BY STEWART SMITH
"Pacific Rim" is Guillermo del Toro's "Star Wars."
Allow me to qualify that statement.
I don't think "Pacific Rim" will embed itself into the popular culture the way "Star Wars" did. Few films of any pedigree ever do that and I have a difficult time imagining this one doing so. That said, on so many other fronts, it accomplishes the same feats and is birthed from the same place as George Lucas' iconic film.
"Star Wars" was Lucas' love letter to sci-fi serials like "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon," as well as a healthy dose of Akira Kurosawa's samurai films. But his wasn't just some pastiche or remix. Lucas crafted a fleshed-out, lived-in world that became iconic in its own way, but one that paid tribute to its very defined points of inspiration. And that's precisely what del Toro does with "Pacific Rim."
But where Lucas brought his love of spaceships, ray guns and samurai swords, del Toro revels in his love of giant monster movies and Japanese anime.
The plague of the modern comic book film/blockbuster is the seemingly incessant need to always have an origin story, to spend two-plus hours explaining why the heroes have their capes and the villains do dastardly things. Rarely is so much time and effort necessary, and thankfully del Toro (along with Travis Beacham's script) avoids this. Instead, after some economical narration and news footage, we're dropped straight into the world as it exists in the film, one where all nations have banded together and pooled their resources to fund the Jaeger Program. The Jaegers (giant, bipedal robots) are necessary to fight off the increasingly frequent invasion of Kaiju, giant monsters that wreak havoc after entering our world via an interdimensional rift on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.
We're introduced to our hero, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), as he and his brother head out to take down a Kaiju in Alaska. Jaegers are controlled via a neural link, but the mental strain is so great that two pilots are required. They connect through what's known as The Drift, a so-called "neural handshake" that allows the pilots to experience each others' memories and thoughts, but it can only be accomplished when the pilots share a deep bond.
But when Raleigh experiences every moment of mental anguish and pain when a Kaiju rips through the hull of Gipsy Danger (each of the world's major super powers has a corresponding Jaeger with an odd-yet-awesome-sounding name) and kills his brother, he walks away from the program for good.
Until, that is, his former commanding officer, Striker Pentacost (Idris Elba), digs him out of retirement for one final push against the Kaiju.
All of this will feel immediately familiar to anyone who's ever watched a Japanese mecha anime. Every character beat, robot design and convention at play here is well-worn, but the miraculous thing is that it never once feels derivative or tired. There are countless little details and textures that will only register with fans of the genre, yet it never feels inaccessible. It manages to be both broad and specific in equal measure.
The result is something that feels alive and ringing with a personality that's unlike anything we've really seen in a film of this sort before. Giant monsters have filled movie screens, yes, but they've never felt this massive, and the world they are out to destroy has never felt so vibrant and lived-in.
Del Toro and Beacham take the time to give us peripheral details to flesh out this world, like how some worship the Kaiju, claiming them to be the physical manifestation of God's wrath, or the black market that sells off harvested parts of each defeated monster. Each nation's Jaeger has its own distinctive design and is controlled by equally distinctive pilots. We, sadly, get scant time with some of these pilots, but anytime a film leaves me wanting more of its world, I consider that a win.
Until now, the standard for giant robot movies was the "Transformers" franchise. But del Toro proves that you don't have to be vapid and garish just because your film has robots causing massive amounts of destruction. While the monster-on-robot action is exhilarating and unlike anything I've honestly seen in a big-budget film, "Pacific Rim" spends an unexpected (and welcome) amount of time simply building these characters.
Raleigh is the hero, but the real heart of the film in my opinion is his eventual co-pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Terrorized by memories of being in the middle of a Kaiju attack when she was a child, it's her journey to becoming a pilot that feels the most satisfying and Kikuchi manages to invest so much in the character with often little more than her facial expressions.
Though that brings me to my only complaint. Pretty much every character is more interesting and better acted than Raleigh. I feel bad for Hunnam, really. He's surrounded by so many colorful characters played by excellent character actors and he just can't seem to keep up. I never thought he was outright bad, but he's doing little more than keeping his head above water. Thankfully, everyone else is so much fun that it almost doesn't matter that Hunnam is merely serviceable. I loved every second of Drs. Newton (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) as they argued over Kaiju, or Ron Perlman playing the delightfully arrogant and slimy black market mogul, Hannibal Chau. (Beacham's script has so much fun giving everyone memorable names, in case you hadn't noticed.)
If nothing else it's refreshing to see a huge blockbuster like this that's populated by such internationally diverse characters. You've got Raleigh teamed up with a Japanese woman (Kikuchi), being given orders by a black British commander, who oversees Russian, Chinese and Australian pilots as well.
And then there's the action.
I wouldn't blame anyone for suffering from Explosion Fatigue this summer. It's kind of absurd just how much rampant destruction has been shown on movie screens in the last couple months. And yet del Toro gives us massive-scale action and destruction that manages to stand out (and all without exploiting 9/11 imagery the way almost every other film of this breed can't seem to help but do). Some of this is due to the absolutely amazing Jaeger and Kaiju designs, while much of it comes from the fact that he shoots it clean and steady, giving us plenty of wide shots to fully appreciate the size and scale of these epic brawls. And yes, "epic" is a term that has worn out its welcome but it more than applies here.
This is the best kind of blockbuster. It tells a familiar yet fresh story that is rooted in character and world-building and yet still delivers the sort of visceral thrills that is expected of big-budget filmmaking. Guillermo del Toro was already one of the best filmmakers working today, but he's always been on the periphery. "Pacific Rim" is proof he can play in the big leagues with the best of them.