Back when Zack Snyder’s Man Of Steel was released, there was quite a bit of hullabaloo about the sheer destruction that took place in the film, wherein Metropolis was essentially leveled during the battle between Superman and General Zod. Well, after watching Pacific Rim, I’m here to tell you that the bar has officially been raised. Guillermo Del Toro’s giant robots vs. giant monsters film is a glorious, ridiculous, beautiful disaster of a film, with battles that reduce whole cities to nothing but crumpled shells of steel and ash.
Yes, there’s a story woven into that destruction. In the not-to-distant future, an interdimensional rift opens up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, and gigantic monsters, dubbed “kaiju” (literally Japanese for “strange beast,” but often re-defined as “giant monster”) come crawling out of the depths and begin laying waste to the world’s major cities. In an effort to combat them, the nations band together and design “jaegers” (German for “hunters”), giant robots (mechas, really) outfitted with massive weapons, piloted by a pair of rangers who go through some sort of mind-melding process because the mechanics of the robots are too complex for a single mind to successfully manage. Over time, humanity and the jaegers begin to turn the tide. Everything changes when all-new, even bigger and more dangerous kaiju begin to show up — and in greater numbers — just as the jaeger program is about to be scrapped. And so, of course, the rangers must band together in a last-ditch effort once and for all, to try to destroy the kaiju and find a way to close the rift forever. Massive, gorgeously devastating hijinks ensue.
Pacific Rim is everything you’d expect it to be — everything you want it to be — based on that description. It’s huge and loud and bombastic and cheesy as hell, and it’s riddled with weird plot holes and crazy and Jesus goddamn Christ, it is so much fun. How much fun you’ll have may depend on your appreciation for the several genres that influenced it, and the myriad source materials that it pays adoring homage to, borrows from, and yes, sometimes outright steals from. For people like me, who grew up devouring the old Saturday morning “Creature Double Features” (Bostonians and Philadelphians will appreciate the reference), the old Toho Studios giant monster films, and alien invasion stories and movies, it’s a bonanza of loving homage. It’s clearly a weird, crazy passion project for Del Toro, and for those reasons alone, it’s a ton of fun. It borrows heavily from everything from Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla to Journey To The Center Of The Earth to Independence Day, but it never feels too much like copycatting (although, there are a couple of big, sweeping dramatic moments that are a little too close to Independence Day.
The cast is surprising in both their anonymity and their eagerness to embrace the cheese, replete with absolutely preposterous names. Idris Elba plays Stacker Pentecost, the gruff and demanding leader of the rangers who, shockingly, has a heart of gold. Charlie Hunnam (“Sons Of Anarchy”) plays the prodigal Raleigh Becket, a jaegar pilot scarred and exiled after a terrible accident, who represents the last hope. Rinko Kikuchi (The Brothers Bloom) plays the up and coming rookie. All of them deliver enthusiastic, enjoyable performances that will never be nominated for a damn thing, but man, they sure seem to love what they’re doing, and sometimes that’s just enough. Particularly enjoyable is Charlie Day as an energetic, wacky scientist named Newton Geizler and Ron motherf*cking Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a black market profiteer whose name has a history that literally made me cackle. Perhaps the ultimate bit of homage was the hiring of Eileen McLain, best-known as the voice of GLaDOS in the Portal video games, to voice the Jaeger computer systems.
What makes Pacific Rim such a solid, satisfying experience, however, is that it’s big and brash and deafening and silly, but unlike so many of the modern blockbusters, it’s also legitimately fun. There’s a genuine appreciation for its roots, but also an effort to draw in new fans by making the film relatively breezy . There’s a conscious effort to not bog it down with too much dark, gritty seriousness, yet also giving it just enough sturm und drang that there’s something to root for. While the destruction is huge and devastating, there aren’t any graphic depictions of human suffering (in fact, the film makes a point of noting how humans evacuate and shelter themselves during the chaos). As a result, you get to enjoy focusing on the story of the people and the fights, without feeling vaguely sick about the widescale calamity you are seeing. But there’s also a breathless, childish glee to the film, making it one of the more enjoyable trips to the cinema I’ve had in a long, long time. Its pacing is fast and fluid and packed with action, and as a result, its more than two hour running time slips past you almost unnoticed.
That said, the plot holes are occasionally gaping, but there’s a sort of joyous goofiness to it that allows you to get swept up in it. Example: the best Jaeger pilots are born out of close, complex relationships, which is why the most successful pairings have been familial or marital. Mako and Raleigh decide that they’re meant to be paired after what is basically an afternoon of conversations followed by two minutes of kendo exercises. And I remember thinking, “the hell with it. I’m all in at this point, so I’m just going to sail right past that bit of ridiculousness”. Before people start with the “how is this any different/better than Transformers, let me tell you. Because Guillermo Del Toro may not have told the most deep, intellectually stimulating story, but he absolutely cared about it. There’s nothing insulting or denigrating, no unnecessary exposition and moronic history. There’s an elegance in the film’s simplicity, and he allows the characters and the setpieces to carry it along and let the humor feel organic and genuine, instead of bludgeoning you with tired riffs and puerile jokes.
Yet what separates it most from the Transformers and Battleships of the world is that the action pieces are actually quite wonderful to watch. One of Del Toro’s gifts has always been an understanding of space and how action should be set up within the physical environments he’s working with. If you watch his more fast-paced films, like Blade II or Hellboy, the action is often massive and dizzying in its intensity, but you never lose track of what is happening. It’s never mindless or extraneous. In Pacific Rim, every piece is clearly identifiable, you can tell what they’re doing and where they are in relation to not just the other players, but the environment as well. In Transformers, everything was just a blurry mishmash of clanging and groaning and explosions, yet here, despite the utter havoc being wreaked and the vast scale, despite the elements that are frequently in play and the massive structures being torn apart left and right, you actually know what is going on. It’s aided by some inspired design work — the robots are massive, weird-looking creations with a combination of firepower and fighting moves, while the kaiju are a gnarly mix of classic monster movie archetypes that have been garishly modernized. The effects are terrific, bright and stunning and infused with an impressive liveliness. It should be a study guide for future blockbuster directors.
Pacific Rim is not going to be the best movie of the year, and I can’t even guarantee that everyone is going to like it. But for those of us who were raised on Godzilla and Rodan and, on Mobile Suit Gundam and Neon Genesis Evangelion, on Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, it’s a breath of fresh air, a huge and cacophanous visual spectacle that gets much more right than wrong and as a result is wildly enojyable. Hopefully, there will be enough of to draw in new fans as well, because while Pacific Rim doesn’t always have much of a brain, it’s got a hell of a lot of heart.