'Pacific Rim': A Rock 'Em-'Sock Em Robots Vs. Monsters Epic With a Heart

The word "amazing" gets thrown around so much, and so casually, that its impact has been all but lost. I'm as guilty of this as anyone, so I should point out that I have the full support of my Canadian Oxford Dictionary (I declared myself an honorary Canuck years ago) when I say that Pacific Rim amazed me in the most literal sense of the word. It did indeed fill me with a sense of wonder—a feat that is increasingly rare in this age of extravagant but soulless blockbusters.

You could dismiss it as a special-effects movie—it contains about 1,700 visual effects shots—but that would be a disservice to director Guillermo del Toro's gargantuan accomplishment. The Mexican filmmaker, best known to mainstream moviegoers for his Hellboy films and Blade II, has realized the collective imagination of his generation, and he's done it in a way that proves, once and for all, a director does not have to relinquish control of even the most FX-heavy film. Del Toro directed the hell out of Pacific Rim, and the result is one of the most visually striking movies in recent memory. Yes, it's a movie about giant robots punching, and getting punched by, giant monsters, and it embraces all the silliness promised by that setup. But it's also a stunningly and meticulously rendered work of imagination. Del Toro claims he sent some shots back to the effects studio as many as 60 times, asking for tweaks to even the minutest details. It shows; every corner of every frame dazzles.

It's tempting to think less attention was paid to the story, but I don't think that's the case. The script has two purposes: to give del Toro the opportunity to realize every monstrous fantasy that's been crashing around in his head since he was 10 years old, and to keep us grounded in those beautifully rendered scenes of cataclysmic destruction. To that end, del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham give us exactly what we need: bigger-than-life characters rendered in the broadest strokes. There's none of the dourness that has become a hallmark of big-budget genre films. There are no human villains; every character who gets a name eventually gets to be a hero.

We spend most of the story with Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), a guy who climbs inside a 250-foot-tall robot and mans the controls as it tangles with the kaiju, behemoths that climb out of an inter-dimensional portal in the ocean floor to wreak havoc on coastal cities. After a rock 'em-sock 'em prologue that could serve as the climax of the average blockbuster, we catch up with Raleigh and military commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) seven years into the kaiju invasion. Humans were winning the war for a while, thanks to the giant robots called Jaegers, but the kaiju quickly adapted, and the tides turned. The Jaeger program was all but scrapped in favor of building giant walls to keep the monsters out. Naturally, the walls don't work and the Jaegers get one more chance to save the world.

It's as goofy as it sounds and, to del Toro and Beacham's endless credit, they never pretend otherwise. They populate their movie with extremely likable characters—there's a young woman named Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) who lost her family to the monsters; a kaiju-loving scientist (Charlie Day) who stands in for the grown-up monster kids who will make up the film's fan base; a kooky German mathematician (Burn Gorman); a rockabilly tech specialist (Clifton Collins Jr.); and, most notably, an underworld kaiju parts trafficker named Hannibal Chau (played by Hellboy himself, Ron Perlman). They're the human elements that make the lengthy and thunderous mano-a-monster combat scenes work beyond the sheer sensory thrills that del Toro expertly orchestrates. They say silly things, but they say them very convincingly and at just the right moments, giving Pacific Rim a beating heart to match its staggering visuals.

As of this writing, none of that was enough to make Pacific Rim a box-office success. The movie came in third last weekend, and prospects for a sequel are looking pretty dismal right now. In a sense, though, I think del Toro won the moment he finished his movie. He somehow convinced Hollywood to give him nearly $200 million to make a film that was probably never going to have mass appeal no matter how well it was marketed or how enthusiastically it was embraced by genre fans, and he used every penny of that budget to put his stunning imagination on a huge screen. Even if it was a one-shot deal and a financial failure, Pacific Rim is, at least creatively, a rousing success.