If the great god of movies, whatever slippery Mount Olympus of money he resides on, decrees that summer is the time for larger-than-life 3-D blockbusters, then Guillermo del Toro may as well make one. His Pacific Rim is summer entertainment with a pulse. The effects are so overscaled and lavish as to be occasionally mindless. But then, the deep-sea monsters that populate the movie — scaly, nubbly, pissed-off behemoths called by their Japanese name, kaiju — are also motivated by something primal, a drive that can't be readily explained. Their summer job is a simple, glamorous one: qualifications include being able to breathe electric blue fire or open several of their false mouths before revealing the really treacherous maw. What reason for existing do they need, other than to lure us to the theater? For del Toro, the creature is the feature.
Giant robots matter to him, too, but less so. And unlike recent extravagant, listless robotsploitation exercises like Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim is big and dumb in a smart way. The movie's brief voiceover prologue, accompanied by a montage of destruction, explains it all: In 2015, one disgruntled kaiju after another rose from the ocean to come ashore, smashing cities like San Francisco, Manila and Cabo, until it was discovered that the big bruisers could be defeated by giant manned robots known as Jaegers. Phew! "Jaeger pilots became rock stars; kaiju became toys," the opening monologist explains, until the kaiju regained their mojo and came back stronger than before.
The voice belongs to Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh Becket, a former Jaeger pilot whose fellow-pilot brother died in battle as he watched. Actually, "as he watched" is an understatement: Jaeger pilots work in teams, connected by a neural bridge. Their minds hold hands, figuratively speaking, a connection that allows them, from within their robot fortress, to defeat the kaiju. But after his brother's death, Becket can't fight anymore. He drifts until he's lured back into commission by a surly official determined to kick those damn kaiju back to whatever hellhole they came from. He's played by Idris Elba, and he has the most kickass name of all time, Stacker Pentecost, even though he's mostly referred to as plain old "Marshal." The pilot who will share the cockpit with Jaegermeister Becket is a rookie with an ax to grind: Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) wants revenge against the kaiju, and a little red shoe holds the key to her past trauma.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Written by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro. Starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day and Ron Perlman.
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Everything you think is going to happen in Pacific Rim eventually happens. One character or another chokes at the moment of truth; noble warriors sacrifice for the cause. But del Toro shapes the movie so it's not just one booming attack after another; there's breathing space amid the action, and in a gorgeously choreographed sequence, a bout of old-fashioned hand-to-hand human-to-human combat becomes its own special effect. Elsewhere, when the pilots strap themselves into their skyscraper-sized robot machines, both their bravery and their vulnerability come to the fore.
The material, written by Travis Beacham and del Toro, is blessedly non-elitist. Anybody who goes to see Pacific Rim can be an instant Jaeger-vs.-kaiju expert without having absorbed the entire DC and Marvel libraries by Vulcan mind-meld beforehand. Ron Perlman, the star of del Toro's two crazily poetic Hellboy films, even makes a cameo.
In other words, Pacific Rim is just the kind of big-ticket sci-fi adventure you'd want del Toro to make — provided you'd want him to make one at all.