Pacific Rim is the ultimate prepubescent fantasy brought to life, an enormous thrill-a-second B-movie with A-grade production values in which giant robots and alien monsters pummel each other for hours on end. It’s big, loud and even a bit dumb, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun, provided you’re willing to give it a chance.
The brainchild of screenwriter Travis Beacham and Oscar-nominated writer-director Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy), this dazzling mash of monster movies, mecha and Hollywood spectacle is what happens when an intelligent, visionary filmmaker, someone who knows how to work a camera and not insult your intelligence, is given the tools and resources to create an astonishingly-realized, lived-in world for his creations to breathe in.
The set-up, laid out in a breathless 15-minute prologue, is this. In the near future, monsters called Kaijus (Japanese for “strange beast”) emerge from the oceans through a portal at the bottom of the Pacific, destroying coastal cities across the planet like San Francisco and Hong Kong. To battle these Kaijus, the human race builds enormous rock-em sock-em robots called Jaegers (German for “hunter”), each piloted by a pair of soldiers whose minds are melded using a technique called “the drift,” allowing them to share each other’s thoughts, fears and memories.
Although the Jaeger program proves extremely successful at first, the Kaiju slowly evolve into stronger, deadlier foes. It’s only when the Jaeger program is at the brink of extinction, as the world resorts to bordering the coasts with gigantic walls, that del Toro begins his story. It’s a clever tactic that allows the filmmaker to do-away with cumbersome and expository scenes of the military being embarrassingly outmatched and cities getting demolished as throngs of helpless people watch in horror. While we still get our fair share of cities being bulldozed, they aren’t tedious like the big destruction scenes in Man of Steel or the Transformers movies because the action here is actually used to advance the plot, and more importantly, as a showcase for the imaginatively-wrought post-Kaiju world.
Del Toro, a master at setting mood and establishing fantasy worlds from the ground up (see Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth), sets Pacific Rim in a startlingly cool and stylish world in the vein of Blade Runner-meets-Tron, rife with extraordinary imagery and world-building details that someone like Michael Bay wouldn’t even dream about. Every setting of the film has a lived-in quality to it. The city of Hong Kong has evolved into a neon-lit metropolitan, complete with dilapidated buildings and neighborhoods built around carcasses of dead Kaiju. Entire sects have become devoted to the Kaijus, believing them to be messengers of God. We even get to see a black-market for Kaiju body parts in which seedy salesmen sell Kaiju bone powder for their medicinal qualities.
The Kaijus themselves are dazzling creations – mean ruthless creatures whose viciousness is only surpassed by their grotesqueness. Their brawls with the Jaegers are undoubtedly the film’s selling-point, and on this aspect, the film delivers in spades. The brawls del Toro stages are incredible, hair-raising feats that wow, sometimes even shock, with their intensity and scale. It helps that del Toro’s doesn't cut away from the action, lingering on long shots of the robots and beasts in action. He also keeps cutting back and forth between the pilots in the robots and the actual fights themselves, thereby always keeping us grounded in the human drama.
Unfortunately, for all the stunning spectacle and world-building wrought by del Toro and Beacham, it's this human element that prevents Pacific Rim from elevating the confines of popcorn cinema. Their script is pure hokum and beset with embarrassingly stock characters. Raleigh Beckett (charisma repellant Charlie Hunnam), the film’s lead, is a former cocksure pilot who is called back into the program for “one last mission.” His former boss Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is a resident hard-ass who exists solely to put people in their place and deliver corntastic lines like “Today, we’re cancelling the apocalypse!” Raleigh’s co-pilot, and the film’s only female character, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) is a brilliant martial arts expert haunted by a trauma from her childhood. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky are an Australian father-son pilot team who butt heads with Raleigh. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are rival Laurel and Hardy scientists who give the film some comic relief, and Ron Pearlman plays a slimy underworld don.
You know exactly how it will all play out. Somewhere along the way, the hero will get his shot, exchange punches with the Australian guys, lock eyes with his sexy co-pilot, help her with her trauma, rebel against his boss, listen to the scientists, get inspired by a big speech, and eventually, against all odds, will save the day. If only del Toro and Beacham had spent more time on their characters, and less on coming up with their ridiculous but admittedly cool names, we could have had something truly transcendent. Still, they’re likeable enough and work as pleasant segues between the big monster bashing sequences, which in the end are the reason why you’ll be watching this movie in the first place.