It’s been a long time coming but with Pacific Rim writer-director Guillermo del Toro finally has a gargantuan budget ($190 million to be exact) on his hands which has bought him a massive, expensive toy box to play with, roll around in and smash as he sees fit. It proves that the Pan’s Labyrinth director can step up the mark when it comes to huge movies like this and more than hold his ground.
The premise of his first truly big blockbuster – as fun as they were I always felt the Hellboy movies were held back by budget constraints – is pretty straightforward and will grab the attention and imaginations of the 10-year-old in all of us. It’s about giant robots fighting giant monsters. That’s it in a nutshell and del Toro has delivered a film of such spectacle that it’s hard to care that much about the cracks that appear along the way.
To delve a little deeper into the plot, it’s set in a near-future world where all of a sudden large alien-like monsters, nicknamed Kaiju (Japanese for “strange creature” and universally known as “giant monster,” naturally) have appeared not from the stars but deep beneath the pacific ocean, through a portal from another dimension. After causing mass devastation to several cities, the humans finally found a way to fight back: by building giant robots, nicknamed Jaeger (German for “hunter”), that can match the monsters in size and power. It uses advanced technology where the pilots have a neural link with the machine and because of the size of them it needs two pilots to work together, their experiences and memories linked together as they fight. We focus specifically on Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), an experienced Jaeger pilot who teams up with trainee Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) as humanity’s last hope to defeat the Kaiju.
It’d be easy to describe Pacific Rim as Transformers meets Godzilla, and there’s some truth to that comparison, but it’s more of a fantasy amalgamation than a copycat. Even among all the giant hand-to-hand combat and city destruction, there’s a craftsmanship to it from a man who clearly loves the art of filmmaking, the beauty of design and possibilities of mythology. This isn’t just another Michael Bay-esque blockbuster: it feels crafted, loved and filled with a (perhaps childish) enthusiasm for big-screen spectacle. There’s plenty of moments when you are allowed to just marvel at the sheer scale of what’s happening on-screen and the film is all the better for it.
The film makes various attempts at giving us an emotional connection to the story with varying degrees of success. Hunnam’s character suffers a devastating personal loss during a Kaiju battle gone wrong but it happens too quickly in the movie for it to have the emotional impact that was clearly intended. While Kikuchi’s subplot involving her childhood exposure to the attacks has much more of an emotional payoff.
However, at the end of the day this is a movie about huge robots punching monsters and the film wastes no time in throwing us into the kind of spectacular action you’d hope from a modern day blockbuster with that premise. There’s only so many ways you can show that kind of fighting but del Toro gets every bit of mileage out of it he can, causing destruction on land, at sea and even in space at one point to make for some truly breathtaking imagery and epic action that puts just about every other summer film this year to shame – a Hong Kong set-piece is particularly astounding. The action is very well shot, with everything clear and precise even as carnage ensues; certain other blockbuster filmmakers could learn a thing or two about letting the audience see what’s going on without constantly shaking the camera or zooming in too closely.
For those who want their big movies with a little more substance, Pacific Rim may be somewhat of a disappointment. Aside from the stripped down plot that just gets the job done and little more – the mythology it hints at is fascinating but the driving story only functional – the characters are a little on the underdeveloped and generic side. There’s the everyman hero (Hunnam), the egotistical asshole who quips about how he’s better than him at everything (Rob Kazinsky), the fearsome commander barking orders (Idris Elba), the clichéd ultra-geeky scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), whose comedic moments are sometimes a distraction rather than relief, and so on. They’re all fine but could have been more fully realized to make the film more than the sum of its parts.
It may lack the sort of substance to make it a truly special action film that will be remembered years down the line but for what it’s set out to do Pacific Rim is a success. There’s something inherently awe-inspiring about seeing two giant monsters (whether flesh or metal) face off against one another and this cranks that up to 11 in every way possible. Through astonishing visuals effects, well choreographed action, impeccable sound design and just sheer commitment to its central idea, del Toro has made a ridiculously enjoyable movie for anyone who ever smashed two toys together as a kid.
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