Guillermo del Toro is one part art-house egghead and one part excitable pop-culture fanboy. His schizo tendencies operate in thrilling harmony in “Pacific Rim,” a visually ornate improvisation on comic-book themes. Few directors could get so much creative mileage out of a giant robots vs. monsters adventure. Every frame is packed to bursting with images that delight the eye and tickle the mind. While the concept isn’t original enough to make this an evolutionary leap for the genre, it’s a glorious tribute to B-movie fire and fury.
This is a megaproduction that winks at you as it reels by, a movie about gargantuas punching each other that was made by a man who asked, “Why shouldn’t this be beautiful?” It’s a film aimed at global audiences that genuinely reaches out to them, with a cast of American, Japanese, black, British, Latino and even female performers. It’s a conceptual twist on battle-the-aliens movies that shuns military jingoism, giving its fighters lawman ranks like Marshal and Ranger rather than General and Captain. Its dark, jewel-toned luster rebukes what Del Toro calls the “car commercial/army recruitment video” esthetics of many summer smash-ups. The characters all have risible cartoon names like Stacker Pentecost, Hannibal Chau and Hercules Hansen.
The time is a few years hence. A rift in the ocean floor unleashed Kaiju (Japanese for giant beasts), interdimensional exterminators that devastate coastal cities. Putting aside their petty conflicts, nations band together to repel the invaders with skyscraper-tall Jaegers (German for hunters). Each war machine is controlled by a pair of pilots whose consciousness is joined by a neural link that gives each access to the other’s innermost secrets. It’s only by being literally open-minded that they can save the day. Charlie Hunnam (of TV’s “Sons of Anarchy”) and Rinko Kikuchi (an Oscar nominee for the 2006 film “Babel”) link lobes to combat new waves of ever-evolving, increasingly destructive Kaiju.
And what hand-to-hand battles they are, epic mash-ups of “Raging Bull” and “Godzilla.” Del Toro maps out these sequences masterfully, drawing out the shape of a shot and how each would connect to the next. The camera perspective creates a sense of awe around these giants. They are almost never shown full-body inside the film frame. They’re too big to be seen all at once, filling the landscape. One robot holds a tanker ship like a billy club and beats his foe with it. By staging most of the battles at night (why would a monster attack in broad daylight, when it’s a better target?) Del Toro allows us to imaginatively fill in the small strokes. In a nice touch, the Kaiju have phosphorescent, neon-blue blood that splatters satisfyingly.
The design of the monsters is evocative of sharks, crabs, crocodiles and octopi. The robots are realized with passionate attention to detail. The American model suggests a sleek office tower moving with a John Wayne strut, and the Russian entry is a hulking iron giant.
There’s a sweet retro-futuristic look to the set and costume design. In this world every resource is funneled into fighting monsters, so Idris Elba’s corps commander wears vintage double-breasted suits, the Russian Jaeger pilots dress in old cosmonaut gear, and Clifton Collins’ communications officer reports to work in a zoot suit. The sets are all recycled scrap metal. Look fast and you’ll see that cities hit by attacks years earlier have simply rebuilt around the impossibly heavy, immovable Kaiju skeletons. This is a gigantic movie crammed with minor but delicious details. If you ever wondered how a jaded urban pigeon would react to a monster throw-down, see this movie.
Unusual for a blockbuster, “Pacific Rim” tries to balance the quality between scenes featuring dialogue and those involving cataclysms. Hunnam is a bit bland, blond and generic as the lead, but he comes alive when he and Kikuchi have a flirtatious fight with kendo staffs. Elba brings such gravitas to his role you feel as if he’s holding you in a force field. He treats the lunatic story like it’s “Henry V.”
We get two different flavors of mad scientists. Charlie Day is a twitchy nerd who wants to mind-meld with a Kaiju brain, and Burn Gorman is half Stephen Hawking and half Victor Frankenstein. Del Toro’s favorite, Ron Perlman, is spectacular as a black-market kingpin dealing in Kaiju innards. On that note, hang around for the end credits.
“Pacific Rim” is a guilty pleasure you don’t need to feel too guilty about. It has a substantive subtext about learning to get along despite seemingly unbridgeable differences. It removes the remorse from city-smashing cataclysms by putting civilians in underground shelters. Above all, unlike the glum “Man of Steel” and misfired “Lone Ranger,” it is exhilarating, exhausting, irresistible fun.
pacific rim ★★★ out of 4 stars • Rating: PG-13
★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout and brief language.