Holy Buckets, but this one was a lot better than I expected. Given that movie making these days seems to have been reduced to choreographing action sequences (see Star Trek) and allowing for the fact that it belongs to that general category of movies in which giant monsters battle giant robots, it's hard not to award Pacific Rim five out of five stars. It does a superb job of almost everything that can be expected of such a film.
The earth is invaded by giant reptiles (Kaiju), which enter our world through a dimensional rift on the ocean floor. Mankind responds by pulling together and building giant, humanoid robots (Jaegers). Each Jaeger is controlled by two pilots ( or in one case, a set of triplets) who are mentally linked with the machine and with each other. After seven years of war, the tide turns against mankind as the Kaiju increase in power and numbers faster than human industry can respond. A former Jaeger pilot is brought out of retirement to command one of the few remaining machines in a last ditch effort to close dimensional portal.
Charlie Hunnam (Jax Teller on Sons of Anarchy) has the lead role as our returning pilot. Emotionally wounded but not weakened by the death of his brother/partner early in the war, Raleigh Becket is now paired with Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi). Mori carries a heavier set of emotional baggage, having lost her family to a Kaiju attack when she was a child.
The pairing of pilots is a clever device for keeping relationships neatly sorted. In addition we get a father/son pair, a Slavic husband and wife team, and the Chinese triplets, in diminishing degrees of exposure. We also get a pair of deliciously quirky tech nerds (actors Charlie Day and Burn Gorman).
Finally, Idris Elba gives us Stacker Pentecost, the fiery commander. If you haven't heard him declare "Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse" you haven't been listening.
All the actors are very well cast, physically and temperamentally.
The storyline is boilerplate fantasy/sci-fi. Hopelessly outgunned, our heroes must overcome inner demons and mutual mistrust in order to pull off a more or less miraculous stratagem. Think here of Independence Day, The Lord of the Rings, and The Avengers. The dialogue is a bit better than you would expect, if not the least bit inventive.
The pacing and mood, however, are very good. I found that the sense of desperation was very convincing and built steadily throughout the film. This owed a lot to the role played by the two tech nerds, who argue incessantly about what is going on and what will happen next. Of course, they both turn out to be right.
The real test of this kind of movie is whether it can rekindle some of the same excitement I felt when I was six years old and saw Godzilla for the first time. It did that.
The special effects were flawless and spectacular. I doubt whether anything as large as a Jaeger or a Kaiju has ever been thrown into the air on planet earth, let alone the one punch the other out. The laws of Hollywood physics were scrupulously observed, so the action felt plausible without being fitted out for any thinking. Along with the sound and the texture of water and fire, everything seemed to be suitably heavy. I am happy to report that there was not a hint of offensive, Peter Jackson goofiness in the action.
The interiors of the Jaeger fortress had an iron retro look, a bit like the Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). Pretty much everything else, including the inside and outside of the machines, the streets of Hong Kong, and the monsters was glowing with red and blue pastel fire. It was visually delightful, due in part to the fact that the power never went out even when flying giants were scraping the architecture off of whole city blocks.
An Odd Note (small spoiler alert)
There were a lot of rather blunt references to Independence Day (1996). We learn a lot about the enemy when one of the scientists mentally interfaces with an alien brain. For instance, the creatures responsible for sending the Kaiju here are in the habit of plundering whole worlds. Those same aliens look rather a lot like the critters that Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum waved at from their hijacked spacecraft. I will stop there, but there is a lot more. This borrowing is so blatant that is must mean something. I have no clue, unless it was just lazy theft.
There is almost nothing new or surprising here, so I can't quite give it five stars. It is certainly four star popcorn fun. Box office returns seem a bit anemic, which is probably due to the fact that there is so much apocalyptic banging going on in summer theaters that audiences are just worn out with it. It is also possible that the idea of giant robots sounds too Might Morphin' Power Rangers. I note that the Jaeger pilots are called rangers. That is too bad, because this is the sort of thing you will really like if you like that sort of thing. I do.