Pacific Rim’s heavy-metal mash of monsters and robots

There has never been a better movie about giant robots battling giant sea monsters

A scene from 'Pacific Rim' / courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

For various reasons, including Toronto’s attempt to host a world-class flood, I’m late to weigh on Pacific Rim. And by now I can’t help but notice that the critical consensus is pretty solid. Most everyone seems to agree that this spectacle of giant robots battling giant sea monsters is the summer’s most bracing action blockbuster, with flourishes of painterly beauty that elevate it from its commercial genre. Certainly it’s an indisputable fact that there has never been a better movie about giant robots battling giant sea monsters… if you like that sort of thing. After sitting through so many gladiatorial battles over the fate of the civilized world in recent weeks, maybe I’m just suffering from apocalyptic burnout. But I found more to admire than to love about Pacific Rim, as hard as I tried to like it. Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth)—who shot the movie  in Toronto, and has embraced the city as his second home—composes this behemoth with evident passion and artistry, as an old-school monster geek who finally got his chance to work a vast canvas. But for this critic, trying to review it is like trying to review a Rush concert. Not that I’ve ever been to Rush concert. But you get the idea. Though it left me nonplussed, I can see that Pacific Rim is a cut above the standard-gauge heavy-metal blockbuster, with less cynicism, more soul, a wealth of visual detail and a desperate pulse of intelligence beneath the mayhem. But it’s still profoundly silly. I’m sure a 12-year-old boy, or a 32-year-old fanboy, would feel differently. The movie wasn’t made for me. So I’ll just offer some anthropological notes from the bleachers, and try to give credit where credit is due.

Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim (Kerry Hayes/Warner Bros. Pictures)

Offering a change of pace from aliens and zombies, Pacific Rim‘s sci-fi scenario finds humanity at war with a monumental breed of sea monster called Kaiju. Obviously there’s only one way to combat these creatures, and that is to create equally monumental robots called Jaegers, each powered by a pair of pilots who merge their brainwaves via a neural bridge called The Drift. We’re talking about robots the size of 25-storey skyscrapers. Iron Man, eat your heart out.

We are near the end of the war. Mankind is beginning to lose hope. The robot army is downsized, and the world’s fate comes to rest on the shoulders of a washed-up American pilot named Raleigh (Charlie Hunnan), a renegade who’s coaxed back into battle; and Mako (Babel‘s Rinko Kikuchi), a Japanese trainee awaiting her baptism of fire. They make a cute couple. He’s sworn off The Drift (“I’m done with having someone in my head.”) But after meeting Mako, and losing a martial arts duel to her, he’s all too eager to be in her head. Not that there’s any hanky panky in the The Drift. This is a movie on a higher mission.

Idris Elba in 'Pacific Rim' / courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Much of the earnest dialogue from the largely no-name cast is corny and clichéd. But Iris Elba (Thor, The Wire) brings impressive gravitas to the role of the pilots’ commander, an African Brit of imposing stature with the portentous name of Stacker Pentecost. Ron Perlman, in shades and a plum velvet smoking jacket, makes a meal of his role as Hannibal Chau, a black-market pirate who runs a Chinatown chop shop dealing in body parts from the sea monsters (Kaiju bone powder apparently leaves Viagra in the dust.) In a movie rife with  references, Perlman blithely flicks a knife up a man’s nostril in one scene, mimicking Roman Polanski’s stab at Jack Nicholson in Chinatown. The Pacific Rim repertory also features a campy pair of rival mad scientists studying monster flesh in a lab that could have been designed by Cronenberg—an impulsive Yank (Charlie Day) and a hyper-rational Brit (Rob Kazinsky). Put everyone together and you’ve got a clanking steampunk coalition with a United Nations pedigree.

Ron Perlman in 'Pacific Rim' / courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

The robots are like grunge Transformers, Olympian bots each with their own national character—America’s Gypsy Danger, China’s Crimson Typhoon, Russia’s Cherno Alpha and Australia’s Striker Eureka. Inside them, the pilots, armoured in muscle suits worthy of superheroes, lock themselves into their cockpits, as if clicking ski boots into bindings. For all the talk of the neural bridge, we don’t get much sense of how that works in combat. The robot interiors are like engine rooms, where it’s hard to tell what’s really going on. The spectacle lies outside, in the set-piece combat scenes. Much of the action is shot in dark, rain-swept vistas, in unremarkable after-market 3D. The monsters are mutant creations, each a greatest-hits hybrid of creatures from Dark-Ages demonology, Japanese sci-fi and the Alien franchise. So you end up with a hammer-headed minotaur dragon with a Godzilla gait and a shark mouth spitting purple acid—electromagnetic fire that will fry the robots’ digital circuits. Good thing the old trusty American Gypsy robot, powered by a nuclear reactor, is analog, thus immune.

The whole tech thing left me a bit bewildered. It’s strange that this future society can build such sophisticated robots while the helicopter designs haven’t changed one iota. But I know you’re not supposed to quibble in a steampunk universe. Hey, even the super-advanced Krypton warriors were dressed like medieval knights. The main event here is a funhouse MMA battle between super-ego robots and super-id creatures, with a splash of tender sentiment between bouts. Even if a little intelligence is a dangerous thing, I suppose we should be grateful for whatever we can get in a Hollywood blockbuster, especially one forged right here in Toronto, whose condo-walled waterfront could use a few sea monsters.

This is my last review for a while. I’m taking a month off and hope to return mid-August with fresh eyes.

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