"This film carries a very important message," Guillermo del Toro told a live audience at the 2004 premiere of Hellboy. "And that message is 'giant squids from outer space are going to destroy us all.’" The director always knows exactly what his films set out to do, and though he handles them all with unique grace, he draws a firm distinction between those with a rich subtext (such as Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone) and those that just want to entertain us (such as Blade II and the Hellboy films). Despite what you may have heard, Pacific Rim falls demonstrably into the latter category, and thrives precisely because it respects the distinction.
Early adherents have praised the film's intelligence, apparently mistaking technical craft for genuine brains. This is not a smart movie, but it wields its stupidity with such knowing confidence that we can be forgiven for mistaking one for the other. Its wafer-thin characters maintain only passable interest, and their soap-opera dilemmas come straight from Plot Complications 101. Were it not for a few nice speeches from Idris Elba and the thundering engine of unstoppable cool that is Ron Perlman, they barely register. Thankfully, del Toro isn't depending on them to hold our interest, and any criticisms we may voice fall dead silent the minute the monster mash starts.
And have no doubt, this is a monster mash for the ages. One ponders what Roland Emmerich's misbegotten Godzilla might have looked like with del Toro at the helm. In Pacific Rim's near future, an inter-dimensional rift opens up in the bottom of the ocean and periodically spits out a giant rampaging reptile. Conventional weapons barely dent the things, so humanity turns to the only rational alternative: stupid-big death robots. Piloted by paired "rangers" who each function as half of the machines' brains, the gigantic mecha manage to fight the beasts to a standstill. Even then, however, we can't do much more, and the frequency of monster attacks slowly grows. Something desperate and daring needs to be done, lest the invaders get out of hand and the whole darn planet has to change its name to Tokyo Flats.
The Godzilla movies tried these kind of rumbles with nothing more than some train models and a guy in a rubber suit. Their budgetary shoddiness eventually became part of their charm, one which del Toro clearly shares. But he has some big bucks behind him here, and the film's various smash ups deliver every bit of the horrifying awe that his predecessors had to carry on faith. Pacific Rim goes the extra mile by thinking through the implications of such attacks, such as a new Hong Kong neighborhood built in the beasts’ desiccated bones or a thriving black market (run by Perlman's larger-than-life scuzzbucket) based around their organs.
Del Toro knows how to shoot them too. Unlike the Transformers movies, which buried their massive combatants in confusing blurs, Pacific Rim keeps everything crystal clear. The various battles take the breath away, reveling in their destructive power as the sole and only purpose of the exercise. You won't see better set pieces all year, fueled by the kaiju movies of the past but giving them the CGI bells and whistles they truly deserve.
Against them, the human drama can’t hope to keep up. It’s all lost brothers and last stands and pilots who may be losing their grip, and your basic hash of prepubescent Saturday morning fare. But that too, actually serves as a confirmation of del Toro’s geek credentials. The characters all fit into easy anime stereotypes, matching prominent bits of mecha like Evangelion. We’ve got wacky scientists, star-crossed lovers and brooding veterans, all painted by someone steeped in the genre’s minutia. That may contribute to their two-dimensional feel: the plot threads here would probably do a lot better developed over 26 hours instead of just two. But as it stands, they feel like a loving homage that doesn’t quite have the time to sell us, rather than a lazy filmmaker only doing what’s required.
Put them all together and it spells epic summer entertainment: big, dumb and loud in all the very best ways. We know that the director is capable of so much more, and this certainly won’t rank among his greatest. (Be wary of too much praise too soon on this one.) But he never intended it to be, and he treats the fun factor here with the same devotion and love that he handles his more “serious” work. That gives Pacific Rim a credibility that too many other films lack. It’s hard not to imagine del Toro plopping down next to us in the theater with a bucket of popcorn, laughing and cheering at all the goofy mayhem he’s unleashed.