I'm not exactly sure when giant movie monsters became quaint, corny, and disposable, but it seems a pretty safe bet that virtually every hardcore film fanatic has fond and formative memories of King Kong, Godzilla, and/or the amazing menagerie of the late Ray Harryhausen. Sometimes movies can touch our hearts, change our lives, and help us to become better people... but sometimes movies are all about the eye candy, and if we're usually fine with "check your brain at the door" cinematic spectacles during the summertime, then we should also be able to get behind a super-huge and gigantically entertaining piece of movie mayhem that delivers all the requisite goods and also, get this, displays a small but welcome sense of energy, humanity, and humor.
The big sci-fi action horror spectacular this weekend is one called Pacific Rim, and it's about nothing more than building-sized monsters who pour out of the ocean floor and the equally gigantic and super-high-tech suits of armor that mankind's last hope will use to battle the beasts. Some flicks have aliens, others have zombies, and Pacific Rim has Kaiju (aka "giant monsters") and Jaegers (aka "gigantic and super-high-tech suits of armor"). Even better, Pacific Rim has the humor, the weirdness, and the lovable charms of director Guillermo del Toro.
(Brief sidebar: I adore Guillermo del Toro's movies, even the ones that are a little sloppy and rough around the edges. Given the man's body of work I am firmly convinced that he is one of the most sincere and passionate filmmakers working today. Lucky for us he happens to love monster movies.)
Let's start from a different angle: Pacific Rim feels like a movie that began with the question, "How can we make something like Transformers, only without the migraines and the insultingly stupid screenplay?" And someone (perhaps Guillermo del Toro, perhaps screenwriter Travis Beacham) figured it out: put some human beings inside your giant "robot" and you're halfway to making an apocalyptic action-fest that has a little meat on its bones. So while it's true that practically all of the characters in Pacific Rim are broad caricatures or one-note archetypes, it's important to remember that we're dealing with a tongue-in-cheek genre stew that has characters with names like Herc Hansen, Miko Mori, and Hannibal Choi. The Pacific Rim heroes are as deep as they'd be in issue #1 of a new comic book, and frankly it's a little refreshing to have some basic heroes after dealing with so many emotional superheroes with daddy issues.
The plot and most of the dialogue is pure 1940s WWII boilerplate material -- fathers and sons; courage vs. control; self vs. sacrifice, etc -- but there's so much energy generated by Pacific Rim's disparate parts, the straightforward story arcs almost feel like a relief. Admirably efficient for such a massive movie, Pacific Rim only has one B-story to speak of, and it's actually a pretty amusing one in which a nerdy doctor (Charlie Day) and a sleazy crook (Ron Perlman) have to work together to help the "action" heroes. Of course most of the flick is dedicated to our fearless leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), central hunk Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), rookie Mako Mori (Rinko Kukichi), and a few sidekicks you'll grow to know and love over two hours.
Forced to find a gripe about Pacific Rim, it'd have to be that some of the supporting characters are there for little more than "international" window dressing. I suspect there was some interesting Act II material left on the cutting room floor, truth be told. Some of the flick's most interesting background characters more or less vanish...
Beyond that there's really not much to complain about. Mr. del Toro approaches the material with an almost childlike enthusiasm, as if he simply cannot wait to show you what he learned from anime films and monster movies and science fiction stories. It's the passion for the "geeky" stuff that separates the great filmmakers from the good ones, and that's something you just can't fake. Joe Dante had it. The brilliant Steven Spielberg clearly has it, and so does Guillermo del Toro. That's not to say that Pacific Rim is a brilliant or flawless piece of entertainment, but it's an endlessly raucous and wonderfully entertaining piece of grade-A eye candy from one of the few filmmakers I trust implicitly.
In a nutshell, the movie delivers a ton of wild stuff you've never seen before, but it's nestled in a comfortable old story about heroes with firm jaws and noble intentions. Plus it's weird and a little gross. Also funny.
Pacific Rim was made for people who still remember seeing the wonderfully epic presence of King Kong or Godzilla for the first time and thought "Wow, movies are awesome!" This is what a Transformers movie might be like if anyone actually cared about the Transformers. (I said might.)