The beguiling thing about Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is just how well thought out it all is.
Yes, we’re talking about that new movie in which skyscraper-sized robots fend off attacks from gigantic Godzilla monsters. It’s a rock ‘em-sock ‘em display of mass distraction, but it has obviously been brooded over and mused upon for years by del Toro and his co-screenwriter, Travis Beacham. Pacific Rim exists in a complete, fully realized universe, which is a high compliment indeed for a movie that also feels like it was dreamed up by an 8-year-old splashing around with toys in the bathtub.
To explain: In the not-too-distant future, shifting tectonic plates beneath the sea accidentally open up a portal to another dimension, so all of a sudden, we’ve got gargantuan Kaiju clomping their way up to the shore and stomping out major cities. Swatting away fighter jets like pesky flies, these super-sized lizards require a different kind of defense. Countries band together and build the Jaegers—enormous nuclear-powered robots so huge they must be operated by a duo of pilots connected through something called a “neural handshake drift.” Folks are electronically and psychically linked, working in tandem from a soundstage inside each Jaeger’s head, syncing up their movements like the world’s most destructive game of Dance Dance Revolution.
Pacific Rim drops a metric ton of exposition in the first reel, almost throwing away dozens of fleet and hilarious asides covering the first five years of “The Kaiju War.” The opening title doesn’t appear onscreen for almost 20 minutes, after knocking back enough material for a prequel trilogy, plus an origin story so the film can properly begin in medias res several years down the road for humanity’s last stand.
The Defense Department has shifted priorities to building a coastal wall that’s supposed to keep the Kaiju out, de-commissioning the Jaegers and leaving their hotshot pilots unemployed. The wall seemed like a good idea at the time, but these creatures are rapidly evolving and soon make short work of the obstruction. This leaves only four rusty Jaegers and a typically rag-tag band of hotshot pilots, commanded by Idris Elba’s hilariously brusque Stacker Pentecost. (This movie has such great names.)
He’s pulled maverick pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) out of self-imposed retirement for a last-ditch attempt to win the war by dropping a 280-megaton nuclear bomb into the dimensional portal. The underfunded rogue robot operation exists somewhere on the outskirts of Hong Kong, powered by an international cast of misfits and outcasts. Hunnam finds a kindred spirit in Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori, a data processer promoted to co-pilot for this final mission.
For intelligence purposes, we’ve got a couple of bickering scientists played by harumphy Burn Gorman and Charlie Day, of all people. They’re trying to use this “neural handshake” technology to mind-meld with a Kaiju brain that’s been kept alive inside a jar, and what I loved most about their lab is that it’s full of old-school classroom chalkboards instead of computer screens.
That’s by far the most enjoyable thing about Pacific Rim’s impressive production design: Everything is so rusty and analog. There’s a junky, garage-sale feel to all the technology. Most problems can be solved by just pulling a plug, and the gear looks as well-worn and dented as the Millennium Falcon. Del Toro’s got a vintage World War II movie aesthetic at work here, complete with all the pilots dressing in bomber jackets and making cornpone speeches about saving the world.
Dedicated to Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda, Pacific Rim is madly in love with all those Creature Double Feature UHF channel specials, ushering the man-in-lizard-suit kitsch into a new age of IMAX 3D digital filmmaking technology. It doesn’t always work. Hunnam in particular is a lousy lead, with a bloody awful American accent. But the details are so carefully layered in, it’s hard to complain, especially when del Toro regular Ron Perlman turns up as dapper sleazebag Hannibal Chau (What did I tell you about those names?), who made his fortune selling dead Kaiju body parts on the black market.
Guillermo del Toro has been missing from movies for way too long. We lost five years with him dicking around pre-production in Middle Earth before Peter Jackson Jay Leno-ed the hideous new Hobbit series all for himself. But he’s back with a vengeance here, and his imagination clearly knows no bounds. There’s a child-like glee to Pacific Rim that almost distracts from the expert craftsmanship. It’s dumb fun done smart. And it made me feel 8 years old again.