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Monsters mash, titans clash and humans are behind the eight ball in Pacific Rim, a staggeringly loud, action-packed FXtravaganza that’s both a numbing and pretty entertaining example of its movie species. It’s Godzilla x 10, as thunderously clangy as any Transformers movie, and it may or may not have been inspired by the 1990s anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. But it also really moves, has an attractive cast to complement the humanity-threatening beasts and, in Guillermo del Toro, a director with a lively appreciation of genre tropes. Still, almost nothing has proven a sure thing at the box office this summer, so while massive success internationally looks likely, most of all in Asian markets, U.S. acceptance will depend partly upon finicky fanboys but most of all upon general audiences who could decide they’ve seen it all before.
In most ways, this paradoxically derivative yet imaginative sci-fi epic is everything every monster movie since the beginning of time might have wished it could be: In no way pinched budget-wise, it’s got first-class special effects, crafty behemoths that calculate and react to circumstances in non-dumb ways, a smart director who injects a sense of fun and surprise whenever he can, a fair percentage of characters you don’t mind watching, and a few decent plot twists. In this genre, that’s saying something.
On the other hand, this is a formula in which cinematic niceties take a back seat to certain expectations that can only be met in fully anticipated ways, inviting a familiarity that will encounter various degrees of audience fatigue and/or resistance. Some viewers like seeing the same narrative, in this case human resourcefulness prevailing over terrifying brute force, and its accompanying satisfactions repeated again and again, while others will consider the story predictable, old hat and unworthy of attention.
In fact, one of the biggest gimme-a-break aspects of Travis Beacham and del Toro’s screenplay, based on the former’s story, lies in its bedrock. It’s been seven years since the first Kaiju, an enormous amphibious dragon, rose from beneath the seas, Godzilla-style, to decimate San Francisco. Mankind’s answer to continued attacks has been to build 25-story-high Jaegers, fighting metal robots controlled by two pilots positioned inside them. But it’s been a losing battle, so the Jaeger program is being dropped in favor of building giant walls to protect seaside cities from the onslaught. If the international defense coalition here had only seen World War Z, they’d know high fortifications just aren’t going to work.
But after so many years and with the knowledge that Kaiju come up from the ocean, wouldn’t it have made sense to first evacuate obvious coastal targets such as Hong Kong and Sydney, which get stomped on during the course of the action here, thus forcing the Kaiju to march inland and be exposed? Have Paris, Moscow, Tehran and Mexico City been assaulted? Nope.
That said, the initial Kaiju/Jaeger showdown, along the Alaska coast during a nocturnal hurricane, is a doozy, as hotshot pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) and his older brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) take on an aggressive beast with a stabbing snout and enormous jaws capable of biting through metal. Then there are two intriguing keys to the set-up: Because it takes two to control a Jaeger, the minds of the pilots sync up by way of The Drift, which opens up a total mental exchange between two brains; furthermore, because of the evolving nature of the Kaiju, it’s determined that some sort of rational intelligence is behind the monsters’ attacks, that there’s more to them than just random viciousness.
The film’s title only appears onscreen after this 18-minute action prologue has tragically concluded with Yancy’s death and the disillusioned Raleigh dropping out. Desperation subsequently stirs Jaeger force commander Stacker Pentecost (where did that name come from?), played in strikingly macho fashion by Idris Elba, to dredge Raleigh out of anonymity to co-pilot one of the four remaining Jaegers in a last-ditch effort to vindicate the program and save the world from smart dinosaur descendants. Reluctant to share his mind with someone other than his brother, Raleigh has a balky, recalcitrant manner that’s magnified by Hunnam’s notable resemblance to Steve McQueen, who specialized in this sort of attitude. However, it’s only a matter of time, and after a stick-fighting martial arts contest he’s paired with beautiful Japanese candidate Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, of Babel), who has a secret with Pentecost that must be exorcised before she’s cleared to fly.
There’s some cliched macho competitiveness worked in involving a father-son Aussie pilot team (Max Martini and Rob Kazinsky) versus Raleigh, while the Russian and Chinese Jaeger units get very short shrift. By contrast, the two key scientists, who are at odds over the source and nature of the Kaiju and how best to deal with them, are amusingly brought to life by a manic Charlie Day and an eccentric Burn Gorman, whose high-comic oddness positions his character as a theoretical grandson to Dr. Strangelove. Topping off the cast for sheer bravado and wayward weirdness is del Toro regular Ron Perlman as a sort of flashy Dr. Mabuse of the Hong Kong underground.
To kill time between action set pieces, del Toro has done an above-average job of avoiding tedium via some flavorsome casting, passably interesting plot contrivances and, above all, by maintaining strong forward momentum. Unlike so many similar crash-bang action spectaculars, this one feels lean and muscular rather than bloated or padded; the combat is almost always coherent and dramatically pointed rather than just splashed on the screen for its own sake.
The climax has an anatomical yuck factor hitherto withheld by the film, while the intriguing scientific underpinnings of the Kaiju’s origins provide plenty of possibilities for sequels, if needed. “Today we are canceling the apocalypse,” Pentecost confidently declares before the final battle. Perhaps, but in the world of global disaster films, there’s always room for one more.
Opens: July 12 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Legendary Pictures
Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Rob Kazinsky, Max Martini, Clifton Collins Jr., Burn Gorman, Ron Perlman
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriters: Travis Beacham, Guillermo del Toro, story by Travis Beacham
Producers: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Guillermo del Toro, Mary Parent
Executive producer: Callum Greene
Director of photography: Guillermo Navarro
Production designers: Andrew Neskoromny, Carol Spier
Costume designer: Kate Hawley
Editors: John Gilroy, Peter Amundson
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Visual effects supervisors: John Knoll, James E. Price
PG-13 rating, 131 minutes
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