I muttered "holy s**t" five times to myself during "Pacific Rim." And then I stopped counting. While hardly a mature, intellectual or subtle affair, "Pacific Rim" is adolescent glee writ large. Guillermo Del Toro and his team promised monsters versus giant robots and boy howdy they delivered. It is one of the better dumbass sci-fi action movies to come down the pike in quite some time.
They don't let 14 year-old boys direct multi-million dollar feature films, but somehow, perhaps through years of Ramtha-like training, Guillermo Del Toro has channeled the interests, attitudes and fears from that mindset with a clarity that far surpasses contemporaries like Michael Bay. This no doubt has a few cons, as nuance is sacrificed on the altar of spectacle from the very first frame. The pros, however, loudly, demonstrably and repetitively overrule with clobbering fury. This is playtime and imagination drawn from a number of different sources and it is, when compared to its peer group, of extremely high caliber.
The set-up: a rift deep in the Pacific Ocean exposes a portal to another dimension. (And why the hell not?) Through this portal come giant Godzilla-esque beasts called kaiju. They each get their own call sign because call signs are awesome. They stomp around and kill, but are not totally indestructible. The governments of the world join forces to create giant protector robots called Jaegers. The Jaegers all get call signs too because, in case you forgot, call signs are awesome.
The Jaegers, however, don't operate themselves - they require at least two pilots who need to sync up via a mind-meld called a neural handshake.
Oh yeah, the neural handshake – formally referred to as the "drift" – is just one of the glorious pulpy SF terms in this movie. Jaegers are kept in the Shatterdome, the three Chinese pilots fight using something called "Thundercloud Formation" and the man in charge of the whole operation is named Stacker Pentecost, played with superlative badassery by Idris Elba.
The hero of the film, however, is Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), the best damn pilot we've got. He suffered a defeat when his brother/co-pilot died by his side but ultimately he will be the one entrusted to save mankind. Alas, it is in discussing Becket that I must lodge my first and largest criticism of "Pacific Rim." The problem, I feel, is that Charlie Hunnam flat-out stinks. If you squint while he's onscreen you can almost imagine he's Channing Tatum, but in my opinion he lacks what old timey producers call “It.” He's a charisma black hole and his line readings are, to me, laughable. His poor performance took me out of the film repeatedly, and with extreme prejudice.
The rest of the crew, however, are all top notch. In addition to big boss Elba there's Clifton Collins as Elba's right hand man Tendo Choi, Max Martini as fellow pilot Hercules Hansen, Ron Perlman as underworld king Hannibal Chau, Charlie Day as the squirrely scientist Dr. Newton Geiszler and Burn Gorman (that's the actor's real name) as the other twitchy scientist Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (who is English, not German, for some reason.) The Day-Gorman pair are characters straight out of Japanese animation, brilliant psychos at the fringes of all the tough guy action.
And how bout that action! It is shot cleanly. Well, rendered cleanly might be more accurate, but the point is you can see what's going on. The fights are enormous, silly, near-WWE style set pieces with destructive crunches, bonks and thwaps. The design is superlative and Del Toro bends over backward to give us fight choreography we haven't seen before. Best is when we cut back to the Jaeger cockpit where our two pilots “in the drift” are pantomiming the gigantic robot's moves.
I haven't mentioned the only women in the film that gets more than one line of dialogue – Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori. There's some meet-cute business at first, then some emotional obstacles she needs to overcome, but in time she and Hunnam form a tremendous bond. Here's something fun: there's no romance. They look at one another fondly, but it is completely chaste – not even a peck on the cheek. Because 14-year-old boys don't know what the hell is going on with girls, but they know they want to be around an ass-kicking one that likes them. And I can't reiterate enough – this movie was made by a 14-year-old boy.
“Pacific Rim's” other big win is its style of world building. There's no exposition shock and awe – just enough on the edges to keep your mind spinning. When the giant kaiju are slain, their corpses are too large to fully remove. Shots of cities show how the flow of every day life has built around the bones of these fallen monsters. It's a small touch, but representative of the level of care put into what a lesser production would just steamroll through.
I really loved the parts of this movie I was supposed to love. There are dull patches, some rivalries and drama that kinda feel like stalling for time - but most of these scenes have at least one solid “oh, snap!” line. Nothing tops Idris Elba shouting “today we are canceling the apocalypse!” but I think you need to go back to “Henry V” to find anything better. And now that I've compared this movie to Shakespeare I'm going to go play with my toys.