“Pacific Rim” belongs in a better summer for movies. At a time when virtually every would-be blockbuster release is a dreary franchise entry, when what were once dazzling special effects have been whittled down into the mundane, “Pacific Rim” does something enthralling. Here we have a movie heavily inspired by existing material but not a franchise, one that uses established ideas without simply copying them, that employs deliriously imaginative visuals to make an appealing cinematic universe and populates it with characters who we come to care about. In these ways, this is the best “Star Wars” movie made since those films were good.
“Pacific Rim” is the latest from Guillermo del Toro, an aesthetically-inclined geek of a director who I always found overrated. But it would be hard to deny his achievements here, which take Japanese monster films and make them into the stuff of an awe-inspiring summer movie. Primarily set in 2025, “Pacific Rim” sees hordes of giant monsters (Kaiju) swarming the earth, “Godzilla” style. Humanity combats the creatures with giant robots called Jaegers, bipedal machines that punch, kick, stab, and shoot the skyscraper-sized Kaiju to death. The machines are piloted by two people who merge minds to do so, leading them to share memories and experiences on an intimate level.
The action scenes play not like cartoonish feuds, but like vividly realized dreams. Even as the Kaiju and Jaegers move with speed, their size makes their movements fearsome with deadly consequences. The hand-to-hand combat doesn’t become tiresome, but is perpetually exciting, a game of tactics and skill where single blows can mean the difference between a city standing or falling. Del Toro supplies us with innumerable images of beauty and pop sophistication, such as a Jaeger striding through a neon-lit metropolis, the armor-clad heroes driving their machines with elaborate piloting mechanisms, and the beam headlights of a Jaeger piercing through a dark storm as monstrosities batter each other, hammered by furious rainfall.
The film’s characters are archetypes made interesting by virtue of a strong script and a couple of sharp performances. Protagonist Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is a famed Jaeger pilot called out of retirement for a final mission. His co-pilot is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a flawless fighter hampered by her desire for revenge against the Kaiju. Jaeger chief Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) oversees the last-ditch attempt to end the Kaiju threat while balancing a personal connection with one of his pilots. Other characters, such as an Australian father-son pilot team and a black market Kaiju parts dealer (del Toro staple Ron Perlman), do much to flesh out this world, making it feel lived-in instead of simply constructed.
Despite the enormous attention to detail and multiple plot threads, del Toro proves to be a pacing disciplinarian, moving through the story quickly but without rushing. Only a subplot involving a Kaiju-obsessed scientist (Charlie Day) has a little drag, but only a little.
Mega-monster films benefit from having not been ground into Hollywood banality as have superhero and other franchise properties have. With “Pacific Rim,” del Toro manages the impressive feat of borrowing heavily from culture without retreading worn terrain, instead forging a new path out of recognizable material. Despite the impending apocalypse and massive destruction, “Pacific Rim” never feels dreary or grim, but like an earnest adventure, one that’s appropriately fun but infused with such sincerity that moments that could have been corny end up carrying great dramatic impact.
“Pacific Rim” immerses the viewer in a world that’s ostensibly a version of our own, but colorfully militaristic and futuristic, the gunmetal robots controlled by rainbow-colored displays, driven by colossal machinery. There’s so much going on in the design of “Pacific Rim” that some scenes approach a critical mass of bewilderment as the stellar technical and artistic delights compete with the jarring, astonishingly-staged action. It may not be revolutionary in the way “Star Wars” was, but it’s nearly as awe-inspiring and every bit as entertaining. Just as the giant robots require two brains to operate, fully appreciating the film might need the same, though two thorough views should do.