Review: Guillermo Del Toro's 'Pacific Rim' is an eccentric and emotional thrill

Character is front and center even as robots kick the hell out of giant monsters

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<p>Rinko Kikuchi and Idris Elba are just two of the people who must conquer their own fears so they can battle giant monsters threatening mankind in 'Pacific Rim'</p>

Rinko Kikuchi and Idris Elba are just two of the people who must conquer their own fears so they can battle giant monsters threatening mankind in 'Pacific Rim'

Credit: Warner Bros

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There are many kinds of movies that I love.

I'm always baffled by people who really only seem to have one genre of film or one style of film that they like, because to me, film is all about variety. If you browse through my shelves full of movies or the books full of DVDs and you try to figure out some system by which they're ordered, you'll go crazy. I intentionally do not alphabetize my films or my discs, and I don't group them by genre. I just add titles as they show up, putting them on the stacks or filing them in the books, and what looks like random chaos to anyone else is, to me, the purest expression of the way I ingest movies. I see no real tangible difference between the pleasures I get from "Pacific Rim" and the pleasures I get from something like "Before Midnight" or "Stories We Tell." To me, film is all about voice. You find the right voice to tell me your story, and I'll pretty much follow you anywhere.

And if there is anything that Guillermo Del Toro has, it is voice.

We have reached an age where the truly fantastic has become commonplace. We look at images in movies today that would baffle people from 100 years ago, images that would be considered sorcery 500 years ago, and we are blase about them. We accept the incredible as an ordinary part of filmgoing these days, and to some degree, it has ruined us. When the amazing becomes routine, what is left to give us that sense of wonder?

I know that my love affair with movies began sitting in a dark theater in 1977, when I watched a Star Destroyer rumble by overhead, and when I went to a distant desert planet and when I visited a space station the size of a moon. I was dazzled by the pictures I saw, but more than that. I was transported because of the details of that world, and since then, I have been fascinated by the way filmmakers create new worlds and bring things to life in front of the camera that have never walked the Earth. I have watched younger audiences have their own moments of enlightenment, when they are suddenly aware of the potential of cinema and aware of just how much magic film is capable of creating. I've spoken to many people who had their own hard drives scrambled by a childhood viewing of "Jurassic Park" or some other movie, and in every case, the thing that seems to have thrown that switch in them was something that they could only see in a movie theater.

Guillermo Del Toro's "Pacific Rim" is a movie that is loaded with images and ideas that are fantastic, in every sense of the word, and yet I worry that we've reached a point where audiences shrug at the promise of the new. What Del Toro brings to the table, and not just with this film, is an endless love of the incredible. He has dedicated his career to learning how to sculpt the impossible, using whatever tools he has at his disposal. From the very start of his filmography, he has demonstrated enormous ambition, and he's made a number of movies that have strained against the restrictions of budget and technical craft. He has always managed to give even his most mainstream efforts an eccentric and particular voice, but until now, we've never really seen what it looks like when someone takes Del Toro off the leash.

If you told me "Pacific Rim" was the final chapter in a larger trilogy, I'd believe it. So many films these days seem more concerned with establishing a franchise than telling a story that it's almost shocking to see a larger-scale film that feels like the end of a story. There's nothing about this film that feels like it is holding back, and I can't help but feel like Del Toro approached this with the attitude that you only ever get a few opportunities like this, and it would be a crime to spend the entire movie setting up sequels that might never happen.

The film opens with a brief recap of recent history, starting with a giant monster attacking and destroying the Golden Gate Bridge. What looks like an isolated freak occurrence becomes a pattern, with other giant monsters showing up in the months that follow, leading the world to fashion a response, a weapon that is able to engage the enemy on their own terms. These "Jaegers" are 250 foot tall robots that are driven using full-body rigs that respond to the motions of the Jaeger pilot. Because the machines are so massive, no one is able to handle the mental strain, and it takes two pilots for each device. They end up occupying a shared neural space, which the movie nicknames "The Drift." That's an awfully big science-fiction concept for a movie to ask an audience to accept, particularly when they're already grappling with giant monsters from another dimension and building-sized robots that can do kung-fu.

The reason the Drift works for the film, though, is that it externalizes the primary problem facing the Jaeger program. You can't just throw any two people into a Jaeger and expect it to work. We see early on that Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) were invaluable members of the Jaeger program because of their unbreakable bond. When Yancy is killed during a battle with a particularly crafty Kaiju, Raleigh manages to get his Jaeger to shore, but just barely, and he's left damaged, unwilling to even try with a new partner. As he explains, he was still connected to Yancy at the time of his death, and Raleigh felt all of it.

The film begins in the final days of the war, and there are fewer and fewer operation Jaegers and more and more Kaiju pouring in through the strange dimensional tear at the bottom of the ocean. Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is the man doing his best to hold the Jaeger program together, even as the governments of the world decide to give up and just start building walls around everything. Even after an event takes place that proves that the walls won't stop the Kaiju, Stacker is unable to talk anyone into keeping the Jaeger program alive. That's why he tracks Raleigh down. That's why he needs him to pilot Gipsy Danger again. And once Raleigh says yes, the next issue is finding someone who he is compatible to Drift with, someone he can trust enough to go back into battle.

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Drew McWeeny
Film Editor
A respected critic and commentator for fifteen years, Drew McWeeny helped create the online film community as "Moriarty" at Ain't It Cool News, and now proudly leads two budding Film Nerds in their ongoing movie education.
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