The basic elevator pitch for “Pacific Rim” is pretty simple: giant monsters versus giant robots! Without spoiling anything, I can tell you the winner right now: eight-year-old boys everywhere.
The fact is that the real pitch is more like this: giant monsters versus giant robots versus your childhood imagination. The resulting epic showdown may not satisfy every fanboy fantasy imaginable — what movie could? — but it puts up a pretty good fight. Director Guillermo del Toro’s vision of a near-future world in which mountain-sized beasts emerge from the sea to trade body blows with skyscraper-sized mechanized warriors serves up its oversized battles with sufficient imagination and zeal to overcome its shortcomings when it comes to flesh and blood humans.
“Pacific Rim” is set in the years after Earth has been invaded by giant monster attackers emerging from a rift in the Pacific Ocean. To fight off these monsters, called Kaiju, humans built Jaegers — giant fighting robots controlled by a pair of pilots locked in mental sync with the machine. Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Becket, an ex-Jaeger pilot called back into the program by its commander, the awesomely named Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). In addition to fighting off monsters, Becket’s challenge is to sync up with his new partner, Make Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), as the Jaeger program makes a last-ditch effort to close the dimensional portal.
Mr. del Toro, whose funny and touching “Hellboy” films remain some of the smartest comic-book adaptations, proved himself as a kind of monster auteur with the terrifyingly sad but brilliantly conceived “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Those movies offered immersive worlds, fascinatingly detailed fantasy design work, and affecting human stories to match.
With “Pacific Rim” he seems to have lost some of the human touch: Mr. Elba does fine work, as always, and an extended cameo by Ron Perlman is fun to watch. But a pair of comic relief scientist characters played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are too obnoxious to be amusing, and Mr. Hunnam’s hero is altogether too bland. Part of the problem is a mismatch in scale and ambition: The human stories are too small and too conventional to compete with the glorious robo-throwdowns.
Fortunately, Mr. del Toro’s still got it when it comes to the monsters and robots. The three major showdowns he stages deliver an imaginative surfeit of gleeful crushed-metal mega-spectacle; these really are the giant-robot-versus-giant-monster matchups you’ve been waiting for. Robots are hurled through bridges; monsters burst through skyscrapers like they’re cardboard walls. The pulverizing volume and intensity of these sequences is severe enough that the movie practically threatens at times to overload on awesome.
Indeed, that sort of seems to be the big idea. Hollywood loves staging epic battles that result in equally epic destruction, and in recent summers it’s seemed as if the sole aim of big-budget blockbusters has been to increase the scale of the fights and catastrophes on display. With its crew of mechanized monster-slayers, “Pacific Rim” takes this drive toward bigness as near to its logical endpoint as I’ve seen so far. Short of planet-sized creatures brawling across the solar system, it will be hard for any future film to compete with “Pacific Rim” in scale.
Instead, I hope that future blockbusters will compete where “Pacific Rim” falls short: on story and character. Imagine: monsters, robots — and real people too. Yes, the eight-year-old kid in me loved “Pacific Rim.” But someday it would be nice to see an equally visionary blockbuster that appeals to the adult in me too.
CREDITS: Directed by Guillermo del Toro, screenplay by Travis Beacham
RATING: PG-13 for giant robot/monster slugfests
RUNNING TIME: 131 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS