Ah, summertime at the movies, where audiences witness a steady drumbeat of destruction, buildings falling like dominoes and blockbuster explosions. Into all this wades Pacific Rim.
One could look at Guillermo del Toro's latest movie as a logical extension of the summer season specialty. Giant robots versus monsters? What's not to like? But where Pacific Rim might surprise you is in its sense of scale. With both the macro and the micro vision, del Toro does it right.
Let's start with the big stuff. In the near-future, a dimensional rift has opened and now Kaiju, monsters from another world, are invading Earth with an alarming and increasing frequency. Enter the Jaegers, giant mechanical warriors created by an international effort to fight back against the aliens. Imagine if NASA, the China National Space Administration, Russia and the rest joined forces to build a modern day Voltron and you get the idea. Each Mecha is piloted by two drivers, who share the neural load in a process called The Drift.
As these giant robots battle the beasties, the audience is treated to a view inside the command centre, where the drivers appear like synchronized extras from Tron. They grit their teeth and they grunt as they toggling control switches. Outside, a three-armed Chinese-made Mecha slices a squid-like Kaiju into calamari. Occasionally, we dive into The Drift itself and watch the pilots' swirling, overexposed memories triggered by combat.
The battles between scales and steel are a largely messy affair. The Kaiju come in a variety of shapes, each with its own offensive ability, but luminescent blue goo seems to be in abundance in the dimension from whence they came.
The sheer size of the clashes are impressive. The robots wheeze and jerk. Buildings crumple like paper-mâché under giant feet. It can be difficult to follow at times because del Toro insists on setting these super-sized sumo wrestlers in the elements: shrouded in fog, battling in the rain or the middle of the ocean.
According to the director, he didn't want the robots too gleaming — like something out of a car commercial — but I occasionally strained for a better view. (I should add that I did watch Pacific Rim in a somewhat small screening room. It may play better on a bigger screen, which is just one reason I'm making plans to watch it again.)
Like the drivers controlling these overgrown Gobots, there's a human emotion at the core of Pacific Rim that powers the whole endeavour. Into of summer of apocalypse aplenty and sombre superheroes comes a film with an almost joyous, unabashedly heroic tone. Del Toro says he made this movie for his inner 12-year-old and it shows. Anyone who's spent some time talking with the ebullient director, as I have, will discover that inner child isn't buried too deep.
Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi appear in a scene from the summer action fantasy Pacific Rim. (Kerry Hayes/Warner Bros. Pictures/Associated Press)
The filmmaker's sense of glee — as he bangs together his toys — can be infectious. But his perspective also brings something new to the season.
Here's where we get to the micro. We see the cities both from the bird's-eye view as well as from the ground, as citizen scramble beneath the feet of the titanic combatants. In particular, there's one striking sequence — a young girl hopping in a single red shoe — that will stay with you long after the sparks from the laser swords fade.
While Pacific Rim's plot is as clunky as the robots themselves, a few actors rise to the occasion. Idris Elba (who managed to overshadow Chris Hemsworth in Thor) displays an amazing stillness and reserve as the commanding Stacker Pentecost — no small feat in a genre of more, more, more!
It falls to Charlie Hunnam (TV's Sons of Anarchy) and Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) to give Pacific Rim its heart. The pair driving the analog robot Gipsy Danger make a capable couple. Then again, in a movie where Ron Perlman (Hellboy) spits out lines like "Are you funning me?" the bar for character complexity is low.
I could catalog Pacific Rim's predictable storylines and rivalries, but it would degrade what del Toro has accomplished here: simply put, an action film with giant stakes that offers a smashing good time.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5
The warrior robot Gipsy Danger fights in a rainstorm in Pacific Rim. (Warner Bros. Pictures/Associated Press)
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