‘Pacific Rim’ movie review: kaiju vs. robots in Guillermo del Toro’s monster mash

Giant monsters and giant robots pummel each other into mountains of fleshy alien goo and metallic scrap heaps in director Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a big, thunderous mashup of the Godzilla and Transformers film franchises that threatens to pound the viewer into submission but also manages to fulfill just about every desire a 10-year-old monster movie fan might have. 

If that premise sounds the least bit appealing to you, there ain’t much else to say except this film delivers the goods: there’s a good 45 minutes of satisfying monster mash action interspersed with a reasonably well-paced (if not terribly involving) human story. Considering the premise, Pacific Rim is just about the best film one could reasonably hope for.

If that plot doesn’t grab you, however, you’d be advised to stay far away: the film takes no prisoners in its full-throttle approach, casting the reality of the hows and whys of the alien-robot war aside in favor of nonstop machine-on-monster action. Anyone looking for logic or reasoning here will be left cold. 

In 2013, a rift in the Pacific Ocean opens a gateway to another dimension at the bottom of the sea, from which a Godzilla-like creature (called a “Kaiju”) emerges and attacks San Francisco. Scenes of the monster’s rampage, destroying the Golden Gate Bridge – and similar sequences throughout the film – do an incredible job of conveying the sheer size and scale of the destruction. It’s both frightening and awe-inspiring stuff. 

Our modern military technology cannot easily combat the beast, which is eventually brought down after destroying a number of US cities. Soon, more monsters appear across the globe. Countries unite in support of a program that will stop the creatures the only way we know how: the creation of massive, nuclear-powered robots (referred to as “Jaegers”), controlled by human pilots, who will take on the baddies mano-a-mano. 

Now, there’s your movie. Detail how mankind’s technology is no match for these beasts, convince us (somehow) that the giant robots are the way to go, and showcase our eventual triumph. This thing writes itself. 

But that was apparently too easy for del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham, who blitz by the good stuff in a 5-minute prologue and then flash-forward 7 years into the alien war to tell us the story of human characters we know almost nothing about.

That includes pilot Raleigh Becket (Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam), who is re-recruited to fight some monsters and avenge his brother (and co-pilot) Yancy’s untimely death by general Stacker Pentecost (The Wire’s Idris Elba), who’s aiming to finish this war once and for all in a last ditch effort after the robot program has been scrapped. 

Pacific Rim’s one big fault is that it never bothers to try to convince the audience of its reality, preferring instead to throw us right into the fray. We’re never really sold on the giant robot solution, but OK, we go with it; we all know what we’re getting into here. 

But then there’s elements like ‘the drift’, in which Raleigh and co-pilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) must mind-meld together, and with the robot, and then each controls a hemisphere of the robot’s ‘brain’. Or something like that. This concept is never fully explained either; we don’t know who controls what, or what exactly is happening when the pilots lose themselves in memory while drifting. Later, these giant machines head deep under the sea without problem, with no explanation at all regarding how this might be possible. 

Poor Hunnam and Elba struggle to make something out of their one-dimensional characters, but mostly feel redundant. The supporting cast fares much better; Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, who know what kind of movie they’re in, star as a pair of scientists who bring some much-needed spice (if not full-out comic relief) to the proceedings; Day, in particular, saves the film from being something of a drag. Del Toro regular Ron Perlman shows up in a juicy role as alien parts dealer Hannibal Chow. 

But we didn’t come to see Pacific Rim for the human storyline, we came for the action – and that’s where the film really delivers. Effectively conveying the size scale of these enormous creatures better than any monster movie before, there’s something immensely satisfying about watching these hulking beasts duke it out in a cityscape; it’s a basic Godzilla appeal that anyone with fond memories of the 1960s Toho films will really get a kick out of. 

Best of all: unlike, say, Man of Steel, we can actually relate to the battles and appreciate the damage these creatures are dishing out (and receiving). We feel every hit, and have some idea of how close destruction is around the corner. 

One real negative: all, or most, of the fighting takes place at night, in the rain, in the sea. It’s a stylistic choice that may enhance some of the reality (or at least, obscure some of the digital fakery), but it makes it especially difficult to follow all of the action. 

In 3D, Pacific Rim looks terrific – it’s easily one of the best uses of the technology I’ve seen to date, with the added dimension enhancing the sheer size and scope of the monsters. I only wish it weren’t so damn dark.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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