I’m one of those people who’s been convinced for about a year that Pacific Rim was always going to be the biggest dose of awesome we could possibly get at the movies this summer. How could it not be? It’s Guillermo del Toro’s dream movie, a giant monster epic that combines some of the best of Eastern and Western cinematic action sensibilities into one huge machine, with a compelling cast and trailers that just. would. not. quit. I had faith in Guillermo del Toro, I had faith in Idris Elba, I had faith in all those beautiful visuals leaked out to us over the last few months. I was convinced this movie was always going to be not just good, but positively brilliant action cinema.
But there were always those lingering worries. What if I was wrong? What if all the best parts of this film had been crammed into the trailers already, leaving us with nothing to see but a few boring character moments and a little bit of extra Elba speechifying? I’ve been burned before, after all. I was stoked for John Carter last year, I was convinced it would deliver greatness, and while I was sufficiently entertained by that movie (it really is unfairly treated), “greatness” is not a word I would ever use to describe it. So I walked into the theater for my Pacific Rim screening (in glorious IMAX 3D, by the way) with a peculiar knot in my stomach. Half of that knot was anticipation for what part of me was certain would be an incredible movie, but the other half – like a leering devil on my shoulder – was whispering “Your expectations are too high. It’s not going to be that good. Just let it go and save yourself the disappointment.” It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling at all (you’ve felt it too, I’m sure), but it was particularly strong this time, because I felt like there was something special about Pacific Rim. This is the film where Guillermo del Toro has stripped his story down to the purest of epic sci-fi pleasures, using all his many cinematic gifts to deliver unadulterated fun to the big screen. If he did it right, I was about to see what could be the purest dose of movie joy I’d get all year. If he did it wrong…
Well, I’ve already spoiled which side won with my headline, but I felt it was important to express how high the stakes were in my own head. This was important to me, damn it. A mere 10 minutes after the film started, though, that knot in my stomach had burned away, and it was replaced by a warmth that I rarely feel at the movies anymore. Pacific Rim is not without its flaws, but those flaws are so completely eclipsed by the sheer imaginative wonder of Guillermo del Toro’s filmmaking that I left this movie feeling nothing but absolute fanboy mirth.
I’m keeping the synopsis as spoiler-free as possible here, so don’t worry if you haven’t seen the flick yet. Basically, humanity has spent more than a decade battling massive extra-dimensional beasts known as “Kaiju” through the use of massive man-made robots known as “Jaegers.” For a long time, the Jaegers and their pilots held the Kaiju at bay, but the Kaiju attacks are getting worse, and the Jaegers are dropping like flies. As humanity considers other options, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Elba), the head of the Jaeger Program, presses for a chance to make a last stand against the monsters. With just four Jaegers left, Pentecost gathers his limited resources at a base in Hong Kong for a final desperate attempt to end the Kaiju threat. Among his team are Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a veteran Jeager pilot who’s been out of the game for years, Jaeger expert Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Kaiju experts Dr. Newton Geizler (Charlie Day) and Dr. Hermann Gottleib (Burn Gorman), a cocky young Jaeger pilot (Robert Kazinsky) and his down-to-Earth, veteran father (Max Martini). Together they must balance their often incompatible personalities, high stakes and impossible odds to save the world, because the Kaiju threat is about to get worse than anyone can possibly imagine.
Obviously the biggest thing to talk about when you’re talking about a film like this is the visual element, and here del Toro doesn’t just refuse to disappoint; he delivers in a way that I couldn’t have imagined, and the only way I can explain it is to say that he approached the hugeness of all these big action setpieces not just with a strong sense of good composition and clarity, but with a sense of true imagination. Back when the trailers for this film were first trickling out, I was telling a friend how excited I was to see the movie. My friend replied: “Why? It just looks like a Transformers knock-off to me.” There are a number of things wrong with that statement, but I couldn’t get it out of my head when I went to watch the movie. As I thought about it, I realized that the reason Pacific Rim is vastly superior to the entire Transformers franchise (as well as things like Battleship, for that matter), isn’t just the plot. It’s the sense of inventiveness. When Michael Bay does his big action setpiece movies, it’s all about the size. It’s all about “Look how big that explosion was! Wasn’t that cool?” That kind of cool can only take you so far. Del Toro definitely embraces the scope of his story, and milks it for all its worth, but then he goes further. Rather than simply making his action sequences about hunks of metal hitting things, del Toro engineers complex, character-filled fight sequences full of surprises and complications and intricate maneuvering. It not only feels realistic, but it feels unpredictable, something you don’t get from most films of this kind. And yes, it also looks better than anything Michael Bay and his CG wizards have ever put on screen.
The cast is also aware of the sheer bigness of what they’re doing, and while they’re more than happy to embrace the melodrama, they’re also capable of sincere subtlety. At times the film’s script places them in a Top Gun-style competitive situation, and it’s thrilling to watch, but what’s more thrilling is the depth each actor finds in these broad characters. Don’t get me wrong, no one is earning an Oscar for this stuff, but they’re all clearly relishing what they’re doing. Elba never gives up the image of a man in control, no matter what he’s asked to do on camera, and Hunnam gives the perfect portrait of a conflicted man who can’t help but get swept up in the drama of saving the world. The best performance of the film, though, might be Kikuchi, who finds moments of real power in Mori. Day and Gorman are perfect comic relief, and Ron Perlman is absolutely scene-stealing as a black market dealer of Kaiju parts. Action movie casts might get bigger, but they certainly don’t get better.
I did admit that the film has weak spots, though, so here they are. The sound mix is often dazzling, but sometimes the epic situations are so overwhelming that the dialogue gets a bit lost amid the clank and roar of the action. And the script, while tight, logical and well-paced, sometimes stoops to a level of corniness that would be off-putting in another movie (not so much here, though, if I’m really being honest).
But honestly, that’s it. I can find nothing else bad to say about this overwhelmingly fun film. From the moment it starts it just takes you away in a wave of light and sound to a place where summer movies just feel right again. Don’t miss Pacific Rim. In fact, see it again and again. Because we need, we deserve, more movies like the one Guillermo del Toro just gave us.