No one can question Guillermo del Toro's passion for Japanese monster movies. The fan boy-friendly director, who earned his Comic-Con bona fides by crafting oddball fantasias including Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy films, has spoken at length about being weaned on creature double features as a kid in Mexico. And it wasn't just the granddaddy of all man-in-a-rubber-suit behemoths, Godzilla, who cracked open his mind. He also swooned over the more esoteric beasties in Toho Studios' kaiju (i.e., giant monster) stable — titanic brutes like Mothra, Megalon, and Mechagodzilla. It goes without saying that del Toro's geek credentials run deep.
Now, with his latest film, the gargantuan monsters-vs.-mammoth-robots smackdown Pacific Rim, del Toro has somehow persuaded Hollywood to bankroll his tribute to the giddy junk food he grew up on.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Pacific Rim picks up after a string of apocalyptic sea-monster attacks have reduced San Francisco, Manila, and Cabo San Lucas to dust. It turns out that a breach in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean has ripped open and loosed an armada of kaiju. Humanity is defenseless against their massive, razor-toothed maws and battering-ram limbs — at least until the military's high-tech Jaeger program is conceived. The Jaegers (German for ''hunters'') are 25-story robots operated by two human pilots whose minds are neurally linked in a process called ''the drift.'' The Jaegers are only as good as their operators, who must be able to read each other's thoughts and intuit each other's next moves. Go-it-alone rebels need not apply. But of course one does: Raleigh Becket (Sons of Anarchy's Charlie Hunnam), a hotshot pilot whose brother was killed in a kaiju rampage and who's so wild and unpredictable he might as well have the name ''Maverick'' stenciled on his helmet. It doesn't help matters that Hunnam has to bark goofy lines like ''Stay in the drift, the drift is silence!''
Del Toro weaves his very own mythology throughout the film, circumventing the massive battle sequences and creating some minor but zany depth to this world, like creating the “drift”, a temporal connection between the Jaeger pilots, which allow their minds to connect as one; or the mysterious monster world which exists in another dimension and is the true origin of our dinosaurs. This mythology is pure Guillermo del Toro but the director, as well as co-writer Travis Beacham only scratch the surface of what could be mined. They leave the fun mythology and “science” stuff to two wacky opposing “scientists,” both tongue-in-cheek stereotypes. The first is Charlie Day doing a wonderful Rick Moranis/Bobcat Goldthwait one-off as the overzealous and nerdy Dr. Newton Geiszler and the classically German mad-scientist Gottlieb (Burn Gorman). More than any other character in the film, these two embody that wildly imaginative del Toro mind.
The film does become stagnant in between the battle sequences. During these scenes the story relies on training montages or jealous in-fighting between the Jaeger pilots, which is rather dull compared to the battles and the mythology. The stale acting does not help these moments either. The film could be far better if the bridges between the battles were more involving.
The scenes of mass destruction are obviously frequent throughout this epic battle between 25-story tall robots and massive dinosaur-like monsters, but what separates this heap of destruction from other recent fare like “Man of Steel” and “Transformers” is that del Toro never stops to show us just how “awesome” the destruction is. Thankfully he spares us those overlong 20 to 30 second shots of skyscrapers crumbling to the ground, which would put “Pacific Rim” in the graveyard of broken cinema. The focus during the battles is almost always on the Jaeger and Kaiju.
“Pacific Rim” is never pretentious and is often funny, which makes it lofty and entertaining, despite some rancid performances. Except for Charlie Day, Ron Perlman and the sublime Idris Elba, the performances are often cringe-worthy. Under ordinary circumstances, bad acting can sink a film, but del Toro has presented such an extensive buffet of goodies that it’s easy to look past the acting (it’s not as if the characters require top-notch acting in the first place) and get lost in this brave new world. Elba, of course, steals the show as the no-holds-barred commander Stacker Pentecost. His great line “Today we are cancelling the apocalypse” has already made it into this year’s pop culture lexicon and is one of the highlights of the film.
Finally, props to Warner Brothers for releasing a wildly imaginative sci-fi romp of this scale which isn’t a sequel or remake. Despite “Pacific Rim’s” flaws, here’s hoping enough people see it and like it to send the message to all the studios that it’s not always a bad idea to produce new material, especially from directors like del Toro who certainly knows how to make a commercial film with a unique and visionary style.