Guillermo del Toro knows how to put on a good show. With Pacific Rim he takes the simple concept of giant monsters beating each other senseless, and he mines it for all its worth. The result is a gorgeous, explosive film that also happens to be one of the best action movies of 2013.
Pacific Rim takes place in a near future wherein a portal to another dimension has opened up beneath the waters of the Pacific Ocean, a portal that spits out gigantic, civilization-destroying beasts known as Kaiju. I hate it when that happens. The rest of humanity apparently hates it, too, because they respond by promptly building gigantic metal beasts of their own to combat the Kaiju threat.
Because the machines, known as Jaegers, are so immense and complex, they require two pilots. Each pilot controls a portion of the machine, with the team sharing a neural connection described as “the drift.” The process requires the pilots to essentially become one with each other, sharing thoughts and memories. The best teams are composed of pilots who are physically and intellectually compatible with each other. That, of course, means the most elite teams are composed of family members.
In a brief prologue, we’re told that the Jaeger program was initially successful in containing the epidemic of Godzilla-esque monsters. The creatures adapt, however, and they soon begin to annihilate the human resistance. The story centers on Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), a former hotshot Jaeger pilot who finds himself in a slump following the death of his brother in combat. He’s one of the first to come up against the new and improved Kaiju threat, and the experience has left him damaged.
With his sibling—and ideal co-pilot—dead, he’s cast out into civilian life. Following a series of catastrophic defeats, the world’s leaders decide to scrap the Jaeger program in favor of building a giant wall around the Pacific Ocean. Given that the Kaiju are impossibly massive beasts capable of decimating entire cities in hours, it’s hard to imagine a big concrete wall being a very effective deterrent. It’s a stupid plan, and the general in charge of the soon-to-be-defunct Jaeger program (the always brilliant Idris Elba) initiates his own plan to take the fight to the Kaiju invaders while he still has the power to do so.
Part of this plan involves pairing Raleigh up with an equally talented but damaged pilot (Rinko Kikuchi). With the help of two manic scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) and hundreds of tons of monster-bashing steel, the group sets out to drop a nuclear bomb on the portal resting beneath the Pacific Ocean and to beat the crap out of any monsters standing in their way.
There’s nothing new here. The characters and story are mostly perfunctory, serving as an excuse to pad the space between sequences of machine-on-monster brutality. But Guillermo del Toro crafts a better movie than he needs to by devoting some level of care and attention to the characters and by ensuring that strong actors were cast to play those characters.
Del Toro never neglects to keep the human element at the forefront of his monster extravaganza. Reinventing the concept of the cockpit, the heroes of this movie are literally bound to the machine they’re piloting. The pilots are forced to move their bodies in tandem with each other in order to move the machine. That means that in order for the Jaeger to run, both pilots need to run; in order to throw a punch, both pilots must ball their fists up and throw a punch; and when the machine is rocked by an attack from a vicious Kaiu, the pilots—whose brains are jacked directly into the machine—feel physical pain. The Jaeger pilots are physically and mentally invested in what happens to their machine; they’re always in danger, and that keeps the action sequences from becoming detached and uninteresting. We care enough about the pilots risking their lives to stop the Kaiju and that alone immediately distinguishes this movie from cinematic swill peddled by the likes of Michael Bay.
However, most will enjoy Pacific Rim for its larger than life mayhem, including a gorgeous and hugely ambitious throw down between a group of Jaegers and a group of Kaiju set against the backdrop of a neon-lit Hong Kong. Del Toro could have rested on his laurels, content to showcase bland action sequences involving poorly realized monsters slamming into each other, but he doesn’t. Care and attention was put into the tremendous set-pieces of Pacific Rim, and it shows.
Each Jaeger bears its own distinctive characteristics and powers while each Kaiju has its own unique identifying characteristics and movements. Each battle proceeds somewhat slowly and awkwardly, as if you can almost see the internal machinery of each robot straining to deliver the next body-crushing blow. Titans grapple with each other, trading earth-shaking punches and hurling each other through skyscrapers and bringing the structures down as if they were composed of matchsticks. Monsters hock acidic, neon-blue loogies at giant robots and the robots respond by blasting the beasts with plasma. It’s all eye-poppingly explosive, and yet it’s imaginative and it’s clearly conveyed.
For all the snide comparisons drawn between Pacific Rim and Michael Bay’s godawful Transformers movies, one viewing of this movie proves that Guillermo del Toro is simply operating on a higher plane. There’s no ugliness or cynicism or contempt for the audience on display here. Pacific Rim may be a silly movie, but one can tell that Guillermo del Toro is passionate about his silly movie, and that passion will be felt by the audience. Colorful, upbeat, and enthusiastic to a fault, this movie is what all mega budget Hollywood blockbusters should aspire to be.