"Pacific Rim" is the first film to be directed by Guillermo Del Toro since the "Hellboy" sequel back in 2008. It is one of his Hollywood films, meaning that it's intended to be a pure entertainment, with no deeper artistic ambitions other than to wow a summer audience. However, Del Toro is still Del Toro, and when he tackles the concept of giant monsters and giant robots causing giant destruction, he does it in a way that puts the efforts of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich to shame.
Based on the beloved Japanese giant monster "kaiju" movies like "Godzilla," and the giant robot and mecha genres that gave us "Gigantor" and "Neon Genesis Evangelion," "Pacific Rim" takes us to a world in the not-so-distant future when giant beasts are invading our world through a breach between dimensions at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. In order to protect coastal cities from their rampaging, the world comes together and creates Jaegers, giant humanoid vehicles that must be operated by a pair of compatible pilots. These pilots have their minds linked to each other and the Jaeger through an interface called The Drift, causing them to share memories and synchronize their actions.
And if this all sounds like too much science-fiction mumbo-jumbo, rest assured that "Pacific Rim" boils down to a pretty simple redemption story. Our hero is a young man named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who with his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) pilot a Jaeger named Gipsy Danger under the command of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). Yancy is killed during a battle and Raleigh disgraced. Five years later, Raleigh is a drifter working construction jobs when Pentecost finds him. Thanks to the kaiju threat worsening, and political support being withdrawn from the Jaeger programs, Pentecost is bringing together the few remaining Jaegers and pilots for last ditch effort to stop the kaiju. He brings Raleigh to pilot a rebuilt Gipsy Danger, and assigns an admiring young woman named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) to help him find a new co-pilot. Not everyone is so welcoming. Fellow pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) is antagonistic towards Raleigh. And then there are the kaiju researchers, Geizler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorham), who may never stop bickering long enough to conduct any real research.
I'm sure there will be many people who won't be able to wrap their heads around "Pacific Rim." On the one hand, it's an incredibly simple and straightforward film, overstuffed with monster movie and "Top Gun" clich s. We have the hotshot pilot, the earnest rookie, the terse commander, an aggressive rival, a comic relief duo, and even a photogenic bulldog mascot for the Jaeger team. Though the "Pacific Rim" property is original, it's also extremely conventional genre entertainment. You can easily predict what's going to happen. The characters are fleshed out enough to get you to care about them, but don't have much depth. The comic relief characters, including a black market kaiju organ dealer named Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), are so over-the-top, they could never be mistaken for anything else. Most importantly, the whole movie depends on the audience finding the Jaegers and kaiju fights cool to watch, and they simply won't appeal to everyone. We're a long way from the era of rubber suits, but there's still something fundamentally goofy about the whole concept which may spoil the effect for some viewers.
On the other hand, it's hard to imagine anyone else handling this kind of material better. Del Toro's visuals are wonderfully tactile, and once again he's created this detailed, immersive world that it's a joy to get lost in. The first time we see Raleigh being suited up for a Jaeger battle, you get to appreciate just how much though and care went into the designs of the various Jaegers, their equipment, operating systems, and everything supporting them. The kaiju aren't given personalities, but they're still distinctive, and there's this fun culture that's developed around them in the film that we get to see bits and pieces of. The fights, even if you don't find them as fun and exhilarating as I did, are set up beautifully. Every single fight moves the story forward, there are big stakes, and every time a kaiju or a Jaeger goes down, there's a weight to it that is completely missing from any of the "Transformers" films. I love that Del Toro keeps finding different ways to remind you of just how huge his combatants are, and that he never loses track of the human element.
If it doesn't do well, I'm afraid that "Pacific Rim" may end up proving to Hollywood that the audience for mecha and other related stories is too small to support films of this size and scope. This is the closest we may get to a live-action "Gundam" or "Evangelion" for a long time. It's frustrating, because "Pacific Rim" has shown that it can be done, and that stories like this are a great fit for the big screen. The movie is far from perfect and probably far too indulgent for its own good, but it gets so many things we've never seen in a big blockbuster before, done so, so right.
Welcome back, Mr. Del Toro.