Riding a reported wave of apathy, if you choose to put stock in the opinions of those fickle US audience research groups, Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s homage to Kaiju and Mecha movies, is finally here. But are the doubters right, or have the fanboys who held out hope been vindicated?
When gigantic aliens (the Kaiju) break through a rift in the Pacific Ocean, humanity learns to fight back with something gigantic of their own – the Jaegers, enormous robots connected via a neural ‘drift’ to its two pilots. But when the Kaiju start sending more and increasingly unkillable creatures through, humankind is once again threatened with extinction. Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) decides to mount one last counter-attack, and he’s going to need haunted ex-pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) to help. Can Beckett and the last remaining Jaegers save the day?
It’s easy to criticise films that put spectacle over substance. The assumption is that any idiot with a computer can put together a metropolis-destroying fight sequence. Leaving this assumption to one side to focus on another, we assume that those who haven’t got excited about Pacific Rim yet have overlooked the presence of del Toro – he’s not exactly known for his lack of heart or artistry. Our biggest concern was that the narrow confines of a big Hollywood blockbuster might prove restrictive. Could a film with such a massive scale retain that essential del Toro-ness?
The answer is yes. Because as big and as stupid as Pacific Rim is, there is never the sense that it’s anything other than what its director wanted it to be. It’s a huge live-action cartoon from a director with a tremendous love for the source material. If you share that love for Godzilla or mecha movies on any level, you are in for a treat. If not, there’s a very good chance you’ll have a great time anyway. The spectacle is stunning, even if the human element is not.
So while you may cringe as the hot-tempered Beckett struggles to regain the respect of the surly Pentecost and prove himself to the eager but judgmental Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), it’s impossible not to get swept up in the joy of the thing. Charlie Day’s ‘Kaiju-groupie’ scientist Newton acts as the director’s surrogate, geeking out at the “2,500 tons of awesome” alien invaders, while the lingering shots of the Jaegers are the closest you’ll come to robot porn without turning your safe-for-work filter off. Square-jawed hero-bot Gipsy Danger aside, there’s the chest-cannon bravado of Striker Eureka, the elegant three-armed beauty that is Crimson Typhoon and the awesome raw power of Cherno Alpha.
What’s more, the fight sequences between the two are superbly realised. Del Toro loves his creations and he wants to show them off. Lacking the migraine-inducing editing of Transformers or the grey colour palette of Man Of Steel, Pacific Rim is a brightly coloured and highly engrossing piece of action cinema.
It should be noted that much of the film does require you to disengage your brain, or at least shout down the parts of it that tell you that no human being would utter lines of dialogue cobbled together from a million other films. But while the script is decidedly unnaturalistic, it’s also representative of the material that del Toro has been inspired by. Pacific Rim is actually at its weakest when the American influences push through (Top Gun seems to have been a key touchstone, while Independence Day gets a big nod or two.) Raleigh Beckett is the least interesting part of the film by quite some distance, as Hunnam struggles to find the charm necessary to bring such a two-dimensional figure to life.
But all the characters are cut-outs. Kikuchi (The Brothers Bloom, Babel)’s Mako is limited to longing glances at her co-pilot for much of the first half, but she brings a sense of humour to it and the character is fleshed out with an affecting flashback. Elba is well-cast as the imposing Pentecost, the archetypal general with a secret, a booming voice and a bigger heart than he lets on. Day gets best in show, channelling his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia manic energy to great effect. He benefits greatly from not only getting the best lines, but from sharing scenes with a scenery-chewing Ron Perlman, playing a black market Kaiju organ dealer named Hannibal Chau.
Finally, though, Pacific Rim is about the spectacle. Watching these creations take on skyscraper-sized, dinosaur-inspired aliens in broiling oceans and crumbling cities is simply fantastic. Del Toro will return to nuanced, sensitive filmmaking. This is big, dumb entertainment that’s beautifully detailed, wonderfully shot and tremendously exciting. As endearing, brainless and awesome as a puppy with jetpack, Pacific Rim is the most fun you’ll have all summer.