Pacific Rim, a worthy successor to…Aliens

In 1986, James Cameron directed Aliens and my life changed forever! I read the synopsis of the story published in the Indian Express weekend pullout over two consecutive Sundays. At that point, I hadn’t yet seen Ridley Scott’s original space-horror classic Alien, although of course, I knew quite a bit about the story (related breathlessly and with great drama by one of our high school classmates). I was amazed that a story so horrifying could morph into a sequel that was thematically so different…a military action-adventure.

A year later, I watched a decent VHS print of Aliens on a small TV screen at a local ‘video theatre’, followed it up some months later with a viewing on a proper cinema screen and then watched it a few more times over the period 1988-91. By that time, I knew every scene and every dialogue. Cameron’s film was an unrelenting thrill ride, filled with incredibly detailed military equipment as well as memorable and believable characters who I quickly became emotionally invested in – Corporal Dwayne Hicks (played by Michael Biehn), Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton), Pvt. Vasquez (the oh-so-butch Jenette Goldstein), her close friend Pvt. Drake, the no-nonsense Sgt. Apone and even their pompous and clueless leader Lt. Gorman (William Hope) who eventually redeems himself by popping a grenade and taking himself and Vasquez out along with a bunch of aliens.

Aliens went on to become a hugely influential scifi-action film, but surprisingly, there haven’t been any notable high-octane ensemble action films set in an alien environment since then. So, when I watched Pacific Rim this morning, I felt like this was the film I had been waiting a quarter-century to see. Although the inspiration and origins of Pacific Rim lie in the Japanese ‘mecha’ and ‘kaiju eiga’ sub-genres, I really feel that knowingly or unknowingly, writer Travis Beacham and director Guillermo del Toro have also paid homage to Aliens…the pacing and intensity of the action, the wide range of personalities in the ensemble cast and the incredibly rich detail of the creatures as well as the equipment. I had already been following the viral marketing for the past 6 months, downloading the blueprints of the different Jaegers.

While Aliens had a strong feminist/ maternal theme running through it, Pacific Rim is all about bonding and pairing. There are several such pairs in the film, some naturally formed and some created through the force of circumstance.

One of the characters who stands out on his own (although we discover that he also has a strong relationship with someone) is the superbly named Stacker Pentecost, the leader of the Jaeger team which has been battling the alien monsters for a decade; his physical presence is matched by his unwavering dedication to the cause, exemplified by his short but powerful speech just before the final act – “Today, at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we have chosen to believe in each other. Today, we face the monsters that are at our door. Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!”

Pentecost is played by British actor Idris Elba who made quite an impression on me playing Heimdall, the guardian sentry of Asgard in Thor in 2011. A year later, he played Janek, the captain of the space ship in the Alien prequel Prometheus (there’s that Alien connection again). He is of course, best known for playing Chief Inspector John Luther in the British crime drama Luther, which I haven’t seen. He will soon be seen playing Nelson Mandela in a biopic coming out later this year.

The Aussie father-son duo of Hercules and Chuck Hansen are one of the significant pairs in the film, strongly played by Italian-American actor Max Martini and British actor Rob Kazinsky (he plays Ben Flynn in TV’s True Blood). I believe they’ve taken quite a bit of flack in Australia for their unconvincing accents, though.

The two scientists played by Burn Gorman and comedian Charlie Day both provide some much-needed relief from the intense action scenes. Gorman’s slightly unhinged scientist Gottlieb would not have been out of place in director del Toro’s Hellboy movies and Charlie Day is at his shrillest best as he tries to unlock the secrets of the Kaiju invaders.

The big scene stealer is of course, del Toro staple Ron Perlman, who plays Hannibal Chau, a black market dealer in Kaiju organs. This sub-plot plays out as a nice bit of satire on the Asian obsession with animal parts and Perlman is perfectly cast as the flamboyant and ruthless king of the black market operating out of Hong Kong. Here’s another Alien connection – Perlman played the high-strung mercenary Johner in 1997’s Alien Resurrection.

Finally, we have the main protagonist Raleigh Becket, played by British actor Charlie Hunnam, who looks like an intelligent version of Channing Tatum. We first see Becket as he pilots a Jaeger called Gypsy Danger on a mission…a truly impressive sequence which gives viewers a clue as to where most of that USD 190 million production budget must have been spent. Eventually something goes wrong and Becket spends the next few years in self-imposed exile before he is brought back by Stacker Pentecost for a final desperate mission against the Kaiju. Hunnam shares quite a bit of screen time with Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi (who was nominated for an Oscar in Babel) and there are some entertaining scenes as they build their relationship.

I really loved the score by Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man, Game of Thrones); very intense with lots of brass horns and low notes.

Based on the first weekend box office numbers, it appears that Pacific Rim will struggle to turn a profit at the global box office, so chances of a sequel are slim. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as I feel that so many sequels just dial up the action and miss out on the human element, which is equally important in movies like this. As I did with Aliens, I can always watch this movie again and again…who needs a sequel!

PS: Travis Beacham’s prequel graphic novel, Pacific Rim: Tales from the Year Zero is a good companion piece to read after watching the movie.

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