2 hours, 21 minutes
Fantasy filmmaking is a genre with a long history of ambition. From the very beginning, genre films like “King Kong,” or the German classic, “Metropolis,” aimed to show people something they’d never seen before, something that would blow their minds. We denigrate fantasy films sometimes by dismissing them as all flash and no substance, but isn’t spectacle and surprise what movies are all about? Why else show a train speeding straight toward the camera, as was first done in France by the Lumiére brothers in 1896 — one of the very first films ever made. The audience was so freaked out when they saw that engine racing toward them that they literally leaped out of their seats.
Every filmmaker from Cecil B. DeMille to Spielberg to this week’s Guillermo Del Toro has been chasing that reaction ever since. And with his massive monsters vs. robots extravaganza, “Pacific Rim,” Del Toro achieves that and more.
Having watched trailers and behind-the-scenes teasers, as well as devouring every bit of print media on this film that I could for the last six months, I was pleasantly surprised to find the movie is even larger than I imagined. The opening 20 minutes or so sets up the backstory. Some 20 years previous, a gigantic monster, labeled a “kaiju” in homage to monster movies from the 1950s and 60s, i.e., “Godzilla,” “Gamera,” or “Mothra,” rose up out of a volcanic rift deep in the Pacific ocean and proceeded to immediately ravage San Francisco. The world banded together and the monster was defeated. Everybody rejoiced until a year or so later it happened again. And again. And again, until finally humanity was forced to think outside the box and create Jaegers, devastating robot warriors that, due to a neural connection with a pair of human pilots, were able to take the battle to the kaiju, turning the tide in mankind’s favor.
Naturally, northing works out like you’d like it to in these giant monster situations, and before we knew it the kaiju began exploiting the Jaegers’ weaknesses, showing a heretofore unknown intelligence. In effect, they begin to win. A tragic event caps off the narrative, and our story really begins some 20-odd years into the conflict. The world is a different place. Cities are built on kaiju bones. The nations are tapped out financially, and the rich are beginning to withdraw into impenetrable bunkers to hide out, abandoning the Jaeger program, and everybody else along with it. It’s the beginning of the end.
People throw around words like “epic” for movies like this, but rarely do they achieve storytelling at a scale with which Del Toro is working. The very first sentence in the epilogue of “Pacific Rim” is its own “epic” movie. The creation of the Jaegers sounds like a trilogy all its own. Del Toro blows past all that to make a 2 1/2-hour movie about the climax of a much larger story.
There are those who will be naturally suspicious of a movie like this. With the simplified “monsters vs. robots” description, it sounds like a rip-off of “Transformers” or something that might air at midnight on the SyFy channel. But even a cursory look at Del Toro’s previous work, i.e., “Pan’s Labyrinth,” “The Devil’s Backbone,” the far better than necessary “Hellboy” series, and it immediately becomes obvious that this director has a much defter hand than the loud, abrasive stylings of Michael Bay.
Not only is the entire world meticulously realized — the production design is outstanding — but the human characters are truly the focus of the story. Yes, the point of the movie is to showcase some awesome gigantic robots battling awesome gigantic monsters, but it’s not fetishistic the way it is in the “Transformers” films, which spend so much time lingering on every shiny computer generated cog and wheel in the machine, that the people are little more than cardboard cutouts.
Idris Elba, as the grizzled Jaeger program commander, gives a stirring performance among a cast of lesser known up and comers and character actors. In the lead is Charlie Hunnam, playing the emotionally damaged Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket. Hunnam reminded me of a young Matthew Modine, though with more charisma. I don’t know if I would have picked him to headline a major tentpole studio blockbuster, but he handles the role just fine and manages not to get lost among the explosions. It’s good, however, that he has better actors, like Elba and co-star Rinko Kikuchi, as another Jaeger pilot, to help prop him up.
The acting is fine, though not spectacular, but I was more impressed with the writing. I love the story, the perspective, the glimpses at a larger universe. The writing is, however, not particularly clever. It’s solid, and handles the scope and scale of the film masterfully, but don’t expect a bunch of twists and turns. Things pretty much play out like you’d expect them to, and occasionally the specific elements border on silly.
One particular plot development, which I won’t spoil, was a little out of the blue and nonsensical. But that’s the nice thing about having a story this big — if a few of the details fall down, it doesn’t bring the entire film crashing down around it. It reminds me of the way I felt watching “Independence Day” some 20 years ago. Yes, much of that story was silly in retrospect, but boy was it rousing.
No, “Pacific Rim” is not the greatest movie I’ve ever seen, and no it’s not going to win any Oscars, aside from the technical ones, but it is what a summer movie should be — fun. And not just throwaway, two-hours-to-kill kind of fun, but awesome thrill-ride, I-want-to-see-it-again kind of fun. I think the Lumiéres would be proud.
“Pacific Rim” is rated PG-13 for massive scenes of destruction, gooey monster gore, sci-fi violence, and some language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.