You would think that with the end of the human race practically around the corner (or, in this case, underneath the Pacific Ocean), people would have an easier time of putting their psychological baggage to the side until the fighting is over. But, then, us viewers would be left with just the sight of skyscraper-sized fighting machines beating the unholy tar out of ravenous cross-dimensional beasts. Granted, that spectacle in and of itself is no slouch, with more artful textures and layered colors than can be found in the flat, sunlit destruction of a Transformers film. But when humanity’s last hope is undergoing serious identity crises right at the moment of peak battle, it adds just that extra dollop of tension needed to make this more than just another del Toro comic-book film.
In some ways, this is the great demolition derby that Guillermo del Toro has been working towards in the past decade or so that he’s been trying to get various mega-budget projects off the ground. After getting nixed from The Hobbit and seeing his plans for a mammoth, R-rated take on H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness put aside (probably a smart move on the studio’s part, but a sad day for fans of the fantastic), del Toro still had a number of irons in the fire. A number of them sound as though they could approximate the greatness of his earlier fairy-tale work in Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone, but maybe this could prove to be the big international hit that he needed to finally become one of those directors who’s allowed to do whatever the hell he wants. Hopefully, that won’t involve any more Hellboy sequels.
In the case of Pacific Rim, what del Toro wanted to do was create a scenario in which giant robots get to slug it out with monsters. In the ocean. With swords and plasma cannons. The setup is handled somewhat clumsily at the start by a narration that continually emphasizes the “we” of humanity (the film is a throwback to the old style of kaiju and disaster films, where people put national differences aside and work together). Long, scaly, Cloverfield-type beasts are crawling out of a hellish interdimensional gash on the ocean floor and laying waste to coastal cities around the Pacific Rim. They’re actually called kaiju, in case you didn’t get what del Toro was going for.
To fight back, huge Robotech-styled vehicles called Jaegers (German for hunter or fighter) were built. The Jaegers are directed by two pilots who sit inside the giant head, stuck in a mind-meld virtual reality that’s made that much more effective when the two have some emotional connection. The film’s putative hero, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, a study in blankness), loses his co-pilot and brother in the opening battle scenes, and only reluctantly returns to fight at humanity’s last stand in Hong Kong.
When Pacific Rim works, it’s quite good indeed. Given the kind of film that it is, there’s plenty of heavy-metal action, with Jaegers punching kaiju and getting punched back, demolishing entire city blocks in the blink of any eye. One particularly effective tactic has a Jaeger wielding an ocean-going freighter like a club.
This last is the kind of thing one can’t see too much of on your neighborhood IMAX screen. Unlike other summer spectacles like Man of Steel, which piled on fight after fight until your senses were numbed, del Toro does a good job of spacing out those scenes. He shoots almost entirely in the dark and in the rain, all that metal and those spotlights glinting and gleaming wetly like sparks in the night. It lands somewhere in between the gorgeous compositions of Pan’s Labyrinth and the colorful f/x spectacle of the Hellboy films.
In between the speaker-blasting action, we are treated to the drama back at base camp, curiously called Shatterdome (which sounds like the name a trying-too-hard teenager would give his garage band). The head of this last remaining unit of Jaegers is the voluptuously monikered Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), a lean and stentorian figure who plays surrogate father for all the nameless Rebel Alliance types we see scurrying about the hangers in jumpsuits. He must play dad not only to the affectless and bland Raleigh, who must be coaxed back into the saddle like every reluctant warrior, but to Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) — the sole female in this guy-heavy environment — whose affection for the new bad boy Stacker attempts to quash.
Much like his other comic-book films, del Toro’s script (written with Travis Beacham) is laughably flat when it comes to dialogue between Raleigh and Mako; love and affection have never been this director’s strong suit. Other pilots are barely even introduced before they jump into their Jaegers and go to fight. The film is on easier ground when throwing things over to the requisite mad scientist comic relief, played with angst-ridden zeal by Charlie Day, and a black-market operator played by a one-eyed Ron Perlman for no other reason than that most films are drastically improved by his appearance.
But what actually gives this mechanically-obsessed film a faint heartbeat is Mako and Stacker, whose backstory shows her as a terrified little girl in a devastated city and him as the pilot who saves her from the rampaging kaiju. Elba ably plays the adoptive father and the harsh leader. It’s his scenes in particular that keep the film going between battles, even in the de riguer final battle speech, which Elba delivers with a nice Henry V cadence that almost makes you forget this is just a big monster movie.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.