Pacific Rim puts the fun back in thrillers

Jul 11, 2013

I’ve got to make a confession. When I was 10, 11, 12, my friends and I spent many a Saturday afternoon sitting through matinee shows of such classics like Yongary, Monster from the Deep or Godzilla versus the Smog Monster We could never get enough, even though the special effects were often laughably tacky, the plots were painfully predictable and the dialogue was unspeakably awful. 

After seeing Pacific Rim, I am completely convinced that director Guillermo del Toro and I have much in common, at least in terms of what we watched as kids. But even if you can’t immediately distinguish Godzilla from Gamera the Flying Turtle, you can still have a pretty terrific time watching Pacific Rim, a majestic monster mash-up that crams so much action, humor, spectacle, tension and earth-shaking, bone-rattling, jaw-dropping awesomeness into 131 minutes that you might leave the theater in a state of bruised and battered blissfulness.

It’s immediately obvious that del Toro plans to turn Pacific Rim into his own meticulously researched pop-culture encyclopedia, overflowing with astute references to scores of fantasy and sci-fi films from the past 75 years. There are multiple nods to stop-motion animation legend Ray Harryhausen and the Toho Company Ltd. epics of the 1950s and 1960s (such as GodzillaRodanMothra, etc.). But del Toro isn’t content to stop there: He even finds clever ways to include the nose-knifing from director Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

More importantly, he channels all of these amusing asides into a thundering thriller that’s infused with the secret ingredient that’s been missing from so many recent spectaculars: a sense of fun. The stakes are sky-high in Pacific Rim, but the film never wallows in glum self-seriousness the way Man of Steel did, nor does it become so frantically goofy (like the recent Transformers installments) that it loses all sense of urgency and drama.

The story (co-written with Travis Beacham) unfolds in the near-future, when an escalating series of attacks by Kaiju – gigantic beasts from the bottom of the ocean – have left the planet’s future in jeopardy. In response, world leaders pool their resources to build towering robots dubbed Jaegers (the German term for “hunter”).

When it comes to piloting a Jaeger, two heads are definitely better than one; as in Inception, the mind is the heart of the technology, and Jaeger pilots must combine their brain-power to control these mammoth machines. As the battle intensifies, veteran pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is brought back from self-imposed retirement to join determined neophyte Mako Mori (the immensely appealing Rinko Kikuchi of Babel) at the helm of the old-school Jaeger known as Gipsy Danger. Between the two of them they have enough troubling memories and unresolved emotional issues to power a soap opera, but it remains to be seen if their pooled brain-power can defeat the latest Kaiju, which are adapting and evolving.

The monsters are marvelous: bizarre creations made up of pieces of dinosaurs, giant bugs, mythological beasts and the tentacled, jellyfish-hued denizens of the deep. The Jaegers are also impressively aggressive, equipped with such helpful Kaiju-crushing tools as plasma blasters, oversized spinning circular saws and a mile-long sword that’s essential for turning sea monsters into sushi.

Overseeing the operation, which is headquartered outside of Hong Kong in the wonderfully named Shatterdome, is the stern, sharp-tongued commander Stacker Pentecost, who is also carrying around some dusty baggage from the past. He’s played by Idris Elba, summoning the spirit of Louis Gossett Jr. On the sidelines is a pair of bickering researchers, played for maximum comic effect by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman.

They debate the possibilities of using their mind-melding technology to unlock the craniums of the Kaiju. The movie reaches a gleefully demented peak when Day’s perky/geeky character tries to strike a bargain with the devious dandy Hannibal Chau (a hilariously flamboyant Ron Perlman) and ends up bellowing, “You owe me a Kaiju brain!”

In addition to being one of the noisiest and most elaborate creature features ever conceived, Pacific Rim is also one of the most visually vibrant. Mass destruction has rarely been so picturesque, as the electrified colors threaten to singe your eyeballs. If, like me, you grew up watching Ultraman and Chiller Theater, you’ll savor every second of this. But even if you didn’t, Pacific Rim is irresistibly invigorating. Give del Toro credit for creating something we see far too infrequently: a disaster movie that’s a triumph of entertainment.