When I first saw advertisements for Pacific Rim around NYC, I have to admit I assumed it was another addition to the Transformers franchise. Forgive me the mistake, since the premise of Pacific Rim is pretty much Transformers meets Independence Day (i.e., giant monsters duke it out in beautifully realized battle sequences with dramatic city and ocean backdrops in what is essentially CGI porn — oh and BTW, it’s probably the end of mankind). The premise: in the future, decades-long Kaiju War, mankind’s heretofore best hope for survival — building-sized robot weapons called Jaegers which are piloted by teams of two soldiers who engage in a kind of modified Vulcan mind meld, called the Drift, in order to synchronize with each other and the Jaeger — become increasingly less successful against the equally large (and often larger) monsters called Kaijus, which have been terrorizing major cities on the Pacific Rim for the past few decades. The movie opens with a slick and energetic voice-over sequence that explains the background of the fight against the Kaiju and deposits the viewer in the last years of the Kaiju War, when the Godzilla-sized beasts are adapting and growing stronger each time they materialize (with increasing frequency) from the trans-dimensional portal, or Breach, at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Calling these beasts Kaiju is a less-than-subtle nod to Guillermo del Toro’s inspiration for a movie which is essentially a live-action love letter to the anime of his youth, as the Japanese monster movie genre that encompasses the likes of Godzilla and Cloverfield shares the name (kaiju translates directly to “strange beast,” but is more commonly used to mean simply “monster”).
The voiceover hits all the right notes, painting a fully realized futuristic sci-fi world in deft strokes that don’t attempt to delve too deeply into the science behind technology like the Drift or plot elements like the existence of the Breach. In another film, this might be a disappointment, but Pacific Rim declares itself early on as a giddily violent monsters-versus-robots smash-fest and it would be a crime to weigh it down with unnecessary scientific jargon (not to mention the irreparable damage this would cause to the pitch-perfect roller-coaster speed set up from the start, which makes the 3D action scenes feel at times like elements of a particularly adrenalizing simulator ride). This is unabashedly an escapist movie, so you’d better be prepared to suspend some disbelief. Which, let’s be real, isn’t too hard when there are ten story tall monsters tossing each other into mini tsunami-sized waves every few minutes. I’d call that a decent distraction.
The CGI in this film is spectacular, and — just as an homage to the kaiju genre rightly should allow — the Jaeger and Kaiju take center stage. Yet, unlike with the Transformers films, there’s just the right amount of plot to keep the attention of those who would like a little emotional heart served up alongside the truly epic fights of the Shatterdome. Admittedly, Charlie Hunnam was not the best choice for protagonist, as the bland (if exceedingly attractive — this girl didn’t mind the shirtless scenes) actor fails to inject the necessary oomph behind stock action movie — and often consequently cheesy — lines. But overall the acting is passable, managing not to distract from the main attraction, and Idris Elba as commander Stacker Pentecost carries the cast with exceeding believability, fierceness, and a determination that elevates the human elements of the story to balance the fight scenes. So, too, do Charlie Day and Burn Gorman provide satisfying levity in their respective roles as bickering scientists Dr. Newton Geiszler and Gottlieb. A few of their lines are surprisingly fresh and clever.
As the necessary (and only somewhat shoehorned-in) love interest, Rinko Kikuchi plays Becket’s co-captain in the final fight against the Kaiju. While Kikuchi’s acting is also passable, I would be reticent to leave out the slight edge of Orientalism I picked up in her character especially in the beginning of the film (meek, obedient, quietly intelligent, but only secretly a badass at fighting). Then again, most of the movie takes place at the Hong Kong base of the Jaeger operation (in its role as the “resistance” after the government cuts support for the program), and the less stereotypical and locationally-provided Asian flavor is a satisfying tribute to the anime and Japanese monster flicks of del Toro’s childhood.
There’s really no reason not to see Pacific Rim (unless you don’t want to spring for 3D and/or IMAX, since a regular screen would be a waste of the gorgeous effects). It’s a thrill-ride of a monster movie, provides more laughs than I expected, and unlike many similar action-oriented Blockbuster flicks, it gets more complex as more of the plot is revealed — rather than devolving into a predictable and plotless rock-em sock-em mess. Several characters that at first seem predictable and one-dimensional evolve to invite at least some empathy (particularly Robert Kazinski’s Chuck Hansen, who comes off in the beginning as the requisite douchey-for-the-hell-of-it foil for Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket). The Kaiju have a motive (slightly) beyond simple destruction, and the subplot of the antagonistic duo of scientists provides a pretty fresh twist on the monsters’ origins. Certainly much of the plot is predictable (how can it not be? Practically the same movie has been made a dozen times before), but del Toro manages to keep the viewer guessing about the fate of certain characters into the last few minutes. Sure, Pacific Rim doesn’t turn the genre on its head, but it doesn’t try to. Guillermo del Toro’s biggest movie yet may not be his best, but that’s testament to the quality of the movies (*ahem* Pan’s Labyrinth *ahem*) that he’s already turned out. And Pacific Rim does what it sets out to do.