Silver Screen: Pacific Rim ****
The rest of this summer’s blockbusters can pack it in-- we have a winner. Pacific Rim is the big dumb fun movie of the season, and the good news is, it’s not all that dumb... relatively speaking. Director Guillermo del Toro knows what you want out of a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters-- namely, lots of cool monsters and no shortage of robots punching them-- and while this sci-fi smackdown lacks the extra layers of his best work, Pan’s Labyrinth, del Toro makes a good enough movie that it’s not too tedious in between the robots and the punching. This is spectacle for spectacle’s sake, and del Toro delivers a steady stream of epic-scale battles, images of glorious destruction, and whoa-worthy moments.
The plot is pretty simple -- you got the part about the robots and monsters and the punching, yes? The monsters, referred to as Kaiju, the Japanese name for giant monsters like Godzilla, come from an undersea portal. After multiple Kaiju attacks leave cities across the globe in ruins, the governments of the world unite to create an arsenal of Jaegers, giant robots used to bring down the leviathans.
Del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham add a potentially silly twist: The Jaegers are so massive that controlling one of them damages the brain of one man piloting it alone, so teams of two operators must work together with their brains linked in what’s awkwardly referred to as a “neural handshake.” This necessitates a relationship between the two pilots, which adds a spark of humanity to the equation that differentiates Jaegers from Michael Bay’s impossible-to-differentiate Transformers.
Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) work in concert together-- that is, until a particularly wrathful Kaiju gets the upper claw on them and eats Yancy. Raleigh washes out until his old commander (The Wire’s Idris Elba) calls him back for duty in the waning days of the Jaeger program. Before their budget is cut, the Jaeger squad wants to make one final raid to close the portal and end the Kaiju attacks for good.
It’s just enough of a plot, but it’s all the plot you need to justify some massive monster showdowns that demand to be seen on the big screen. If H.P Lovecraft did design work for Toho Studios, the results would have looked like the Kaiju. They’re a little busy-looking but still spectacular, and their battles with the Jaegers play like duels between gods.
Yeah, the dialogue is throwaway, and there’s a little too much nerd pandering to ignore. The script tries to cast Raleigh as an unathletic everyman who happens to discover a unique talent for piloting the machines, but Hunnam is a chiseled bruiser who at one point wins a regular old fistfight, which muddies the movie’s attempt to be a gamer power fantasy. And it’s best not to think too deeply about the psychological implications of why American anime geeks looking for a live-action dose of Neon Genesis Evangelion would be excited over the prospect of mind-melding with Raleigh’s new copilot, sexy Japanese robot enthusiast Mako (Rinko Kikuchi).
Is there more to Pacific Rim? Godzilla, Mothra, and the other Kaiju OGs emerged in Japan in the wake of the devastation wrought by a pair of nuclear bombs. It’s a simple, grand-scale metaphor. America and the rest of the globe can perhaps better appreciate it now that climate change has caused increasingly deadly weather events to decimate major cities-- from Katrina to the British Petroleum oil spill, we’ve learned something about disasters that emerge from the sea. The Kaiju in Pacific Rim are rated on a category scale like hurricanes and tornados, and what used to be the deadliest, the category fours, give way to even more catastrophic category-five creatures.
But that’s probably a stretch, and an unnecessary one at that. The beauty of being a summer blockbuster is not needing thematic justification for smash-up action, or having silly, mostly extraneous characters like the arch-rival scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman. Action movies are uncomfortably similar to porn movies: It’s all about the action scenes and money shots. But too few filmmakers succeed at this deceptively simple game; they overstuff it like The Lone Ranger’s Gore Verbinski or Transformers’ Michael Bay, or they get lost in the details of a story that was always just a means to an end, as in the latest Shyamalan debacle, After Earth.
Del Toro gets it right when it matters. The robots stalking waist-deep across the oceans have a kind of majesty, even if they are always filmed fighting at night for budgetary conveniences. The thumping of the surround sound as the Jaegers trade blows with the Kaiju feels like the rumble of a roller coaster arching toward a steep drop. It’s going to be a fun ride. Enjoy.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.