Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Burn Gorman
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
B-movie aficionados might recall a film called Robot Jox, an immensely cheesy sci-fi flick from 1990 in which territorial disputes in a post-apocalyptic wasteland are settled by way of giant robot gladiator fights. That film was overlooked upon release and hasn’t aged well. It’s a good thing then that today’s fanboys have something like Pacific Rim to devour. It’s giant robots vs. giant monsters, boasting high-quality production values and with geek icon Guillermo del Toro at the helm. Yeah, we’re up for that.
Beasts from another realm, or kaiju, have arrived on earth through a portal far beneath the Pacific Ocean, ready to wreak havoc, each wave of attacks more vicious than the last. The nations of earth pool their resources to build “Jaegers”, giant mecha equipped to go toe-to-toe with the kaiju, controlled by two pilots who must be psychically linked to each other. Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) is a former Jaeger pilot called back into duty five years after being scarred, mentally and physically, in combat. He is eventually paired with Mako Mori (Kikuchi), an untested rookie who lost her family to a kaiju attack as a child. They, along with the other Jaeger pilots, answer to Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Elba), a no-nonsense military man who was one of the first Jaeger pilots. With the Jaeger program in danger of being decommissioned due to diminished results, the remaining pilots must make their last stand against the destructive creatures.
There’s this pre-conceived notion of creature features being silly, quaint and low-rent affairs. After all, most of us would remember watching guys in rubber suits duke it out against the backdrop of an unconvincing model city in Tokusatsu films or TV shows (or 50s Hollywood B-movies). It is therefore extremely gratifying to see clashes between beast and machine so lovingly brought to life in an expensive A-picture. As children, we could only dream of robot/monster melees rendered with such conviction and quality. This is nostalgia made state-of-the-art; boyhood imagination made celluloid reality. It’s the kind of film that should be seen in the IMAX format and actually is really enjoyable in 3D, despite director Guillermo del Toro’s initial reluctance to convert the film into this format.
Guillermo del Toro is something of a fanboy, and his passion and respect for anime, manga and Tokusatsu fuels the film and sets it apart from something like a Michael Bay-directed Transformers film. Del Toro is far more imaginative than your average action movie director and together with the creative team for this film has come up with some very arresting visuals and ideas. Sure, it might be hard to tell one kaiju from another and all the battles are rain-soaked and dimly lit, but del Toro has somehow managed to find a sweet point between “outlandish” and “awesome”, crafting many moments which make one want to leap out of the seat on an adrenaline rush.
If you’re not in a particularly charitable mood, the plot could be described as “formulaic”: there’s the hero who must overcome a past trauma and rise to the occasion alongside a wide-eyed but equally-tormented rookie, unstoppable behemoths not of this earth, a “combat as foreplay” scene, the battle-hardened boss man who oversees the whole operation, comic relief scientists and tech guys, a cocky rival and a ticking clock. However, there are definitely times when canned food can taste absolutely delicious, and Guillermo del Toro has cooked up a storm. Clichés and stereotypes are in full effect (the Russian Jaeger pilots look like they stepped out of an 80s Cold War thriller) but somehow, this makes it all the more entertaining. Del Toro stated that he didn’t want to make a “super-brooding, super-dark, cynical summer movie” but deliver something more palatable in a throwback sort of way instead – and that he has.
Given the above, the characters in Pacific Rim could well have felt pre-fabricated and cookie cutter, but they don’t and it is remarkably easy to root for them. Charlie Hunnam isn’t exactly a bankable marquee name and is best-known as the lead actor on TV’s Sons of Anarchy. He makes for a very sympathetic leading man and appears equally comfortable with the more dramatic moments and the action beats. Similarly, Rinko Kikuchi isn’t your typical Hollywood faux-action chick, her Mako Mori a vulnerable but competent character, and that helps set this apart from the rest of the “movies made for 12 year-old boys” pack.
Idris Elba could well be the next Samuel L. Jackson as he steadily builds his repertoire of badass parts. The guy has presence to spare and there’s something inexplicably grin-inducing about hearing him bellow such lines as “do not let my calm demeanour fool you, ranger!” and, of course, that “we are cancelling the apocalypse” speech. It could well be irredeemably silly in the hands of another actor but man, he pulls it off. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman make for a funny, over-the-top double act as two rival scientists working on the Jaeger program (though they might border on grating for some) and del Toro oft-collaborator Ron Perlman threatens to steal the show as only he can, playing a black market dealer profiteering off kaiju remains, selling them as health products.
Pacific Rim may be comprised of familiar elements and, depending on your mood, an eye roll-worthy bit or two, but the sheer exuberant, childlike energy that propels it forward makes everything else very easy to forgive. Guillermo del Toro’s enthusiasm for the material is infectious and with top-notch art direction, production design and visual effects work on show, this is escapism of a very polished sort. This is a love letter to the kaiju and mecha genres written in calligraphy on fancy paper. Japanese video game creator Hideo Kojima said it best when he remarked that he “never imagined (he) would be fortunate enough to see a film like this in (his) lifetime”.
SUMMARY: A better-made and more entertaining clash of the titans than the one with Sam Worthington in it. A giant robot using a container ship as a sword is what the fantasies of your inner 12 year-old are made of.
RATING: 4 out of 5 STARS