In essence, Pacific Rim is a bar room brawl writ large. Huge robots slug it out with colossal monsters, battering them with iron fists and pummelling them with whatever comes to hand – in this case, boats and cargo containers take the place of chairs and pool cues. It’s a wild, chaotic film – made all the better by director Guillermo del Toro’s visual imagination.
In the near future, a rift in the depths of the Pacific ocean begins to spew out a menagerie of Kaiju: vast, dinosaur-like creatures bent on destroying everything in their path. To this end, the nations of the world club together to build the Jaegers – equally humongous robots mighty enough to take on the Kaiju in combat. These robots are so complicated and powerful, they require two humans to drive them: acting as the two halves of a single brain, the pilots form a neural meld called The Drift, where their thoughts and memories become one – and that coordination is vital when you have to punch a skyscraper-sized monster from the deep square in the face.
An opening monologue fills in a back story broad enough to fill a movie by itself. The power of the Jaegers had begun to turn the tide of the war, but just when it looked as though the Kaiju would be vanquished for good, even larger, more deadly beasts began to emerge from the portal on the ocean floor. Having drifted away from the Pan Pacific Defence Corps following a personal tragedy, pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is drafted back into service by Commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) in order to head up a new fight against the latest Kaiju threat.
There, he meets the trainee pilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), who has demons of her own to put to rest before she can achieve her dream of taking the helm of a Jaeger. And there’s also a pair of eccentric scientists – Dr Hermann (Burn Gorman) and Dr Newton (Charlie Day) who are busily researching into the way the Kaiju think and act.
The director of such creature-filled works as Cronos, Mimic, Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy films, del Toro brings all his creativity to this banquet of wholesale destruction. The scratched, battered robots have a lumbering majesty, while the monsters possess a palpable sense of weight and strength. Although unabashedly inspired by the kaiju pictures from Japan – Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla, for example, and the legion genre pictures it inspired – there are also references to videogames (Portal fans can’t have failed to notice the voice of Ellen “GLaDOS” McLain in the film’s trailers) and the pioneering effects of Ray Harryhausen (one early attack even takes place in San Francisco, the site of his wonderful It Came From Beneath The Sea).
Production designer Carol Spier brings an engaging 1940s air to the sets and costumes; the weathered metal and hand-painted graphics on the Jaegers recall the markings of World War II bombers, giving a pleasing sense of lived-in depth to del Toro’s world. Oriental cities have rebuilt themselves around the skeletons of fallen Kaiju. Other countries have erected gigantic defence walls. Touches like this add to the sense of history, even though they’re only on the screen for a scant few seconds.
In terms of both action and drama, Pacific Rim begins loudly, and remains at a shriek throughout. Apparently in fear of becoming lost against the backdrop of explosions and multi-storey fist-fights, the performances are noisy where more intimacy may have provided some contrast from all the sound and fury. The heroes are brave and stoic, Idris Elba’s strong and benevolent (and gets to use his own accent, which is refreshing after his Prometheus drawl), the comic-relief scientists are bumbling yet ingenious, while Ron Perlman’s cameo – well, we’ll let you discover him for yourselves.
If there’s a problem with Pacific Rim, it’s that it’s in too much of a rush to get to the next set-piece: the idea of the Drift mind meld, in which intimate memories are laid bare, is a compelling one, but its possibilities are only briefly explored. Rinko Kikuchi’s character is the one vulnerable spot in the film’s centre, and we’d have welcomed some more scenes that explored her character as well as her fighting prowess.
Those fighting set-pieces, however, are spectacular. Unlike Michael Bay, whose camera whirls about like a gnat in a hurricane in his Transformers movies, del Toro – and director of photography Guillermo Navarro – keeps the cinematography simple and uncluttered. Instead, it’s the robots and monsters that do the moving, and for once, the 3D, far from being a distraction, helps to pick out these behemoths from the rain and falling debris. There are fights among raging seas, fights among city streets, scraps in harbours… for kaiju geeks, it’s a rumbling festival of destruction.
Throughout, it’s del Toro’s passion for his genre material that shines through. Where so many Hollywood effects films feel as though they’ve been made by bank managers or accountants, or people desperate to sell action figures, Pacific Rim feels like a movie put together by someone who grew up marvelling at Gamera terrorising Tokyo, or Ultraman defending Earth from gigantic alien invaders – and it has to be said, that wide-eyed, boyish enthusiasm for these elemental machines and monsters is infectious.
The combination of larger-than-life characters, colourful, unusual production design and swirling, rivet-popping action gives Pacific Rim a bright, eccentric atmosphere that’s unusual in today’s landscape of serious, sometimes cynical summer movies. It may be lacking in depth and subtlety, but in terms of widescreen impact and sheer enthusiasm, Pacific Rim hits its mark with a killer blow.
Pacific Rim is out in UK cinemas on the 12th July.
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