As a gifted filmmaker’s homage to Japanese kaiju (monster) films and mecha (giant robot) anime, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is a glorious triumph. It successfully evokes the awe and wonder aspired to by its film forebears while telling a story that is not derivative of those films’ classic themes or ideas. It’s not easy to honor a genre, much less two, without trodding upon or duplicating what’s been done before, but that’s exactly what del Toro has done.
All that doesn’t mean the film will be a hit with American audiences, or even that the film is a great film. If anything, it’s the most well-financed and lovingly-crafted B-movie you’ll ever see … if you see it.
That’s the big question: whether or not today’s summer movie audiences will fall just as in love as del Toro seems to be with the spectacle of mechanized giants doing battle with stylized dinosaurs. Certainly, he’s done his best to make it dazzling to them.
As is explained and shown to us during a very long expository opening, in the near future giant monsters that come to be known as kaiju start rising up from a portal between dimensions that opens near the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and wreak havoc on Earth’s cities until the world’s military groups come up with a deterrent. Giant robots called jaegers (German for “hunter” – no, not the booze), controlled by teams of pilots who operate as one with the machine via a neural link called “the drift”, prove to be humanity’s best defense against the gigantic lumbering beasts, and for a while humanity seems to gain the advantage in what turns out to be a prolonged war. The jaegers become pop culture icons, the pilots become celebrities, and the people of Earth begin to relax and accept their new reality, that it’s life as usual except for the occasional kaiju attack that they get to watch be stopped on television by their nation’s jaeger defender.
Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy) is one of two pilots of the U.S.A.’s jaeger, the Gipsy Danger, until a battle with a kaiju goes horribly wrong and Becket, after barely surviving, walks away from the war a haunted man. He’s recruited back into the conflict years later by his old c.o., Marshall Pentacost (Idris Elba), who after the war goes badly for humankind is one of the few people left who believe the jaegers are the key to man’s survival. Pentacost brings Becket together with his remaining jaeger teams for one last, desperate mission, an attempt to close the portal allowing the kaiju to enter Earth’s dimension, but he’ll have to find Becket a new co-pilot with whom the ace can “drift”, and he’ll have to keep the team’s egos and suspicions and mistrust of each other from tearing the group apart before they can get the job done.
There are subplots involving Becket’s survivor guilt, Pentacost’s agenda and his reasons why he won’t allow his seemingly most gifted pilot recruit, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) be Becket’s teammate, and the research Pentacost’s two eccentric kaiju experts, Newt (Charlie Day, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), conduct in order to understand and predict the kaiju’s behavior and attack patterns. Screenwriter Travis Beacham does attempt to give the film’s human characters each something to contribute, but in the end, are the humans really why you might buy a ticket to see something like this? Apparently, Beacham and del Toro don’t think so, else they might have tried to provide more depth and opportunities for the story to be driven by the characters, and so the scenes between the humans, even those including Elba, who brings to this project far more gravitas and dignity than it has any right to, feel like filler between jaeger-kaiju bouts.
Thankfully, those bouts are absolutely breathtaking to watch on screen. The designs of the jaegers, from Gipsy Danger’s WWII-fighter inspired markings and muscular frame to the Chinese jaeger, Crimson Typhoon’s, three arms ending in gigantic circular saws, will no doubt have moviegoers debating which was the coolest jaeger in the film hours after its end. The kaiju are each highly individualized as well, though sometimes their unique features are hard to distinguish in the midst of the pitched battles they wage with the far more colorful jaegers. As machine and monster grapple and blast away at each other, often up to their waists in crashing ocean waves as the mechanized defenders try to keep the beasts from reaching land, their battling can almost be balletic. Michael Bay should take note of what del Toro has orchestrated here as he prepares to bring to the screen his next Transformers film, as the giant robot-dominated combat on display throughout Pacific Rim is often far more engaging to watch than anything we’ve seen Bay put Optimus Prime and company through so far.
But as entertaining as all that eye candy might be to those who enjoy sci-fi, fantasy, and anime, this film is not likely to make casual moviegoers into converts of those genres. What often wins Western viewers over to those genres is, ironically enough, the human melodramas and high-concept themes that are at the heart of the best that those genres have to offer. Fans care about what goes on in the frenetic battles that dominate mecha space operas and kaiju romps because they’re drawn in by the characters, their struggles, their romances, and their triumphs. Pacific Rim does try to honor this, as well, but with such thin writing and one-dimensional characterization, the attempt feels like an afterthought. Charlie Hunnam and his Sons of Anarchy castmate Ron Perlman, who shows up here just as he does in almost every other Guillermo del Toro film, do more heavy lifting in terms of acting in one episode of that series than they do in this film’s 2-hour plus running time. They’re not winning any acting awards of any kind for their work here.
But they sure do look like they’re having fun, as does the rest of the cast (with the exception of Elba, who never looks like he’s having fun and never SHOULD), and chances are, if you take this film for what it is and what it was meant to be, you’ll have a great deal of fun with it, too.
Score: 3.5 out of 5
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Rob Kazinsky, Max Martini, and Ron Perlman.
Running Time: 132 minutes
Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief language.