The fact that somebody would spend $185 million to whomp up a big monsters-versus-robots movie of the sort that the old Toho mutant-lizard factory would have tossed off for a few bucks and change 60 years ago is surely a sign that something's right with the world. Or at least with Hollywood. Or at least it will be if Pacific Rim doesn't follow After Earth and The Lone Ranger into the currently raging bonfire of box-office despair. The movie is a technological amazement, made with real affection for its low-rent genre, and it's often a lot of fun. How you feel about going to see it, however, may depend on how you feel about, you know, monsters and robots.
The picture has been cooked up from decades of Japanese sci-fi films of the Kaiju (big monsters) and mecha (big robots) variety. Fervent aficionados of these pictures, of whom there are very many, can probably quote whole swatches of silly dialogue from Mothra vs. Godzilla or the multi-behemoth Destroy All Monsters. Director Guillermo del Toro – a man in famously close touch with his inner 12-year-old – is one of these people, and what he has delivered here is a love tribute to those fondly remembered old films. The movie achieves a wondrously high standard for digital imagery employed in the service of an original concept – the ocean effects alone have a titanic power, and the mega-beasts rampaging through the picture make the Toho colossi of yore seem retiring in comparison. The action is relentless, but del Toro has wisely anchored it with – what else?—a tale of simple human courage and loyalty, and even a few dribs of romance, which allows us essential breathing space.
The story begins in 2020, the seventh year of the "Kaiju War" – an unending assault by alien creatures who have made their way up into our world through a crack in the ocean floor, and have been wreaking havoc on cities all around the Pacific Rim, from San Francisco to Sydney to Tokyo. These creatures are huge – when they arise in the middle of the ocean, the waters only come up to their scaly knees. They're also extremely unpleasant to behold: some have heads shaped like axes, others like knives; some of them spew acid and most of them can take out whole neighborhoods with a swing of their fearsome tails.
To fend off the Kaiju, coastal humans have deployed squads of Jaegers ("hunters" in German, who knows why), towering battle robots operated by pairs of telepathically-linked pilots. The interiors of these machines are the size of small factories. (They're exceedingly well-crafted by Legacy Effects, the California company that also worked on World War Z and Iron Man 3.) Positioned amid a welter of cables and computers, the pilots are able to manipulate their robots in roundhouse punchouts and booming arm-cannon salvos against their saurian tormentors.
Lately, though, the Jaegers have been getting creamed by the Kaiju, which keep evolving in newly hideous ways. The movie begins with a spectacular battle in which one of the Jaegers, piloted by two brothers, is furiously dispatched by a merciless attacker, killing one brother and seriously incapacitating the other, a stalwart lad named Yancy Becket.
Becket is played by Charlie Hunnam, of TV's Sons of Anarchy, and it's too bad that he's the lead, because here, at least, he's a little too bland to really command the screen. Fortunately, he has a lot of colorful backup. Idris Elba (Prometheus), who plays the Jaeger-corps commander, Stacker Pentecost (a name possibly left over from After Earth), is an actor of imposing presence. And Rinko Kikuchi (Babel), as Mako Mori, who eventually becomes Becket's new partner, is a terrific martial-arts girl with a sad, sweet secret. There's also a pair of comic-relief research scientists scurrying around: Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), a whiny math wiz ("Numbers are as close as we get to the handwriting of God!"), and Newton (Charlie Day, of Horrible Bosses), an amusingly frazzled brainiac who feels the answer to defeating the Kaiju lies in biological experimentation.
With the Jaegers racking up defeats in their ocean battles, unseen authorities decide to shut them down and direct all defensive efforts to building enormous walls around coastal cities to keep out the ravening Kaiju. The action switches to Hong Kong, where the municipal wall proves predictably ineffective. Pentecost, now a civilian, decides to re-form the Jaeger corps on his own. Meanwhile, Newton, in search of a biological weapon that will end the war, seeks out a black-market character named Hannibal Chau, who's making a fortune selling hacked-off Kaiju body parts for purposes only vaguely specified. (Chau, played by old del Toro hand Ron Perlman in a burgundy vest and black goggles, is easily the movie's most entertaining character.)
The Kaiju keep coming and coming, tearing up much real estate and continuing their oceanic assaults against the foundering Jaegers. These battle scenes really are CGI triumphs. Del Toro (working with Industrial Light & Magic) creates illusions of weight and scale and complex dimension that bring a new realism to this fundamentally unreal genre. But the movie runs well over two hours, and after a while, the novelty of even these impressive effects begins to wane; as one thunderous confrontation is followed by another, and then another, we begin to wonder when it will all end. And the conclusion that finally does arrive, while elaborately worked-out, doesn't really top all the furious action that has preceded it.
I had a good time at this movie, and the vast brotherhood of monster-and-robot fans will surely love it. Whether or not a larger mainstream audience will be drawn in is a crucial question for a picture whose total budget, with marketing costs added on, will likely exceed $250-million. The movie hasn't been tracking well, and Warner Bros. and its production partner, Legendary Pictures, have been worried. It's great that they let a unique talent like del Toro go for broke with this film; understandably, they won't want to be going broke for having done so.