What’s this? A summer blockbuster that isn’t a sequel or a remake? Surely, you can’t be serious.
And serious “Pacific Rim” is not. It may not be anywhere near one of the top films this year, but it certainly is one of the most eccentric and imaginative films of the summer. Part love letter to the genre of Japanese Kaiju monster films spawned in the wake of “Godzilla,” part raucous war-time flyboy film, Guillermo del Toro’s biggest movie to date is, at its core, quintessential del Toro beneath layers of megatons of screeching metallic gusto.
A fantastic prologue puts the audience into the mix immediately, showing how a rift in the bottom of the Pacific created a wormhole into another dimension where an army of monsters called Kaiju emerged and attacked our major cities. To fight the monsters, giant robots known as Jaegers were created, which humans would pilot from inside by using a device similar to an eliptical machine. When cocky pilot Raleigh’s (“Sons of Anarchy’s” Charlie Hunnam) brother is killed by one of the Kaiju, he must come to terms with his own inadequacies and join one of the sole remaining rebellions against the Kaiju.
Guillermo del Toro’s signature style is prevalent in almost every shot, despite an exponentially larger scope than the director may be accustomed to. Everything from the production design to the costume’s (especially Ron Perlman’s funky glasses) to the angular features of the Kaiju are very much del Toro staples, as are the gritty and gothic Hong Kong street scenes. Fans of “Hellboy” and “Pan’s Labyrinth” will surely find “Pacific Rim” to be a culmination of the director’s visual oeuvre, plus discovering plenty new material. Even a recurring del Toro motif of a misunderstood or abandoned child makes its way into “Pacific Rim” with an interesting but slightly underdeveloped backstory for Raliegh’s counterpart Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).
Del Toro weaves his very own mythology throughout the film, circumventing the massive battle sequences and creating some minor but zany depth to this world, like creating the “drift”, a temporal connection between the Jaeger pilots, which allow their minds to connect as one; or the mysterious monster world which exists in another dimension and is the true origin of our dinosaurs. This mythology is pure Guillermo del Toro but the director, as well as co-writer Travis Beacham only scratch the surface of what could be mined. They leave the fun mythology and “science” stuff to two wacky opposing “scientists,” both tongue-in-cheek stereotypes. The first is Charlie Day doing a wonderful Rick Moranis/Bobcat Goldthwait one-off as the overzealous and nerdy Dr. Newton Geiszler and the classically German mad-scientist Gottlieb (Burn Gorman). More than any other character in the film, these two embody that wildly imaginative del Toro mind.
The film does become stagnant in between the battle sequences. During these scenes the story relies on training montages or jealous in-fighting between the Jaeger pilots, which is rather dull compared to the battles and the mythology. The stale acting does not help these moments either. The film could be far better if the bridges between the battles were more involving.
The scenes of mass destruction are obviously frequent throughout this epic battle between 25-story tall robots and massive dinosaur-like monsters, but what separates this heap of destruction from other recent fare like “Man of Steel” and “Transformers” is that del Toro never stops to show us just how “awesome” the destruction is. Thankfully he spares us those overlong 20 to 30 second shots of skyscrapers crumbling to the ground, which would put “Pacific Rim” in the graveyard of broken cinema. The focus during the battles is almost always on the Jaeger and Kaiju.
“Pacific Rim” is never pretentious and is often funny, which makes it lofty and entertaining, despite some rancid performances. Except for Charlie Day, Ron Perlman and the sublime Idris Elba, the performances are often cringe-worthy. Under ordinary circumstances, bad acting can sink a film, but del Toro has presented such an extensive buffet of goodies that it’s easy to look past the acting (it’s not as if the characters require top-notch acting in the first place) and get lost in this brave new world. Elba, of course, steals the show as the no-holds-barred commander Stacker Pentecost. His great line “Today we are cancelling the apocalypse” has already made it into this year’s pop culture lexicon and is one of the highlights of the film.
Finally, props to Warner Brothers for releasing a wildly imaginative sci-fi romp of this scale which isn’t a sequel or remake. Despite “Pacific Rim’s” flaws, here’s hoping enough people see it and like it to send the message to all the studios that it’s not always a bad idea to produce new material, especially from directors like del Toro who certainly knows how to make a commercial film with a unique and visionary style.
MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 2 hours and 11 minutes.