Pacific Rim, the movie, looks fantastic. Finally, the giant monster genre taken seriously by Guillermo Del Toro, emerging from an idea from his co-screenwriter Travis Beacham. The kaiju that have so long endured as icons of cinema now come face to face with huge mechanical suits piloted by humans in order to fight them – and unlike a Godzilla movie, you know the robots are going to be allowed to win sometimes.
That's the case with Pacific Rim: Tales From Year Zero, a graphic novel prequel setting up the film, also written by Travis Beacham, who discussed both projects with me recently. The story is illustrated by a quintet of artists – Sean Chen, Yvel Guichet, Pericles Junior, Chris Batista and Geoff Shaw – and it takes us from the horror of K-Day, the first ever kaiju attack in San Francisco, and through the development of the Jaeger program, the giant mech suits designed to fight the keiju and drive them away from populated areas. It's structured around a reporter named Naomi Sokolov, who is doing a "Why We Fight" inspirational puff piece for her employer, while she'd rather be exposing how crazy it is that the government is apparently scrapping the Jaeger program in favor of just building a giant wall and ceding half the world to the kaiju.
First, Sokolov interviews Tendo Choi (Clifton Collins Jr. in the film), who's part of the P.P.D.C.'s Jaeger program, and he relates his tale of survival in K-Day. She talks to Dr. Jasper Schoenfeld, inventor of the Jaeger technology, who talks about that process, and his relationship with Dr. Caitlin Lightcap, who made the breakthrough that the Jaegers would only work if there were two pilots working in synch – although that discovery was because she'd fallen for a test pilot named Sergio D'Onofrio, and she bridged in to save his life and prove the program worked. Then there's Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba in the film), head of P.P.D.C., who talks about his Jaeger history and how his partner contracted cancer from the process, how he adopted the most famous survivor (there's always an iconic photo of a child survivor in any global horror like this), and we even learn that Naomi herself got between the young Becket brothers, Raleigh and Yancy (Charlie Hunnam and Diego Klattenhoff in the film), and screwed up their partnership back in the day, as she was a "Jaeger-fly" – aka, a groupie who had a thing for Jaeger pilots.
It's an interesting enough set-up, as Beacham's doing his best to give us reasons to care about the characters, so we're not just there for the spectacle alone. It still feels a bit thin – the Becket brothers are almost immediately unlikable, although that may be due to the art that makes them look like smarmy douches, but devolving into a hissy-fit slapfight over one having thoughts about a girl the other one wants certainly adds to that impression. The messy dynamics between Schoenfeld, Lightcap and D'Onofrio are somewhat compelling, though – it's nice to see something like that unfold without Schoenfeld becoming some obsessively jealous bastard who tries to kill D'Onofrio and jeopardize the world due to his own wounded ego. However, there are some unpleasant artistic choices happening in that saga, too – particularly the shower scene where we're supposed to see Lightcap taking the death of a test pilot hard, and she's just sort of smirking vapidly, and the angle distorts her enough that she looks like a giraffe puppet. Having a platoon of artists like this is always a dicey proposition. In some places, it works really well, but in others, you just groan at the slipshod nature of it.
The tone seems to be along the lines of rah-rah, support the troops, Go Team America, although the story of Stacker's sister Luna in the R.A.F. sacrificing her life in the first kaiju attack does make it a global problem. It makes sense, though – an unstoppable alien threat like this would very likely serve to bring out a lot of that 'band together in a tragedy' spirit that humanity tends to showcase when we must. There's also the notion of the giant wall, which may bring in a storyline of government corruption or incompetence, because what the hell? A wall? What do kaiju do, if not break things humans build? A wall is a very bad idea. The only shot is to have things humans built that are designed to break kaiju before the kaiju break them.
Marshal Stacker Pentecost seems like a guy we're going to like. The monster designs seem imaginative, if occasionally a bit murky. The robots look pretty cool, and not always with that standard Halo-guy sort of style. The first fight between Jaeger and kaiju is pretty powerfully done. There's some good stuff here, and a solid establishment of the psychic bond that needs to exist between Jaeger pilots, although "the secret ingredient is love" could really have come off badly if it wasn't in the midst of the jilted man explaining the process.
Overall, Pacific Rim: Tales From Year Zero seems like it will be a decent little companion piece to the actual film, although it doesn't really bring any sense of majesty and immensity that we've been getting from the trailers for the movie. That will likely be what we need Del Toro to bring to the proceedings.