There is a moment in Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s loving homage to the Japanese Kaiju genre, in which a giant robot’s arm smashes through the side of building mid-punch and, at the very apex of its swing, gently touches the ball on a Newton’s Cradle, which then proceeds to click happily away as a city is destroyed around it. It’s a moment of calm amid the chaos, and in a sense it serves as a microcosm of this blockbuster extravaganza.
That giant robot is a Jaeger (German for ‘hunter’), which has been built by humanity as a last-ditch defence mechanism against the invading Kaiju – vicious beasties passing into our world through a dimensional rift in the ocean. Commanding officer of the Jaeger programme is Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who entreats disillusioned ex-pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) back into service as part of a final attempt to stem the invading forces. Charlie is our hero, although the most likable character in the film (and its only real female presence) is Mako Mori, a budding pilot played with charm and reserve by Rinko Kikuchi.
The humans pilot these monolithic war machines in pairs through a process called ‘drifting’, a mechanism that links the minds (and memories) of the pilots as they work in unison to haul their lumbering avatars around. Drifting is an interesting idea that is given only flashes of dramatic attention in a script much more interested in Jaeger vs. Kaiju smackdowns. Similarly, there isn’t a great deal of time for character building in here: Raleigh is a semi-likable but fairly bland presence (who possesses a ludicrously cocky strut when he walks) and Idris Elba, as the commanding officer with a secret and an oddly wavering accent, doesn’t get much to do beyond being gruff and (admittedly) cool. The supporting cast is a mixed bag, and includes a pair of mad scientists who grow on us as the runtime unfolds, an Aussie father and son duo (more questionable accents) and a cameo by del Toro regular Ron Perlman.
But in a film like this, even when directed by del Toro (from whom we expect detail, nuance and character, all of which appear in glimpses), the stars of the show were always going to be the robots and monsters, and thankfully they don’t disappoint. The Kaiju, snarling reptilian fiends with luminescent blood and bladed tails, face off against an assortment of robot brutes in satisfyingly weighty, lumbering clashes. Unlike other recent ‘giant robot’ franchises (ahem, Michael Bay), you can actually see the vast majority of what’s happening here, and these fights, in all their gargantuan grandiosity, are oddly balletic. They’re also ear-shatteringly loud and a tad repetitive, but del Toro keeps things interesting by varying up the weaponry and the Kaiju themselves. There are a few minor logic gaps (why are ranged weapons constantly used at point blank range? If you have a sword, why not use it?) but they don’t detract much from the thrills.
Your tolerance for epic battles will, at least partially, determine how much you take from Pacific Rim. In the hands of a less imaginative director, this could’ve felt like an overblown and shallow project, but del Toro invests it with enough love and some touches of humour and flair to raise it above that. The more interesting ideas are drowned out by the sheer noise of it all, but the action is arresting and the visual design stylish. 2013 continues to be a stellar year for blockbusters.