Let’s all take a moment to be thankful that Guillermo del Toro walked away from The Hobbit. No matter what you ultimately think of that movie or Pacific Rim, the one he ended up making instead, there’s something undeniably fun about the concept of giant robots battling giant monsters that The Hobbit just can’t accomplish no matter how many 20-minute a cappella interludes it had. On concept alone, Pacific Rim is the movie I’d rather see every time. Luckily, the end result pays off the faith in this case, delivering Summer of 2013’s biggest, most relentlessly entertaining monster blockbuster. The kind of heroic piece of nerdy filmmaking that just might save us all from the summer daze.
As we discover via a monotoned Charlie Hunnam voice-over to open the film, sometime in the early 21st century a portal to another world opened up at the bottom of the Pacific ocean. Through that portal, known to humanity as “The Breach,” came Kaiju, giant monsters that look like evil cousins to Godzilla and the denizens of Jurassic Park. After seeing a number of its cities destroyed, humanity did that all-too-common hero movie thing and pooled its resources, creating an army of giant robots, known as Jaegers, to fight off this invasion from another world.
Narrated openings are a tough bag in any movie, made even more unbearable by Hunnam’s decided lack of pizazz, but this one serves an important purpose: it gets a great deal of exposition out of the way. You see, we need to know a few things about the Jaegers. We need to understand that it takes two pilots whose brains, thoughts, memories, etc. are linked together in what is called “The Drift.” If there’s to be any kind of human connection between audience and character, it all happens in The Drift. So this piece of voice-over carries with it some use, even if it feels silly.
What doesn’t feel silly is a lot of what happens next. Because guess what, these beautifully designed, highly personable giant robots get to fight the scary monsters. And that is where reviewers such as yours truly were forced to come up with new synonyms for the word “big.” When Pacific Rim gets to its core action, and it does so quite often, it gleefully stretches every inch of the biggest screen you can find, filling every digital pixel with unbridled machismo. Inside the cockpit of a Jaeger, it’s a Top Gun-esque co-pilot dynamic. Outside, it’s all the best possible melding of Voltron and The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers on steroids with a side of battle-tested grit. Every time we meet a Jaeger, whether it’s being dropped into the water in preparation for a fight or simply standing there, ready to be deployed, it’s immensely impressive.
The same can be said for the film’s villains the Kaiju. These monsters feel like the culmination of years of learning the demented, undeniably geeky mind of del Toro. The inspirations don’t stop with the Godzillas and Mothras, but go deeper into the world of Lovecraft. Del Toro may never make that At the Mountains of Madness movie, but at least he got to put some Lovecraft-inspired monsters on the big screen in a very cool way here. For the younger viewers, a Transformers vs. Cloverfield analogy could also work if you could strip such a thing of the pretense that comes with both properties. Del Toro brings no pretense to Pacific Rim. He’s directly making the most massive, relentlessly cool movie he can make until a studio accountant brings him to a full-stop. Luckily for his audience, someone sent the Warner Bros. accountants on vacation for this one. The result is the kind of destruction that Man of Steel would drool over.
The third set of characters in this film, the humans, are where any movie of this scale tends to get in trouble. Pacific Rim isn’t immune to such troubles, either. Often ineffective is the hero Hunnam who continues to play the one note bad boy character that’s worked so well with him on Sons of Anarchy. Then again, he feels right at home among the community of Jaeger pilots, who are at their heart a silly bizzaro-world Top Gun class.
The only human character that generates much connection is Mako (Rinko Kikuchi). Thanks to Kikuchi’s doe-eyed enthusiasm and her suitably badass fighting moments, she quickly becomes the most likable element that isn’t fifty-stories tall. It helps that her backstory includes the film’s most memorably terrifying Kaiju moment.
Outside these two, we get a mix of big action movie cliches all done to varying degrees of success. Idris Elba holds serve as Stacker Pentecost, the straight-laced head of the Jaeger program. He gives the film’s big rallying speech and plays it cool while everyone else seems to be losing their minds. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman play a pair of Kaiju scientists whose antics sometimes feel like more of an act than a partnership. Clifton Collins Jr. has strangely large sideburns as a Jaeger mission control man. And Ron Perlman shows up as a black market Kaiju parts dealer with impressive footwear and a bad disposition. On the whole, the characters formed in the script by del Toro and Travis Beacham range from stock to ridiculous, but somehow they fit into the whole. Because just as a Jaeger takes two minds to walk, this movie takes a wide range of characters to fill out the space between action beats.
The reason the human characters work despite all their narrative disadvantages, the cheesy dialogue and the abrupt non sequitur moments, is the same reason that a movie that pits giant robots against giant monsters works: it has a great sense of humor about itself. It understands that what it’s doing is ridiculous. It embraces that fact and uses it to find levity while staring down apocalyptic stakes. And at its core, Pacific Rim is a playset. Where some blockbuster movies are made to spawn a line of popular toys, this one feels more like an actual set of toys.
Guillermo del Toro’s toys are just much cooler than everyone else’s. The end result is just as logical from a narrative standpoint, but exponentially more fun. More fun even, than anything else we’re going to see towering above us on the big screen this summer.
The Upside: The action pieces in this film are so damned impressive that almost nothing else seems to matter. From design to execution, it’s next-level awesome.
The Downside: We don’t get much emotional attachment to the human story, aside from a few notable exceptions. So there will be no tears to go along with the cheers.
On the Side: The voice of the computer system that boots up the Jaegers is done by Ellen McLain, who voiced GLaDOS in the popular video game Portal.