A lot of people wrote off Pacific Rim as looking too much like the 1998 Godzilla mashed up with the Transformers movies. “We’ve seen this before,” they said with a shrug, “giant monsters and giant robots.” But what sets Pacific Rim apart from those films — aside from Guillermo del Toro being a better director than Roland Emmerich and Michael Bay — is that in the earlier two films, you got the sense the filmmakers had been handed a property and were simply doing a job. Whereas you can tell del Toro is absolutely loving every minute of this. It’s the difference between the souvenir postcard you can buy in the Louvre gift shop and the actual Mona Lisa hanging on the wall. One is designed simply to make money; the other is the expression of a vision.
And del Toro’s vision here is nothing less than a little kid playing in the biggest bathtub in the world with the most expensive toys. That’s the level of enthusiasm on display here, a childish glee at how damn awesome it is to watch hundred-foot tall monsters duke it out with gigantic robots. And we’re not talking the hulking suit-bound monsters of Godzilla films past (as charming and inventive as those can be). These kaiju are Lovecraftian nightmares that move with fluidity but still have a sense of weight, from the squat, gorilla-like monster that lumbers across Hong Kong to the sinewy aquatic beasts that weave and dart through the ocean depths. Though they share a similarity of design — they do all come from the same place — they’re also distinct enough that it doesn’t simply feel like a parade of pixels going by. They have personalities, quirks, ways of fighting that set them apart from each other. It makes each new appearance a surprise rather than a promise of more of the same.
The same applies to the jaegers. They aren’t the over-designed messes the Transformers were, but will be instantly recognizable to anybody who’s ever played Battletech or watched Robotech as functional military machines. Though fictional, you get a sense of how they work, how the gears and pistons and joints all move, making their existence seem almost plausible. They’re individualized as well, such as the Russian jaeger being a triumph of function over form — it’s ugly but packs a hell of a punch — and the American model exhibiting that good old-fashioned never say die quality we Americans like to think we possess. They’re almost like giant wrestlers, with colorful names and literally larger than life stature.
When del Toro mashes these two elements together, his delight at being able to do so is apparent. The fights are tense and inventive and on a scale really unlike anything we’ve seen before. And he plunges us right into this world he’s created to host his battle royal, not wasting any time before there’s a monster and hey, there’s a robot and look, they’re fighting. Not that he doesn’t do a fair amount of world-building here. There’s a real sense of impending doom hanging over everything, from the opportunistic black market that has sprung up over pieces of fallen kaiju to the comforting yet ultimately futile idea of building a wall to keep them out to the residents of Hong Kong huddled in a shelter, hoping to ride out just one more attack. This doesn’t feel like a setting that has had this concept tacked onto it, but a real world where these events are happening, and it adds a ton to the film’s level of engagement.
If I haven’t mentioned any human characters up to this point, it’s more a factor of the giants being so jaw-dropping as opposed to any failing on the actors’ parts. We’re dealing mostly in archetypes here — the fallen warrior, the aging general, the rookie, the scientist, the cocky hotshot — but they’re sketched in the same broad comic book strokes as the rest of the film, and therefore feel perfectly in place. In fact, there’s a good stretch of the film where barely any jaeger or kaiju appear at all, and yet it’s not a case like so many Godzilla movies where you can’t wait for the people to go away. Idris Elba brings the perfect air of heroic gravitas to his role as the leader of the jaeger team, Rinko Kikuchi also shines as the rookie pilot whose past experiences with the kaiju still haunt her. There’s even some interesting things going on with the idea of the might of the jaegers alone not being enough to save the day, with the scientists making a crucial discovery late in the film without which all the giant robots in the world won’t make a bit of difference.
But let’s be honest: all the actors have to do here is hit their marks, be convincing, and give us some human faces to root for. The real stars of the show are towering above them. Pacific Rim is no mere empty spectacle, the first big summer blockbuster this year not to fall into that trap. The trailers and posters have made a promise, and del Toro fully delivers on it. Like the jaegers it so vividly depicts, Pacific Rim looms over the landscape, ready to take on all comers, a thrilling example of what an engaged filmmaker is capable of when he’s working with passion rather than commerce.