Why can’t there be friendly monsters in monster movies? Have we become so conditioned by the subgenre immortalized in Ishirô Honda’s Gojira (1954) that we’re obligated to regard any humongous, scaly creature emerging from the ocean as a threat to humankind?
Let Guillermo del Toro answer that question. Please, let him continue answering that question with a resounding yes if the results are as exhilarating and big-hearted as Pacific Rim, amonster mash set in a not-so-distant-future that feels like a hybridbetween early-70s Tokyo and Ridley Scott’s noir-drenched Los Angeles. It’s not quite the game changer fanboys would have you believe (more on that later), but much like Sam Raimi did in this past spring’s Oz the Great and Powerful, the Pan’s Labyrinth whiz has let his inner 9-year-old lead the way, and whether you respond to his new feature’s retro pleasures will largely depend on the extent you are in touch with that part of you that will involuntarily gravitate to the spunky cheesiness of, say, the original Speed Racer series or the barrage of cheapo, rubbery-creature matinee fare that followed in the wake of Honda’s Don’t You Dare Call It Godzilla.
Pacific Rim, which opens Friday in wide release,is a Goofy Grin Movie through and through, but I have to admit that the film’s beginning gave me cause for concern. Del Toro, you see, chooses to set the story quite a few years after the first kaiju – aka destructive creature from another dimension hellbent on eradicating those pesky Homo sapiens who keep pointing and screaming at them – surface from the sea and wreak havoc on major cities across the globe. The lengthy prologue has protagonist Raleigh Becket (Sons of Anarchy‘s hunkyCharlie Hunnam) narrate in a colorless monotone how we went from helpless megacritter fodder to kickass monster slayers with the creation of the jaeger program. Cue the Atomic Age-influenced robots operated by two pilots who, in an intriguing sci-fi flourish, meld minds via a “neural handshake” in order to operate the metallic behemoth as one.
Comic book geeks will understandably salivate at the sight of the ingeniously designed machines, but to insert so much exposition from the get-go saddles the film with narrative weight that should have been doled out gradually throughout the movie. Then del Toro unleashes his first massive setpiece, and the goofy grin plastered in my face refused to go away from most of the remainder of the film. There’s something invigorating about seeing Raleigh’s jaeger, the aptly named Gipsy Danger,marching on the ocean like a giant toy that has stepped from a long-forgotten childhood dream. (You see how good I have been about resisting the temptation to compare Pacific Rim to those other giant robot movies you might be familiar with? I’ll be brief. Suffice it to say, del Toro’s battles, while dimly lit and occasionally murky, have been staged with attention to detail that favors cohesion over haphazardly thrown together mayhem.)
Raleigh and his co-pilot – and older brother – Yancy (Homeland‘sDiego Klattenhoff) set off to fight skyscraper-sized vermin circa 2020, several years after the jaeger program was implemented with notable success by fearless leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). The mission goes horribly awry, despite the siblings’ stylish, Imperial Stormtroopers-gone-manga suits, and blond, appealingly stoic Raleigh goes into self-imposed exile working on a “Wall of Life” designed to keep humans from kaiju reach. (You can virtually hear del Toro yell, “Good luck with that,” as he briefly gives viewers a brief glimpse of this metaphorical barrier.) The jaeger program is on its death throes, and Pentecost calls on the attractive lunkhead five years later to return and, you know, help save mankind’s hide. Here’s what I found refreshing about the screenplay del Toro co-wrote with Clash of the Titans (2010) scribe Travis Beacham: it eschews most of the conflict you usually associate with these epic-scale genre films. Raleigh’s got baggage, to be sure, but the filmmakers refrain from the tired hemming and hawing you expect from such a hero. After a few seconds’ hesitation, Blondie just follows his old commander. End of story.
Del Toro and Beacham display similar storytelling economy in the relationship between Raleigh and smart, badass fellow recruit Mako Mori (Babel‘s Rinko Kikuchi), which doesn’t quite follow the adversaries-turned-into-allies-turned-into-lovebirds arc you might be expecting. Mako admires her colleague, but in clear-eyed, tough-love fashion, she also points out his weaknesses…and he doesn’t resent the criticism. Granted, these are still B-movie archetypes that could have used more fleshing out, but they’re likable and engaging enough that they make the downtime between monster rumbles easy to take.
You could quibble with the somewhat derivative nature of the kaiju in Pacific Rim, which recalls the design of some of del Toro’s prior creations, and not favorably. You might raise a valid point if you think the film’s comic relief, feuding scientists played by Charlie Day and Torchwood‘s Burn Gorman, should have dialed down their abrasive banter. What I found noticeable absent, and this is something the film could used more of, is a sense of what’s at stake in these missions. Once Raleigh returns to pilot a jaeger, it’s as if del Toro has purposely cut viewers off from the rest of the world, and so when Hong Kong is threatened with a creature invasion, you hardly feel Earth’s fate hangs in the balance, even though it allegedly does.
Is Pacific Rim a great action film? No. Del Toro is so preoccupied in delivering a pull-out-all-the-stops spectacle – and the 3D in it is spectacular – that he skimps on some of the idiosyncrasies of his best work. The movie also suffers from third-act problems. The rote climax, in particular, fails to deliver the payoff it appeared to be leading up to. By contrast, Del Toro’s Hellboy II: The Golden Army, his previous popcorn film, really came together in the homestretch.
What shines above his new movie’s shortcomings is the filmmakers’ affection, both towards its heroes and reptilian creatures, as well as the myriad sources that inspired it. At the same time Del Toro was developing Pacific Rim, he was reportedly working on a movie version of H.P. Lovecraft’s In the Mountains of Madness that fell through after Universal Studio execs requested that he tone down what was intended to be a grown-up, R-level horror film. That studio’s loss is Warner Bros.’ gain…or is it? It remains to be seen whether the same audiences that flocked to see the other trio of full o’ clanging robot movies whose name will not besmirch this column will give del Toro’s sci-fi experiment a shot. Much like the crafty creatures at its core, Pacific Rim comes across as a mutation of disparate elements that takes a plunge into our collective unconscious and emerges with a winning homage that gazes into a future hugely indebted to our pop-culture past.