"Hey kid... Don't get cocky."
I have to admit, heading into the theater to see Guillermo DelToro's first film in five years, Pacific Rim, I was a bit apprehensive. This entire summer has been all about upping the ante: more destruction, more visual effects, and more nonsense than any summer I can remember in a long time. My expectations were a bit low by default, but I trust DelToro as a director, even though he sadly directs so infrequently these days. I'm thrilled beyond measure to tell you that Pacific Rim is not only the best summer movie imaginable, it's probably the best big budget event film I've seen in several years.
Dispensing with the usual, boring origin film nonsense, Pacific Rim does more in its first twenty minutes than most tentpole films do in an entire film. We learn through an opening montage/voiceover that one day in the very near future, giant sea creatures known as the Kaiju mysteriously appeared and began destroying coastal cities all over the globe. World leaders agreed to put aside their differences and pool their resources to create the Jaeger program, a militarily run program where two pilots join forces via a mind-melding program called "drifting" and pilot giant mechanized robots to combat the Kaiju.
After a series of major defeats, the world military puts the Jaeger program on permanent hiatus to pursue building giant walls around coastal cities. The breach of a wall in Sydney causes Marshall (Idris Elba) the military leader in charge of the Jaegers to turn to disillusioned former Jaeger pilot Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) in hopes of secretly restarting the program with whatever available Jaegers and pilots are left. Raleigh is damaged goods however, having suffered the loss of his brother when they were Jaeger pilots together, but a new partner Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) and a pair of crazy scientists (Charlie Day & Burn Gorman) may hold the key to helping him save the world.
The most important thing you need to know about Pacific Rim is that it is a genre flick of the highest order. It knows very firmly what the tropes of the genre are, and plays into them wonderfully, paying homage without ever succumbing to the more ridiculous traps that could easily bury a film like this. The film is smarter than it has any right to be, and is truly to the action genre what Cabin in the Woods was to the horror genre. From the opening of the film, to the introduction of every major character, everyone speaks the prototypical genre catchphrases and displays the appropriate character behaviors, but it all works in the service of a film that's infinitely more clever than I could have ever hoped it could be.
There's the Maverick & Iceman style rivalry between Raleigh and hotshot pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky), the overly-protective father/daughter dynamic, the Louis Tully-esque comic relief of Day & Gorman, and of course, the robots fighting monsters action you paid your money to see. I have to give DelToro and his co-writer Travis Beacham all the credit in the world for crafting great characters with actual arcs. We very clearly know the motivations of all the characters, so when they strap into these giant robots and fight the monsters, we actually give a shit about what's happening.
Compare this to Michael Bay's god awful, noisy claptrap bullshit Transformers movies, and it's easy to see why they failed so fundamentally as films. The film is shot in such a way that you can follow the action sequences easily without any confusion as to what's happening. Other films in this genre of late have been so concerned with the technical aspects of the effects that the characters on screen became thoroughly irrelevant, and this film bucks that trend at every possible turn. There's genuine emotion behind this film that comes from characters you care about.
The cast is top notch, front to back. Hunnam is fantastic as the lead character, displaying three full dimensions and a revenge backstory that makes him an easy hero to root for. Elba is similarly fantastic in his role, adding the proper amount of gravitas and emotional connection to his character. Kikuchi, who was so good in Babel, is also excellent, along with all of the supporting characters from Kazinsky to Clifton Collins, Jr and Max Martini as Hansen's father Herc.
The comic relief trio of Day, Gorman and Ron Perlman as black market dealer Hannibal Chau (named after his favorite world conqueror and his favorite Szechwan place in Brooklyn) is also wonderful. They go for broke and become the kind of over the top characters that can only work in a film like this, but when they work, they work beautifully. The entire second act climax, set in Hong Kong, is a masterwork of editing, writing, acting & effects. It's the best sequence in the entire film and hits every beat you want it to and then some.
Unfortunately, like every truly great genre picture, this one will likely have a hard time finding an audience. The fanboys who will really get off on it are more than likely going to turn their noses up thinking that this is just more effects nonsense, but those kinds of fanboys are the worst, and worse yet, almost always wrong. I hate to constantly draw the comparisons to Transformers, but this is such a vastly superior film that I can only hope finds the size of audience that those thorough mediocrities did.
Pacific Rim isn't just the best movie I've seen all year long, it is one I cannot wait to see again. See it in 3D and better yet, IMAX if possible. Too many filmmakers of late have relied on anamorphic widescreen to shoot their films, and it was wonderful to see a film that didn't; DelToro & cinematographer Guillermo Navarro (Jackie Brown, Pan's Labyrinth) used the 1.85:1 aspect ratio so brilliantly. The film is a marvel of genre filmmaking and I truly and sincerely hope it finds the audience it deserves. I am over the moon for this film, and I suspect that others will be as well. If grading solely on achieving what it set out to do, I don't say this often, but this is a perfect film.
GO Rating: 5/5
[Photos via BoxOfficeMojo]