By Gary Dowell
Geek-auteur Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is no more or less bombastic than this summer’s other event-film spectacles, but damn if it isn’t a lot smarter, more fun, and less heavy-handed than most of what’s come down the pipe. Some of its intricacies may be lost on mainstream moviegoers, but for those of raised on a steady diet of Saturday afternoon creature features and imported Japanese cartoons in the 1980s, this stuff is pure catnip.
The plot mechanics are straightforward and largely borrowed from a mishmash of film and television sources: In the very near future, aliens get sneaky by invading our world via an inter-dimensional portal on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, and put a little spit on that curve ball by sending wave after wave of gigantic monsters to stomp the hell out of our coastal cities. (So much for beachfront property values.)
The beasts are nigh unstoppable via conventional weaponry, and the devastation to property and populace is so extreme that the only solution is to build monsters of our own, specifically giant robots so complex that they must be piloted by a two-man crew via a psychic bond called “the drift”.
Enter a plucky array of dauntless heroes a la Independence Day: mentally scarred Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, Sons of Anarchy), brought out of self-imposed retirement by no-nonsense Field Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, The Wire and Luther) and paired with untested, revenge-driven rookie Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) in a battered, obsolete robot that will, of course, prove to be humanity’s last line of defense.
Cities are smashed, hearts are broken, minor characters are sacrificed, inspirational pre-final battle speeches are given, and manic scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) provide light comedy relief. There’s also a dog.
So, yeah, most of the subtlety and nuance that made del Toro a rising star via Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and even the comic book flicks Hellboy and Blade II, is absent here. For Pacific Rim, he has cranked his visually style to 11 and fully engaged his inner 12-year-old, but the pulpy sci-fi material largely allows him to get away with it. In a way, his ambitious storytelling style is still present in the humanistic touches and comic book gravitas del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham bestow upon their characters — in a strictly Top Gun kind of way.
And in all fairness this is a summer blockbuster, designed to be big and loud and gratifying on a visceral level, and in that sense it not only succeeds, it does so without the bombastic overkill that has come to define the Summer of 2013 (though it comes dangerously close). Del Toro blows are minds without leaving our heads throbbing — a feat in and of itself.