Why ‘Pacific Rim’ Might Be the Sleeper Hit of the Summer

Richard Rushfield
Features Editor
Movie Talk
Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim

After an initial wave of enthusiasm for Guillermo del Toro's sci-fi action epic "Pacific Rim," the film suffered from a case of opening weekend blues, bringing in only $37.3 million to offset its massive $200 million estimated budget. But the wave of interest for the giant robot film may be swelling again as interest seems to be increasing overseas.

Studios like their summer tentpole movies to crash across the opening weekend box office like a tidal wave — gradually building momentum for years as it makes its steady journey from script to multiplex before it gathers so much anticipation that it explodes in a frenzy on its first days of release. Instead, "Pacific Rim" has given every impression of a wave that couldn't quite come together — until now. The film topped the international box office over the weekend, bringing in $35.3 million — not a huge amount, but given that those aren't opening weekend figures, the film is starting to show it has staying power.

Early enthusiasm waned as its debut approached. Variety reported that audience tracking numbers showed "Rim" was headed for a "gruesome" opening weekend writing, "The impending doom has been pretty clear ever since 'Pacific Rim' came on tracking early last month."

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Media outlets have been consumed by stories claiming this is the summer of Hollywood flops and disappointments, and the knives have been out for the latest sacrificial lamb.

But there are sparks of hope that the reports of "Rim's" death may have been exaggerated. The first ray of light: its strong ticket pre-sales. "Rim" got off to a strong start with its Thursday night screenings, and some experts said the film may thrive on strong word of mouth.

Here are a few reasons why this might just be the epic that fights back:

1. It's Something Different

Pacific Rim
Pacific Rim

Let's face it, summer blockbusters are becoming more of a chore than a pleasure. How many times can we see the same story? Boy discovers he has a power that makes him different than all the others. Boy rejects power. Boy accepts power in order to stop a massive invasion of space aliens who are on the brink of blowing up L.A. or New York. The sameness of these films, their plots; the same computer generated images of city buses being used as baseball bats while cities crumble seems to be leading to blockbuster fatigue.

"Pacific Rim" may not be for everyone, but no one can accuse director del Toro and his team of just phoning it in. The film is conceived as a high tech update of a classic low-tech Godzilla film from the 1950's world of Japanese monster movies. "Pacific Rim" does the seemingly impossible: preserves the raw feeling and manic look of those films while reconceiving them with jaw-droppingly beautiful state of the art special effects. The final product leaves audiences feeling as though they have been taken to a world they have never seen before — and not just endured another cookie-cutter superhero story.

2. It's a Helluva Ride

A few critics have already compared "Pacific Rim" to James Cameron's "Avatar." Like that megahit, the combination of stunning special effects creating a complete world and action sequences in which the characters (and the world) seem genuinely in peril, create two-plus hours of thrills that have left many early audiences (though not all) breathless with delight.

While the film is not "Hamlet" in dense, complex characterization, as with "Avatar" the lead characters are serviceable and well-acted, bringing enough to the table to let the action move forward, while not holding it back in the manner of many superhero films spending long stretches painting needless, and ultimately irrelevant backstories.

The net effect is likely to turn those who love it into evangelists for the film, powering a word of mouth that could give "Pacific Rim" legs beyond the quick fall-off experienced by most tentpoles.

3. The Elusive Boys

While the numbers tracking enthusiasm about "Pacific Rim" may have been soft, the problem is that these numbers tend to undercount the very demographic most likely to be excited about the film: teenage boys. Those hyperkinetic young men tend to be the hardest for survey takers to pin down and thus their enthusiasm can fail to completely register in these numbers.

4. Not Everything Can Be a Sequel

In the tracking, "Pacific Rim's" numbers have been trailing those of this weekend's other big opening: "Grown Ups 2." But in a summer that has been heavy on sequels, del Toro himself pointed out in recent comments, there is a reason why Hollywood keeps making infinite installments of successful films, which is that those films have a built-in advantage going in. He wrote, "Whatever sequel opens will have, by definition, higher awareness and numbers across the board, but we are moving strongly in the right direction." Despite that pre-release edge, the fact remains that sooner or later, original films do have to succeed. That there can't be any second and third films if no first films are ever hits. Eventually audiences hunger for something new, and not just a reboot.

5. Encouraging Early Tickets

As they as they say in politics, the only poll that counts is the one on election day. And in film the only number that counts is the people who actually show up at the box office. And for "Pacific Rim" that first tick was a far better than expected one. The film sold $3.6 million in tickets at fan boy-heavy Thursday night shows.

6. There's More for Women

The ad campaign has shown little in the way of the film's human element, focusing heavily on the dazzling effects of the rock 'em, sock 'em robots; the piece of the film that will speak the most to the teenage boys of the world. However, there is a lot more than battling machines in this film to appeal to a female audience. For starters, one of "Rim"'s ultimate heroes is a woman played by Rinko Kikuchi, who brings with her a very touching story of being a child orphan. The film also has much more light humor than the typical summer action film, particularly from a pair of mad scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman. In general though, throughout the film, is a real sense of humanity and a heart that stands in contrast with the gigantic factory made machines that studio action films have often become.

7. International

"Pacific Rim" is the least American looking of the major summer films. Its very name points to a land beyond the U.S. borders. The film is largely set in Hong Kong, starring an international cast, taking its cues from a school of Japanese monster films. This internationalism may be dampening enthusiasm for a less familiar-looking film among the prospective American moviegoers being polled by tracking surveys, but in a day when big budget films expect to make at least half their money overseas, the foreign look may not be such a bad thing at all.

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