Directed by Guillermo Del Toro. Screenplay by Travis Beacham, Guillermo Del Toro; story by Travis Beacham. Produced by John Jashni, Mary Parent, Thomas Tull. Music by Ramin Djawadi. Photographed by Guillermo Navarro. Edited by Peter Amundson, John Gilroy. Production designed by Andrew Neskoromny, Carol Spier. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Diego Klattenhoff, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, Robert Kazinskiy, Clifton Collins Jr., Ron Perlman.
Orson Welles once said a movie studio is “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.” This sentiment, which taps into why many of us go to the movies at all, is probably shared by Guillermo Del Toro, director of bizarre, humanistic creepers (Pan’s Labyrinth) and big-budget phantasmagorias (Hellboy). His latest, Pacific Rim, takes Welles’ insight to a high-tech conclusion, imagining a universe cross-pollinated not with trains but between Japanese monsters and giant, punch-throwing robots. For Del Toro, a noted horror and monster enthusiast, Pacific Rim is a supreme, perfect train set. It doesn’t do more than what it promises, but what it does, it does so well.
The setting is the future, post-apocalyptic style. Earth trembles in the wake of a series of monster attacks that have decimated the globe. Giant creatures (“kaiju”) are pouring through a fissure on the ocean floor that connects to a parallel dimension. Knife-headed beasts and mantis-like horrors terrorize the globe, all of them just a hair below infringing on trademarks held by the 60’s Japanese films that used to dream up crazy kaiju by the dozen. The worldwide solution to the monster epidemic is to construct enormous robots (“Jaegers”)—ones that require two men in perfect tandem to pilot. The Jaegers are veritable kaiju beatdown machines, but the monsters slowly begin to adapt.
Our hero is Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), a driver for the US Jaeger project codenamed “Gipsy Danger.” The bond between Jaeger pilots is literally a meeting of the minds: a neural link gives participants perfect synchronicity, so long as they can step over the fraught mindscape of traumas and memories that unspool before them. When Raleigh’s bother is lost in a kaiju battle, the young man retreats out of terror, the years go by, and the Jaegers are soon on the edge of being completely overpowered. It’s up to Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) to recruit Raleigh for a final, desperate gambit as monster attacks reach their plateau. That’s the setup for what is essentially a prolonged, rock ‘em sock’em monsters vs. robots battle, one that visits the Pacific Ocean, Hong Kong, and even the sea floor.
And yet, Pacific Rim is not dim-witted; it’s joyously goofy and rich: the moment where scientist Charlie Day (in Rick Moranis mode) visits the Hong Kong underworld to procure a kaiju brain and comes face-to-face with the bedazzled black marketer Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) is the kind of giddy moment you get when a movie already has its hooks in you, and then rockets ahead with breakaway delirium. There’s a little dissention in the ranks (one loudmouth thinks Raleigh is a renegade who will screw up their chances), a little parental parallel parental figure angst (keep a close eye on Elba’s Stacker Pentecost and where he fits in). There’s even some neat martial arts in a tryout ring, which is where we meet Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), a promising potential Jaeger pilot who must learn control; she forms her own bond with Raleigh that is surprisingly touching. These characters are all familiar, standard archetypes, but here they’re polished to a bright shine.
The real star of the movie, aside from the spectacular special effects, is Guillermo Del Toro. A filmmaker’s filmmaker, one who somehow makes even a $200 million blockbuster epic a very personal film, Del Toro is a master of visuals, movement and color; this is a gorgeously expressive film, vibrant and alive, and filled with invention. He gets even the tiny details of production design right for this kind of pop epic. He doesn’t short-change the elements surrounding the battle centerpieces, and the battles themselves are handled with precision and scope rather than rat-a-tat editing and clumsy geography. His action scenes care to have you follow them. Del Toro uses technology but is no slave to it, and when Pacific Rim reaches a glorious finale, it’s a satisfying crescendo as he pulls together the humanity and machinery in such a way that we truly care what happens to whom. Pacific Rim is Star Wars for the anime and Godzilla set: a repackaging of tropes done with such skill and conviction, it’ll convert the uninitiated into superfans, exiting the theater on a glorious high.