All summer long, my movie reviews have essentially amounted to a never-ending chant of “No more smashing! No more destruction! No more senseless, consequence-less violence!” Now I feel like a hypocrite, because several times during the running time of Pacific Rim, the tale of an epic clash between monster and machine, I repeatedly thought to myself, “If this gigantic action scene keeps going…I’ll be OK with it.”
So what’s the difference? Passion, for one. Director Guillermo Del Toro loves monsters in all shapes and sizes, and his obvious reverence for creature design comes through in the staggering images of the kaiju beasts that ravage the world in this movie’s vision of Earth’s very near future. The kaiju (named for the Japanese for “monster”) enter our humble planet through a fissure in the earth’s surface that serves as a portal to another, far more sinister realm. In response, the world has instituted the jaeger program, which constructs gigantic robots capable of fending off these beasts before they lay waste to the entire world, but usually not before they enact some cinematic destruction of their own. Two humans occupy each giant robot, and they’re forced to do a sort of mind meld in order to work in sync to walk and fight.
In the extended prologue, Charlie Hunnam and Diego Klattenhoff play two brothers with a special skill for operating the jaegers. It’s no spoiler to say that Klattenhoff’s Yancy Becket dies in the first battle we see, which leads to a beautiful image of a fallen robot lying on a beach with Hunnam emerging wearily from the depths of the mechanical beast. From there, we flashforward five years, when the leader of the jaeger program Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) finds Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) and asks him to rejoin the robot army, now confined to a resistance movement after the government shut down the official program. It seems the kaiju are infiltrating the earth at an increasingly fast rate, and something must be done. As Elba so memorably intones in the marketing campaign, the apocalypse needs cancelling.
This movie invents an intriguing science-fiction world with the monsters and robots at the forefront, but the smaller details captivate as well. During a particularly noisy fight scene, Del Toro pauses to watch as the monsters smash into a building and nearly topple a Newton’s cradle sitting on a desk inside. There are several significant pairs of shoes, none more delightful than the gold-encrusted ones on the feet of Hannibal Chau, a black-market kaiju organ dealer played by Ron Perlman with his typical delightful presence. (That character also recites some of the movie’s most memorable lines, none more so than his revelation that he chose his name after his favorite fictional character and his second favorite Asian eatery.) The mind-melding process necessary to operate the robots is called a “neural handshake,” a fun bit of wordplay. The jaeger program sort the kaiju into categories just like we do with hurricanes. A scientist played by the reliably strong Clifton Collins Jr. wears a jaunty bowtie, apropos of nothing. And so on.
Idris Elba’s performance deserves special mention. For one, he manages the Herculean feat of making a character named Stacker Pentecost cool. (As much as I liked this movie, I can’t ignore that the character names are as absurd as they are in After Earth.) Elba brings a commanding physical presence, sturdy charisma and quiet haunted quality to his performance, which makes an impression even amid the swirling action that threatens to envelop the mere mortal human characters. Give this man a franchise of his own; I’m sure he can handle it.
This movie is well over two hours long, but it rarely feels overstuffed or draggy. More impressively, I never felt the exhausting weight that I felt during the most tedious portions of Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness. I credit Del Toro and his co-screenwriter Travis Beacham for constructing a plausible world (by the standards of blockbuster fantasy, anyway) and exploring the possibilities within it without sacrificing a whole lotta robot-on-monster action. Del Toro films the big fight setpieces with an energetic blend of awe and joy, enlarging the scale of the beasts without obscuring our understanding of who’s who and who’s where. The movie also takes time for some rather beautiful imagery, perhaps most notable during a dream sequence in which a young girl encounters her first up-close kaiju on an empty city block. Rarely do the visuals feel assaultive or garish – even with the decibel levels ratcheted and the carnage levels maxed-out, coherence reigns, a welcome development in a summer of increasingly wearisome spectacle.
Pacific Rim doesn’t apologize for being an enormous love letter to monster movies and a rebuttal to the idea that large-scale action powered by CGI can’t be stirring and genuinely exciting. As such, some elements come up short. The characters rarely rise from sympathetic to truly memorable, except in the case of Chau and Pentecost. A perfunctory courtship between Raleigh and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, compelling despite a thinly written character) seems like the product of an obligatory studio mandate without even a hint of actual chemistry to back it up. Charlie Day’s high-strung performance as the perpetually curious scientist Dr. Newton Geizler grated on my nerves. Ron Perlman doesn’t have nearly enough to do. And the plot occasionally veers into too-much-explanation territory, with the characters babbling about the Wall of Life and other ridiculous ideas that don’t have enough time to be anything more.
In its best moments, though, Pacific Rim provides the most gripping thrills of the summer, and certainly the most eye-popping images per capita. Del Toro’s well-established quirks shine through even when the spectacle threatens to drown them out. The movie’s biggest achievement is that, even without overtly setting up a sequel, it left me wanting more. Considering my hatred for past movies featuring giant robots (ahem, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, I’m looking at you), that’s a feat worthy of a giant hulking beast. Luckily, Pacific Rim has plenty of those.