The premise of Pacific Rim sounds like it comes directly from a 1950s-era B-movie: Giant alien monsters invade the Earth, and humans build giant robots to fight them. But if you were to judge the movie based solely on that, you’d miss out on a lot.
That’s because the latest attempt at a summer blockbuster is directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, the mad genius behind the Hellboy series and the enthralling Pan’s Labyrinth. Del Toro has a unique sense of style, especially when it comes to the monsters he creates, so if anybody could elevate this premise into something great, he could.
The battles in Pacific Rim are ferocious, and the clash of monster against metal is a blast every time it occurs.
Pacific Rim is one of the few non-sequel big movies to come out this summer. Smartly, del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham made the film about more than just the origins of the aliens and robots.
In the first 10 minutes, there’s a huge information dump that details how monstrous aliens, nicknamed Kaiju, invaded the planet not from above but from a portal deep in the Pacific Ocean. In response, humans created jaegers, giant robots so complex that their two pilots must do a "neural handshake" with each other to control both sides of its body.
But the bulk of the film takes place years later, as those efforts have only proven to be stopgap measures against a never-ending onslaught of aliens. The powers-that-be are prepared to move on to other efforts unless the jaeger program — including leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) — can prove that they can stop the aliens once and for all.
Because most of the storyline revolves around the ongoing war, as opposed to its origin, the film puts the audience directly into the fire of battles, instead of building up to some big face-off. And the battles are ferocious: The clash of monster against metal is a blast every time it occurs, which is often.
The visual effects teams deserve huge props, as they make the out-there concept wholly believable in the context of the film. The Kaiju, which bear more than a passing resemblance to creatures in del Toro’s previous movies, are as impressive as anything ever put on film. And the jaegers look like the thrill ride of a lifetime, even if the side effects are a little unsavory.
The structure of the film is also important in establishing the tone del Toro wants. Because the people in the story are living in apocalyptic times, not approaching them, the inclusion of various comic relief characters or other action movie tropes is more easily palatable. It’s established early on that doom is always at the doorstep, so del Toro frees up the audience to laugh or cheer as they see fit.
And that also is often. Supporting characters played by Charlie Day, Clifton Collins Jr. and Ron Perlman help keep things light, while Elba, Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi keep things humming on the hero side. The film does go a bit overboard with some characters, including a nerdy scientist and ethnically stereotypical pilots, but given the strength of the rest of the film, that bit of excess is forgivable.
Pacific Rim is by far the best blockbuster film of the summer, as del Toro and the other filmmakers show that they really care about entertaining the audience instead of just delivering on a superficial level. The world may be coming to an end, but you’ll have a hell of time getting there.