It’s been five long years since Guillermo del Toro directed a film. It certainly hasn’t been from a lack of trying as he was all set to direct The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) before legal studio wrangling prompted him to depart the production. Then, he came close to realizing his dream project, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, but the studio balked at a big budget R-rated monster movie and that fell through. Frustrated, Del Toro jumped at the opportunity to direct Pacific Rim (2013), an epic science fiction film that he was already producing and co-writing with Travis Beacham (Clash of the Titans). The film fits rather nicely in Del Toro’s wheelhouse as it involves massive battles between giant monsters and human-operated robots.
Del Toro has always been fascinated by creatures, from the mutant insects in Mimic (1997) to the grotesque vampires in Blade II (2002) to the creature underworld in Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008). Pacific Rim allows him to pay tribute to the kaiju and mecha genres popularized in Japan that were spearheaded by Godzilla (1954). After the impersonal CGI workouts that characterized Michael Bay’s Transformers movies, the hope was that Del Toro could bring his own personal touch to the summer blockbuster.
A few years into the future and giant monsters known as Kaiju emerge from a portal located deep on the ocean floor and lay waste to cities all over the world. In response, many countries band together and create the Jaeger program, an army of enormous robots, or mecha, controlled by two human pilots, to combat these creatures. The pilots form a kind of Vulcan mind meld so that they are not just one with each other, but with the robot as well. This gives Del Toro the opportunity to hit it us up with one loving shot after another of these mecha, showing how they work in a way that tells us all we need to know in a few minutes.
The opening battle not only introduces us to how the mecha operate, but also to Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a hotshot pilot and his equally brash older brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff). Of course, their cockiness proves to be their undoing and Yancy is killed in battle while Raleigh lives, wracked with guilt. With this opening battle, Del Toro does an excellent job of conveying the colossal scale of the robots and the monsters and what they can both do in a way that is never confusing.
He also personalizes the battle by showing how it affects the pilots. As the years pass and the war rages on, more Jaegers are destroyed and the program is to be phased out in a matter of months. The remaining ones are ordered to regroup in Hong Kong for a last stand. Raleigh has quit and becomes an anonymous welder working on a coastal defensive wall in Alaska when he is recruited back into the program by his former commanding officer Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). The introduction of the surviving Jaegers is robot porn for mecha fans with lingering, awe-inspiring shots of the architecture of each one.
There’s an amusing subplot involving Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), a quirky, maverick scientist, pursuing a wild experiment that allows him to mind meld with the brain from one of the creatures, but a live one is hard to come by so he seeks out black marketeer of living Kaiju organs, Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) in the slums of Hong Kong. It’s a small role, but one that veteran Del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman makes the most of with his flashy attire and gruff attitude. The interplay between the grouchy cynicism of Hannibal and the frantic idealism of Dr. Geiszler is entertaining and provides some much needed levity. It is a lot of fun to see Ron Perlman and Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) banter back and forth, including a cool sequence where Hannibal’s crew travel through the insides of a defeated creature to find its secondary brain and stumble across something else.
Let’s face it; the characterization in Pacific Rim is pretty superficial with most of the pilots being interchangeable and their rivalry coming off as something right out of Top Gun (1986). At best, the dialogue is serviceable and many of the archetypal characters are rife with clichés as Raleigh is teamed-up with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a rookie with no practical experience, but has a thirst for revenge, much like he does. Del Toro makes some attempts at characterization with Raleigh and Mako coming to grips with their respective demons over the course of the film, which is, to be honest, simply filler between impressively staged battle sequences. Only Idris Elba and Ron Perlman manage to make a distinctive impression with their respective characters, the latter rising above his character’s archetype through sheer force of will and attitude. Just look at the choices Perlman makes with wardrobe, how he speaks and how he carries himself to see how an actor can make something out of a minor role. However, we’re not watching Pacific Rim for characters’ soul-searching. We’re here to see giant robots beat the crap out of huge monsters, which this film delivers in a very satisfying way.
Some criticize the monsters in Pacific Rim as looking rather alike (reminiscent of the monster from Cloverfield) and not very distinctive, which is rather odd considering what a fan of monsters Del Toro is and what unique creatures he’s delivered in the past. I get the feeling that he was more interested in showing the diversity of the Jaegers – all of which have their own distinctive look and abilities. He lingers on them many times while the Kaiju are seen fleetingly during the day or slightly-obscured at night or deep under murky water. This may have been due to the budget limitations for the creature visual effects or that he simply wanted to put more emphasis on the mecha and the people that pilot them.
For anyone who grew up watching or is a fan of Godzilla vs. [insert name of monster], Pacific Rim is pure, unadulterated cinematic catnip. It is pretty cool to see robots and monsters duke it out, like a moment where one of the Jaegers uses a large freighter ship like a baseball bat, or when the same robot uses a giant sword to slice a Kaiju in half (in what seems like a visual nod to Voltron!). Unlike the Transformers movies, Pacific Rim has a lot of heart. It’s not afraid to embrace clichés, like the stirring call to battle speech, the maverick pilot with something to prove, and the scientist with a wild theory that just might help beat the monsters, and serve them up with a straight face. Del Toro does this lovingly as only a fan of kaiju movies could.
You really get the feeling that there is something at stake in the story depicted in Pacific Rim, that this isn’t just another CGI workout – all noise and fury signifying nothing. While this film may not be as artistically satisfying as The Devil’s Backbone (2001) or Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), it is wonderful to see Del Toro back in the director’s chair delivering the goods with a rousing and entertaining popcorn movie that reminds us of the unbridled glee we felt as children being transported to cinematic worlds populated by visually arresting special effects and heroic figures fighting to save the world.