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
So while there is a constant threat in the film in the form of big giant crazy monsters, that's not something that hits an audience on a personal and emotional level. The Drift, though, makes the struggle fascinating because we see how much Raleigh fears that sort of intimacy with someone, we also see the absolute importance of him getting past that issue. The best candidate appears to be Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a young Japanese woman who Pentecost has raised, but Pentecost refuses to even discuss the matter. Raleigh and Mako have to both deal with their pasts in order to be able to meet in the middle as Gipsy Danger, and yet, this is not a movie that gives in to the typical Hollywood wisdom that an intimate relationship between a man and a woman has to also be a romantic one. We see that the other teams also feature very strong connections that bind theJaeger pilots, like the father-son team of Herc (Max Martini) and Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinski), Australian heroes who have killed ten kaiju in their defense of their country as the pilots of Striker Eureka. There's a Russian husband-wife team named Kaidanovsky who pilot Cherno Alpha, the Jaeger my kids describe as "FlatHead," as well as the Chinese Wei Tang triplets, played by real-life Chinese triplets Charles, Lance and Mark Luu. They're behind a special three-armed attack, and the three of them power Crimson Dynamo. Each country has their own Jaeger, or did at one time, but now they're down to those four, and Pentecost seems ready to try anything.
That includes bringing in Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day) and his pinched and hilarious counterpart, Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), two scientists who are self-proclaimed experts in the kaiju. Newt in particular is as much a fan of the kaiju as curious about it. His arms are covered in tattoo sleeves that show various kaiju that the world has had to battle. They each have theories about what's coming for mankind, and they come at the problem from every different directions. Newt's particular path leads him to dealings with Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), who runs the black market for kaiju parts. Chau is a great example of one of my favorite things about the film, which is the attention paid to detail on every plane. Any corner of the world that you see in this film is devoted to showing what life is like in the tail end of this war. The world is not the same. It's not just business as usual. Society has filled in around the kaiju. There's a quick glimpse in the film of a building built around a kaiju skull, stairs leading up and into the creature's mouth, and we learn it's a temple, that there are cults that believe the Kaiju to be God's wrath, a Biblical sign, and while we never go back to it, it shows how the world is reacting, and that sells it for me in a way that some films can't imagine in their entire running time.
The production design by Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier and the art direction by Elinor Rose Galbraith and Richard L. Johnson is masterful, and the film has an amazing, vivid palette that is captured perfectly by Guillermo Navarro's photography. The film feels very lived in and worn down, and while I don't think that's the only thing that makes a science-fiction film good, I think it goes a long way to making an audience feel comfortable with the world you're introducing to them. If the world is visually dense enough, you don't need a lot of exposition. It doesn't hurt that Ramin Djawadi has written a ridiculously cool score. If you know the theme for "Game Of Thrones," that's him, and he's doing his best to fuse Akira Ifukube and John Carpenter with his work here. I've groused before about the lack of great themes in a lot of modern scores, but Djawadi has it down cold with this.
In a summer where there has already been a fair (or some would say even excessive) amount of destruction on display, and "Pacific Rim" certainly does some damage to a few major metropolitan areas. There's such a sense of fun to the big fights in the film that I feel like it's a totally different experience in terms of real-world violence. Each new kaiju seems to have been custom designed to take on the Jaegers, and so there's an intelligence to the way the fights build as both of these titanic things battle. Each of the Jaegers is different in the way they dole out punishment, and ILM deserves a co-starring credit here based on how thrilling each of the major sequences ends up being.
Here's the best way to approach "Pacific Rim." There is an earnest, straightforward voice to the storytelling, and it reminded me of the films that Hollywood churned out in the early '40s to convince America that the war effort was essential and heroic and we were on the side of right. If you look at "Pacific Rim" as propaganda made towards the end of the infamous Kaiju/Human war, it has this great adventure movie tone that I find really infectious. If you had told me at the start of the summer that out of "Iron Man 3," "Man Of Steel," "Star Trek Into Darkness," "The Lone Ranger" and "Pacific Rim," the most kid-friendly of the films would be the one by monster-fanatic Guillermo Del Toro, I would have laughed at you. But of all those films, only "Pacific Rim" manages to pull off lead characters who are full of self-doubt while still making the movie fun. Our heroes right now in movies are all plagued by fear, and it would have been easy for "Pacific Rim" to tip in that direction. Instead, this shows heroism as a choice, as something that you will into being. None of the Jaeger pilots would be a big deal in a world without the kaiju, but they've all pledged their lives to protecting as many people as possible. They are facing death every single time they initiate a neural handshake and power up this skyscraper-sized weapon-suit, and yet they do it. Over and over.
I think Rinko Kikuchi does spectacular work here, and credit must also be given to Mana Ashida, who plays the young Mako in a scene that explains everything we need to know about her. Ashida is heartbreakingly great in that scene, and it perfectly sets up why Pentecost is afraid to let her fight. Idris Elba is preposterously charismatic as the hard-edged guy who believes that ultimately, Jaegers have to be the response. We can't just build walls and hide. We have to go toe to toe with these threats and take them apart. Day and Gorman have some freaky chemistry together, and when Day finally hooks up with Perlman, it's great stuff, some of my favorite things in the film. Charlie Hunnam is probably the weak link in the lead roles, but he strikes the right sincere tone that the film aspires to, and that goes a long way.
You can practically hear Guillermo Del Toro sitting just out of camera range and cackling at this big, beautiful, weird-as-hell thrill ride. Whatever happens with the film when it opens, this is what Del Toro's heart looks like if you were to cut it open and lay it out for inspection. This is a fetish piece, and Travis Beacham's foundation is what allowed Del Toro to build everything else. It is quite telling that in one week, my two sons went with me to screenings of "Man Of Steel," "Pacific Rim," "Despicable Me 2" and "Monsters University," and the only thing that they've talked about since was "Pacific Rim." They took the big behind-the-scenes book that was sent to me and they won't give it back. Toshi reads the details to Allen as they flip the pages, and they both know the world inside out already. It's a real world to them. It is part of their shared vocabulary now, and they seem eager to see the movie again as soon as I get back from London and New York this week. I know what it looks like when someone lays eyes on a movie that rewires them. I've seen that look in the mirror after screenings of films like "The Exorcist" and "2001" and "Lawrence Of Arabia." My boys are hooked on "Pacific Rim," and I can't blame them at all.
"Pacific Rim" will hit you in the face with an oil tanker when it opens July 12, 2013.