Earth is doomed. Okay, what else is new? An ultra-violent, rapacious breed of gigantic reptilian behemoths from the earth’s core is rising out of the Pacific Ocean and ramshackling the entire Pacific region — San Francisco, Tokyo, Alaska, Sydney — in a bid to take over the Earth. They’re called Kaiju, the Japanese term for giant monsters, and like Godzilla, their genesis is a result of environmental tampering. Right, I’m following you, and so? To counter the beasts, scientists built equally Brobdingnagian war robots called Jaegers, manned by human pilots who work synched together inside the bots’ heads — one to handle the right brain, one for the left. The Jaeger-versus-Kaiju war has been going on for years. Oh, and how’s that working out? Not so well. The Kaiju are winning.
That’s the situation in Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s oddly exhilarating but basically routine sci-fi spectacle. It’s exhilarating because the special effects are colossal, stupendous, staggering, and practically nonstop — the heavyweight slugfests take up at least 90 minutes of the 131-minute running time. The action is exquisitely rendered as well as stupefyingly loud. The “routine” part has to do with the stuff sandwiched in between fights, little things like story and characterization.
Manly English actor Charlie Hunnam (Deadfall) plays Raleigh Becket, a construction worker and former Jaeger pilot called back into the service by Marshal Stacker Pentecost (action stalwart Idris Elba), the supreme military commander. Both Raleigh and his new female co-pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, the teenager from Babel), have unresolved issues from the past that they must deal with, in addition to some Top Gun-style hotshot pilot rivalry antics. Raleigh doubts himself after the combat death of his brother. Mako was terrorized as a child by a Kaiju who killed her parents. Another Jaeger team, an Australian father-son combination, offers resistance to Raleigh and Mako, but that passes. Now they have to face the mighty Kaiju in an epic battle in Hong Kong, and prove they have the right stuff. Along the way, cinéaste del Toro quotes every movie from Blade Runner to Chinatown.
Raleigh and Mako’s budding relationship, their intra-service feuds, their inner demons, even the presence of comic relief in the form of two geeky scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) and a sinister “used-Kaiju-parts dealer” named Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) — it’s all filler, written by del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham (Clash of the Titans) to kill time before the next round of fisticuffs. If you’re going to Pacific Rim to see anything but a romping, stomping cataclysm royale, you’re in the wrong auditorium.
We can’t help thinking of filmmaker del Toro’s early gothic work in Mexico and Spain. Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth possess an element of mystery, a lingering sense of the unexplainable, that makes each of them unforgettable. But Pacific Rim is all too easily explained. It’s obvious and dispensable, just another explosion-filled war of the worlds with this month’s most fantastic visuals.
We don’t necessarily want to castigate the director. After all, it’s his big-buck move up the food chain, a chance to play with a huge budget and provide booms and bangs where he once dealt in cries and whispers. But the project is too simple-minded to take very seriously. If del Toro and his associates wanted our respect, they would have taken the money they spent on this children’s toy and used it to feed and educate poor people living in the real Pacific Rim instead. Just to put it in perspective.