It’s been a subpar summer at the multiplex. Man of Steel fell flat, White House Down should’ve been cheekier, and The Lone Ranger completely derailed. Sure, there have been some fun sequels. Robert Downey Jr. was his brilliant, quippy self in Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness boasted a deliciously sinister Benedict Cumberbatch, and World War Z offered some dazzling zombie-mayhem set pieces (and Brad Pitt’s divine golden locks). But nothing’s really fired on all cylinders.
Pacific Rim, Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro’s robots-versus-monsters epic, does just that. That the movie succeeds on the level it does is something of a miracle, given the cinematic landscape it airdropped into. Nobody wants to see another vacuous orgy of twisted metal, à la the Transformers films. Real Steel tainted the humans-controlling-fighting robots conceit. And does anyone even remember Matthew Broderick’s Godzilla? But Pacific Rim somehow still manages to seem fresh. It’s so damn exciting, it may even incite Proustian flashbacks to carefree afternoons of your 12-year-old self engaged in an epic Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots battle with your best pal. Or if you happen to be 12, well, some new toys to play with.
The year is 2020. For the past seven years, the human race has been engaged in a costly war with the kaiju—gargantuan, amphibious dragonlike creatures that arose from a crevasse in the Pacific Ocean to wreak havoc on Hong Kong, Manila, San Francisco, Tokyo, and other coastal cities. Millions of lives have been lost. To fight these monsters, all the governments of the world worked together to create massive, 25-story-high robots called Jeagers, equipped with missiles, sword arms, and plasma rifles. The robots are controlled by a pair of human pilots whose minds are synced with the machines (and each other) by a process dubbed the Drift.
But the kaiju are evolving—and begin dropping Jaegers one by one. So the governments of the world, in their infinite wisdom, decide to pull the plug on the Jaeger program in favor of erecting a gigantic wall around the world’s coasts (you can guess how that goes). With only eight months left of funding, Jaeger commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) assembles an elite team of pilots for a last-ditch assault on the beasts’ ocean portal. The pilots include Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a retired American Jaeger pilot who lost his brother/co-pilot five years earlier in a battle with the kaiju off the coast of Canada, and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who has a personal vendetta against the sea monsters.
Del Toro is a master of set design and creature effects (see: Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy films), and in this regard, Pacific Rim doesn’t disappoint. The monsters are horrifying and fascinating. Some resemble insects, while others look like crustaceans, amphibians, and sharks and move fluidly. You also get to see plenty of them, unlike in Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla, which constantly teased audiences with shots of feet and claws. The robots, meanwhile, are like The Iron Giant meets MechWarrior, and the Gipsy Danger, the “analog” Jaeger controlled by Becket and Mori, is a beautifully rendered art deco sentinel. (The robots are reportedly inspired by the Japanese anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion.)
Unlike the Transformers films, the battle scenes are exhilarating and satisfyingly rendered. Every robot punch, stab, blast, and crunch is necessary, and the action never grows monotonous. You’ll cheer as Gipsy Danger slowly stalks toward a kaiju wielding an oil tanker, or when Mori screams, “For my father!” as the robot decapitates one of the monsters during the film. Plus, since humans control the machines through the Drift mind-meld technique, they seem imbued with humanlike qualities, so the audience is invested in their every move. These robots got soul.
The international cast, most of whom are best known for TV roles, including Sons of Anarchy’s Hunnam, Luther’s Elba, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day, who provides some fun humor as a wacky scientist, are all game. There’s also del Toro regular Ron Perlman, who is a hoot as a black-market kaiju organ dealer by the name of Hannibal Chau. And, the Fast and the Furious films notwithstanding, there are precious few blockbuster films with diverse casts, so it’s refreshing to see this seemingly random group of Japanese, black British, American, and Aussie actors band together to save the world. The only minor quibble involves the romantic relationship of Hunnam and Kikuchi, which is filled with plenty of sexual tension, but no actual hanky-panky. It’s 2013. We can see a blond all-American character make out with a hot Japanese one.
In the early-morning hours of July 4, rapper Kanye West posted a random tweet: “I saw a pre-screening of Pacific Rim yesterday and it’s easily one of my favorite movies of all time.” West is, of course, prone to exaggeration, but it’s definitely the most thrilling blockbuster to come out so far this summer.