(Guillermo Del Toro, 2013)
For all the acclaim his more "personal" (read: arty) films have received, I like Del Toro best when he's working in commercial cinema. There his love of monsters, his exceptional design sense and imagination are kept the right side of self-indulgence by the conventions and demands of genre. His two Hellboy films are inventive, funny, odd blockbusters precisely because he has to funnel his own imagination into a rigid structure. Likewise Blade II, probably his most uncharacteristic film, is still a taut, satisfying superhero-horror. Even The Devils Backbone, more arty and personal, is a chilling ghost story as much as a drama of Spain in the Civil War era.
Pacific Rim, then, seems like it cannot possibly be one of his personal films. It gives Del Toro his biggest budget yet, after all, and he makes sure every dollar is up on the screen. But it feels utterly personal. Del Toro is a huge genre afficionado, and this film is a mash-up of Japanese giant monster movies, anime, WW2 fighter pilot flicks, disaster films and modern blockbuster cliches. More than that, there is a real sense of joy here, which is perhaps the main quality differentiating Pacific Rim from all the other cynical, tired examples of disaster porn released every summer, this one included.
Set in a battered, beautifully textured very-near future it reveals a world in which an inter-dimensional portal named the Breach has opened in the seabed beneath the Pacific Ocean. From it have emerged immense monsters, named Kaiju (Japanese for huge beast) which destroy coastal cities, killing thousands. Humanity respond with Jaegers (the German for "hunter"), equally immense robot-warriors piloted by two people, psychically linked by "the drift". But the Kaiju, who are classified, like storms, by their size, keep on coming, getting bigger and more successful in their battles with the Jaegers. Del Toro and his screenwriter Travis Beacham tell this story through a series of reliable tropes familiar from a hundred other movies.
For example, the story focuses on the experiences of Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), an ex-Jaeger pilot traumatised by a pre-title loss, lured back by his old boss, the taciturn Stacker Penticost (Idris Elba) who has his own hidden emotional issues and a plan to use the decommissioned, dwindling Jaeger programme to close the Breach once and for all. Raleigh has to quickly adapt to a new co-pilot, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) who wants to avenge her parents' death in a Kaiju attack years before. Raleigh has to deal with resentment from the other Jaeger pilots and prove himself and his partnership with Mako. Meanwhile, a pair of squabbling comic relief scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) study Kaiju body parts in an attempt to understand what the creatures actually want, and end up involved with black market Kaiju organ trader Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman).
There isn't much new there besides Beacham's knack for creating some wonderful names for his characters. But Del Toro approaches it all with a loveable, wide-eyed earnestness and enthusiasm. The world is filled with telling, nifty little details and lived-in textures, suggesting an entire, fully imagined universe beyond what we see here; and both Kaiju and Jaegers are brilliantly designed. Each battle between robots and creatures is thoughtfully choreographed and bigger in scale than the last. And the scale of these scenes is genuinely awesome - these fights feature Jaegers picking up cargo liners to beat Kaiju around the head with them, monsters erupting from inside buildings, bridges snapping like twigs, and at one point, a fight in the outer atmosphere. The Jaeger pilots all have their own fighting styles - something underlined when Del Toro throws in a few fistfights between pilots at ground level - making each battle a fascinating clash in styles. If all that attention to the detail of how a giant robot would fight a massive monster sounds boron, then Pacific Rim is not the film for you. Skyscrapers topple casually, but this is a film without the flippant disregard for life on show in Man of Steel or Star Trek: Into Darkness.
Instead here we are shown and told about the evacuation of populations - and hear that the inland "safe zones" are the preserve of the wealthy, the sort of resonant detail tossed off by Del Toro that really gives the movie a rich sense of self - and see numerous shots of fleeing, terrified civilians. Gratifyingly, Del Toro is a classicist in style, so Pacific Rim, while superficially akin to the Transformers films, is always coherently shot, and the action scenes are visceral and gripping without any of the hyperactive editing or ostentatious shotmaking of those films. When a Kaiju rips off a Jaeger's arm here; you understand exactly what has happened, and how. It is a thoroughly impressive and often beautiful visual spectacle.
Where it is problematic is in its approach to characters. As the above plot synopsis suggests, there is a corniness here in conception and plotting reminiscent almost of something like Independence Day in its sense of naiveté and old-fashioned story virtues. These characters mouth some truly awful dialogue and face some excrutiatingly melodramatic choices, all of it played totally straight and with no little intensity and almost no humour (although some of it feels almost self-parodic at times). Hunnam's inconsistent performance doesn't really help, either; it feels as if he can't decide to play the macho badass or the hollow shell of a man, and instead winds up at an ill-defined somewhere in-between.
But the tone; that evident love and investment into the material, that just about pardons these segments and renders these problems beside the point. The point here is to watch huge monsters fight huge robots, a spectacle done with as much wit and intelligence as it could possibly be. The few shards of pure Del Toro imagination which appear in the last act - particularly the glimpses of the world of the Kaiju, not unlike the Lovecraftian visions of the climax of Hellboy.
As dumb, massive blockbusters go, it doesn't really get much better than this.