It is a wondrous thing when a movie makes you feel like a little kid again, transporting you back to a time when the only things that mattered were your action figures and imagination. This is achieved with overwhelming success in the biggest [and best], IMAX-3D, CGI-laden blockbuster extravaganza of the summer, “Pacific Rim.” Out July 12, the highly anticipated science fiction film was directed by visionary Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, a fanboy demigod who helmed 2006’s dark fairy tale “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the two adaptations of Mike Mignola’s “Hellboy” comics. In these projects, del Toro constructed expansive fantasy worlds inhabited by colorful characters and imaginative creatures. In “Rim” he’s at it again with a homage to the Japanese monster (aka kaiju) and mecha (robot/machine) genres made famous by Japanese anime, the Toho Motion Picture Co. and the sci-fi B-movies of the ‘50s and ‘60s like Godzilla and others. Armed with a script that he co-wrote with Travis Beacham (“Clash of The Titans”) and the special effects team at Industrial Light and Magic, del Toro crafts a fun and scary thrill ride that does the one thing that an epic summer action-adventure should do: bring out the child in all of us.
In the not-too-distant future, giant aliens and seemingly unstoppable creatures from another dimension begin to rise from the Pacific Ocean and wreak havoc on all of mankind, destroying cities and famous landmarks. In the terrifyingly breathtaking opening sequence, the Golden Gate Bridge is decimated by the first beast to make land. These monsters are dubbed “kaiju,” Japanese for “giant beast.” In response to these attacks, all nations put aside their differences to initiate the Jaeger (German for hunter) program, building colossal nuclear-powered robots to fight off the invaders. They are piloted by individuals locked in a neural connection while sharing memories. If all these totally awesome sci-fi concepts don’t capture your attention in the first few minutes, then I don’t know what will!
While the premise is simple enough, the director takes it to the next level by showing us what effects a hypothetical monster attack would have on the world. Jaeger pilots become rock star heroes in the eyes of the public while the kaiju and robots are turned into toys. Kudos to the Industrial Light & Magic team for creating the unique skyscraper-sized creatures from reptiles to crustaceans that can spit acid and emit electromagnetic pulses; a feat that would spin the head on the late great Ray Harryhausen. The Jaegers are eclectic as well, each with its own cool design, weapons and name. These aren’t men in ridiculous “I can see the zipper in the back” costumes. With a budget of $180 million, they’re the best darn graphics money can buy.
The video game-esque fight scenes between the Jaegers and the monsters look like what can only be described as the physical manifestations of the feverish daydreams of our 13-year-old selves. Fans of the PlayStation 2 may see parallels to the 2003 game “War of The Monsters.” Del Toro is like a kid in a candy store, a masterful puppeteer utilizing massive sets and exotic locations (from Alaska to Hong Kong) to give his film a scope and feel like no other with the help of his longtime cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro. The director conducts these suspenseful, violent and graceful scenes of kaiju butt kicking and property damage as if they are a waltz with surprises around every corner. These CGI mammoths are his personal playthings, and he uses them to make one hell of a story. To underscore just how amazing these sequences are, I shall paraphrase a YouTube comment on one of the film’s trailers: “This movie could have two hours of no dialogue, and I’d still pay to see it.”
While most adventure movies prefer one-dimensional characters who take a back seat to the action, the film’s cast is just as interesting as any special effect with their cool backstories and even cooler names. Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) plays the main character and narrator, Raleigh Becket, the charming and boyishly handsome veteran Jaeger pilot with a tragic past. He’s brought back into the game by Stacker Pentecost, the head of the program. He is played by the very awesomely British Idris Elba (“Prometheus,” “Luther”) in this gruff but lovable role. Elba is a sight to behold as the hard-shelled Pentecost (a role once meant for Tom Cruise), commanding the screen with his uplifting monologues. Although overplayed in the trailers, his “cancelling the apocaplyse speech” is still rousing nonetheless. Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi is the soft-spoken Mako Mori, Becket’s eventual co-pilot with a tragic past of her own revealed in a terrifying and surprisingly emotional flashback.
Other notable supporting roles come from the likes of Charlie Day (“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” “Horrible Bosses”), Burn Gorman (“The Dark Knight Rises”), and Ron Perlman in his fifth collaboration with del Toro. Day plays Newton Geizler, a rebellious, tattooed scientist and kaiju-obsessed groupie who yearns to understand the creatures. His nerdy and fast-talking character is reminiscent of Rick Moranis as Louis Tully in “Ghostbusters.” He also draws attention to some of the script’s shortcomings in reference to the origin of the kaiju and their motivations, an explanation that seems to have been pulled straight from “Independence Day.” His rock ‘n’ roll, gung-ho attitude is challenged by his uptight and hobbling colleague, Hermann Gottlieb (Gorman), doing a whole over-the-top “By Jove!” Sherlock Holmes shtick. The chemistry between them leads to most of the film’s comic relief. Perlman plays Hannibal Chau, a wealthy black marketeer of kaiju organs who took his name from a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn. Despite his small amount of screen time, he is arguably one of the best and funniest characters in the film.
The whole film is tied together with an epic score from Ramin Djawadi (“Iron Man,” Game of Thrones”). With its electric and Asian influences (along with some “Inception” “BRRRRs!”), the music is often evocative of the schlocky creature features of days gone by. At the end of the day, “Pacific Rim” is a somewhat cliched apocalyptic adventure movie with all the expected themes of friendship, teamwork and hope comfortably in place. You might see similarities to “Cloverfield,” “The Avengers,” “Sym-Bionic Titan,” “Real Steel,” “Transformers,” and even Ivan Reitman’s sci-fi comedy “Evolution,” But del Toro outdoes all of them by dreaming bigger and hitting back harder. He is not afraid to explore what haunts our imaginations and what inspires our most fanciful dreams. In doing so, he creates one monster of a time.