The prologue of Pacific Rim featured what I thought would be the most interesting part of the movie. Giant monsters (kaiju - a term lovingly borrowed from Japan) began erupting from a fissure on the bottom of the ocean years ago. Conventional weapons do not work anymore so the military created giant mechs (jaeger - or, hunter) to fight the monsters on their own terms. The program is wildly successful and turns the pilots, who have to share the mental strain of working the jaegers, become superstars in the process and the threat infantilized into cuddly stuffed toys.
For a bit there I thought that director and screenwriter Guillermo del Toro was going to inject some social commentary into the mix. Perhaps the film would be a way of showing the carelessness of out of control weapons programs and the danger of celebrity. This, del Toro wisely knows, was not the best way to go with the material. If anything that intro serves as the mission statement for Pacific Rim.
There's no social commentary, no grand message. What I got is a stylish, incredibly well acted bit of fun featuring some of the best use of size and scale to deliver a great entertainment. The motivations of the warriors are simple, their conflicts easily recognizable, and all bereft of any obligation to be anything other than the stripped down storytelling mechanisms that they are. I say none of this as a negative, save for a run-time that's a bit too long, this is film-making as excellent as it is lean.
Our protagonist, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), lost his brother in a battle with a kaiju while they were linked together in the jaeger. He hid from the world nursing his mental scars until summoned back to duty by his former commanding officer Major Stacker (Idris Elba). It's the old plot standby of "one last mission / heist / etc." but used well because if Stacker can't drag Raleigh out of retirement then the world is going to end. Raleigh is introduced to Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), a potential partner for the jaeger, who has her own reasons for wanting to take the kaijus down.
There's a few other teams working in unison representing different nationalities but not different interests. In an ingenious bit of creativity del Toro makes the jaeger system function by forcing the pilots to share not only the physical functions of their brains but their memories. It's a good bit of writing shorthand to see how each nation brings their own flavor to the table while avoiding any problems outside of some passing creative jealousy. My personal favorite was the Russian team and their cast-iron wrecking ball of a jaeger.
This brings up two things that work superbly well in Pacific Rim. The first is, once again, del Toro's ability to build an entire universe from scratch using what he loves. The dome that houses the jaeger's is built like an old battle-axe, dented and sparking with the tools keeping it alive, with the jaeger's themselves proudly brandishing their battle scars or streamlining their chassis. Later on, when del Toro gets the opportunity to have an eccentric doctor browse an illegal market for kaiju remains, is one of the most delightful bits of world building and most indicative of del Toro's loving approach to the material. The doctor is ecstatic, looking at all these organs and harvested parasites in their jars and compartments, that it wonderfully reflects del Toro's simple desire to show us something new and familiar all at the same time.
The other part of del Toro's approach that I love here, and in all his other films, is the way he casts performers that aren't the typical movie stars. Yes, Hunnam and Elba have the look of leading men, but they're supported by the happy eccentrics that move the world forward and make it interesting to live in. My favorite is the aforementioned biological doctor (Charlie Day, having an absolute blast) and his mathematician rival / best friend played by Burn Gorman. Their relationship is a hoot with both of them using raw biology and math to convince the brass of the best way to fight the kaijus. Del Toro's conflicts are won by people who go off the beaten trail and Pacific Rim is another great addition to that philosophy.
Del Toro's love is felt in the battle scenes as well which are many and fun. The trailer, which looked like a confusing mess, does not do justice to the weigh del Toro carefully arranges his giant toys and has them fight. He treats them, as he states explicitly in the film, as a dialogue and not a fast-paced mess of explosions. Even in the darkness of some of the fight scenes he sets his camera back so that we can watch the effort of both jaeger and kaiju. The series of reversals and struggles goes on a bit too long at times, but never to the point of boredom.
What results is another one of del Toro's lovingly crafted homages to giant monster films of decades past. It's big, loud fun that shows the Transformer movies are an aberration and not the pinnacle of what can be done mashing machine against monster. The big-budget films of the year continue to impress and this is a worthy addition to the list.