Viewed from one angle - from below, say, as you cower before the Imax screen, your 3-D glasses digging into the bridge of your nose, condensation from your Diet Coke dripping onto your leg - Pacific Rim looks a lot like other movies of its type. Dinosaurish creatures as big as skyscrapers do battle with equally gigantic robots on land and sea, pulverizing familiar cities and churning up geysers of spume. Human characters (some of whom are actually inside the giant robots) bark out catchphrases, spout fake science and express noble sentiments as they fight to save the planet. More than two hours of your life elapse before they do.
So consider yourself warned. If you walk in expecting subtlety, or even novelty, you may find yourself more tormented than entertained. But Pacific Rim is also a reminder - either just in time or much too late - that this kind of movie can and should be fun. Some of those catchphrases are mildly clever. The lab coat mumbo-jumbo is amusing. The noble sentiments touch sweet chords. And who does not delight in seeing a robot punch a dinosaur every now and then - or pretty much constantly for two hours?
The director, Guillermo del Toro (who wrote the script with Travis Beacham), is an unabashed genre enthusiast and a feverish inventor of fantastical worlds, enchanted by the visual and symbolic power of monsters and intoxicated by his own imagination. It is true that he has employed that imagination to more memorable effect in other movies, notably the wonderful Hellboy pictures and the shattering Spanish Civil War horror-allegories Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. Admirers of those films may find this one crude and overscale by comparison. Still, Pacific Rim, with its carefree blend of silliness and solemnity, is clearly the product of an ingenious and playful pop sensibility.
“But Gipsy is analog!” This exclamation, though not immediately intelligible out of context (or in it, for that matter), is in some ways the key to the movie. A bit of explanation is in order, though I’m afraid it will not be as exhaustive or as breathless as the voice-over narration that begins the movie or the expository dialogue that pops up throughout. Gipsy is a Jaeger, one of the enormous metal bipeds built to fight off the Kaiju, horrible creatures who have popped up through the bottom of the Pacific Ocean via a portal to their native dimension.
Still with me? The Kaiju are, as alien invaders tend to be, quite hostile. They are also diabolically clever, evolving quickly in response to military attempts to defeat them. After a long war of attrition (dramatized in a precredit chunk that is almost a movie in itself), only a handful of Jaegers remain, concentrated in Hong Kong for a last stand against the enemy. Commanded by the wondrously named Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the Jaeger pilots - who must work in pairs assisted by technology that links their brains - are a motley global crew. Our attention is particularly focused on Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who seem to have especially traumatic experiences with Kaiju in their pasts.
There is also an Australian father-son team (Max Martini and Rob Kazinsky) - Raleigh and the son, who are hard to tell apart, trade a few punches at one point - and a duo of manic, mismatched scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) for comic relief. Hellboy himself (that is, Ron Perlman) shows up as a local underworld figure, doing more for the film’s attitude than for its plot. Wearing dark glasses and metal-toed shoes and spouting Runyonesque gangster gibberish, he reminds you that Pacific Rim is, more than anything else, a cartoon.
Which brings me back to the analog identity of Gipsy, which is able to keep fighting when some bad Kaiju mojo shuts down the fancy digital Jaeger. Pacific Rim is loaded with computer-generated imagery, but its soul is proudly mechanical. Its off-kilter sense of proportion harks back to the inspired models and stop-motion techniques of the late special-effects maestro Ray Harryhausen. Even in 3-D (which does not add much of interest), the images are composed of bright tones and blocky shapes, like old comic-book panels. And this future, for all the talk of “neural drift” and dimensional wormholes, is a world of tubes and rivets and pistons. Jules Verne and HG Wells would appreciate it.
The pleasures of Pacific Rim, in other words, are somewhat nostalgic, and maybe also regressive. This in itself is hardly unusual: Most of the movies released by major studios from May to September cater to the childish impulses of the audience. But they also often aspire to be more than juvenile, puffing themselves up with money and fuzzy, heavy themes. Sometimes they succeed and find a measure of real grandeur. This summer, though, has so far largely been a parade of joyless bombast. In these circumstances del Toro’s exuberant nonsense comes as a relief.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro; written by del Toro and Travis Beacham; director of photography, Guillermo Navarro; edited by Peter Amundson and John Gilroy; music by Ramin Djawadi; production design by Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier; costumes by Kate Hawley; visual effects supervisors, John Knoll and James E. Price; produced by del Toro, Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni and Mary Parent; released by Warner Brothers Pictures and Legendary Pictures. Running time: 2 hours, 11 minutes.
With: Charlie Hunnam (Raleigh Becket), Idris Elba (Stacker Pentecost), Rinko Kikuchi (Mako Mori), Charlie Day (Dr. Newton Geiszler), Rob Kazinsky Chuck Hansen), Max Martini Herc Hansen), Ron Perlman (Hannibal Chau), Clifton Collins Jr. (Ops Tendo Choi) and Burn Gorman (Gottlieb).
Pacific Rim is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). The usual wanton, carefully edited slaughter of untold millions, and a lot of Kaiju blood.
© 2013 New York Times News Service