Pacific Rim is a rare kind of spectacle. A Westernized fusion of kaiju eiga and mecha shows, not based on any existing IP, Guillermo del Toro's latest feels like some kind of weird nerd indulgence, something that shouldn't have gotten through the Hollywood assembly line but for a few vague resemblances to the Transformers series. The movie is a toybox, packed full of nifty sights and sounds and concepts, but what really makes it sing is that del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham not only take their concept seriously and sincerely, but make sure there's a heart beating at its center. A film this dense and chaotic may be easy to write off as a jumble of special effects, but on closer examination it's a lot more finely crafted than that.
A dimensional rift opens near the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, disgorging giant alien monsters which are quickly dubbed kaiju. The beasts start attacking major cities, killing and destroying with no apparent purpose. The world governments get together and deploy Jaegers (the name is German for "hunter"), giant robots piloted by psychically linked pairs of fighters who quickly become celebrities as they beat back the kaiju menace. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), co-pilot of the American mech "Gipsy Danger", watches and mentally shares in his brother's horrible death during a stormy kaiju battle, and the Jaeger program falls out of favor as politicians seek less expensive means of defense against a seemingly endless stream of monstrous invaders.
Years later, Becket is recruited back into a black-market-funded Jaeger program by its leader, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), and is paired up with Japanese protege Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) as Pentecost plans an assault to close the rift once and for all. Meanwhile, kaiju biologist Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and his mathematician comrade Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) perform some daring investigations of the nature of the kaiju, and race to find information that may become vital to winning humanity's years-long war.
As one might expect, the film's quirky storyline doesn't leave a lot of room for in-depth characterization, and for a while it seems like it is just going to be action setpieces linked by however much plot is needed to justify them. Slowly and surely, however, patterns emerge; we see the Jaeger pilots and the bonds they have to form in order to work together in the field, we see "Newt" (as the doctor is called) seek to connect with the mind of his enemy, and it becomes clear that this is a picture about forming connections and the importance of being able to rely on others. Even as Becket does the heroic journey thing, we see him supported and how that support is essential for anyone to have a chance.
Like the kaiju films of old (and their TV counterparts, the army of costumed-hero sentai shows), Pacific Rim isn't content to stop its reality bending with a few monsters and robots. We get to see a bit of how the world has been shaped by these invasions, transformed into a place both oppressive and weirdly beautiful. We see people living in the "Bone Slums" built around the corpse of a long-deceased kaiju, with a temple in its skull; a black market in kaiju remains headed by the sinister Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman); Americans living on rations and queueing for jobs building supposedly kaiju-proof walls that, well, aren't. The style of the film is exaggerated, vivid, colorful, but stays far away from camp. It's actually an impressive tonal balancing act that Del Toro pulls off, but behind it is his skill at creating convincing fantastic worlds both large and small.
The action is as densely packed as the story, putting everything on the field in terms of scope while also maintaining a sense of weight that can be incredibly difficult for CGI slugfests. The kaiju-Jaeger fights are rough and tumble affairs, grueling hardcore matches which are both amusing in their blunt energy and genuinely suspenseful. While most of the action takes place at night, waist-deep in water, often with debris splashing around, Del Toro makes use of brightly colored lighting and tight, disciplined editing to create some truly impressive exchanges. He enjoys moving from the very large to the very small, sometimes as a visual gag, other times simply as a reminder of what's at stake. Some of the kaiju designs kind of run together, but then they have reasons for resembling one another that play into the plot.
This is simply a film with many pleasures, from the thrills of ultimate monster-robot fighting, to Day and Gorman sniping at each other, to Idris Elba inspiring the troops. And his publicized rallying cry, "Today we are canceling the apocalypse!", could serve as a motto for the film as a whole, rejecting wholesale the visions of doom that are far more common at the multiplex, from Hunger Games dystopia to superhero deconstructions. While everyone else assumes the end is nigh, Pacific Rim insists we can stop it. The film's struggle at the domestic box office may endanger future sequels (and make Hollywood still warier of trying to start brand new franchises rather than exploit existing intellectual property), but the film satiates the appetite on its own; it holds nothing back. We may not see its like again in the near future, so get there while you can.
Story by Travis Beacham
Screenplay by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Guillermo del Toro