soundtrack.  While I initially didn’t like the music, but by ten minutes into the film I was really digging its upbeat vibe.  I wish that this had marked a trend change in film music away from that now-annoying metallic hum that seemed to have replaced blockbuster music in recent years.

“Pacific Rim” opened with just over $50 million in domestic box office and it wasn’t considered to be a bust but it also wasn’t an overwhelming hit.  That Legendary Pictures doubled-down on giant monsters with “Godzilla” a year after the release of “Pacific Rim” seemed like putting too many monster eggs in one basket but both films did decent domestic business.  Where both ended up doing very well though was in their international box office.

Del Toro’s career continued to bounce along fine enough in the aftermath of “Pacific Rim” but its worldwide box office haul still wasn’t enough to get del Toro the leverage to re-start plans for his “In the Mountains of Madness” H.P. Lovecraft novella adaptation film.  This lack of momentum was even in spite of the fact that Universal Studios, which had original developed that project with del Toro, had become Legendary Picture’s new distribution home.

Fan hopes for a sequel to “Pacific Rim” remained just barely alive in the years after the original film debut.  The final film did a better job than the original script at setting the stage for a sequel or even a trilogy.  In particular, there was Idris Elba on screen in a quasi-Obi-Wan Kenobi way hinting at possibilities with his character suggesting that the others can “…always find me in the drift!”  Perhaps for fans of “Pacific Rim” that suggestion will pay off into something more than mere foreshadowing.

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