Pacific Rim is a beautiful exercise in scale. From its man-made war titans—"Jaegers"—to the reptilian "Kaiju" that ascend from the ocean floor to wreak havoc, everything about Guillermo del Toro's monsters-vs.- machines throwback feels wonderfully massive. But don't expect hyper-kinetic thrashing in the vein of Michael Bay's manic Transformers franchise; this is a patient action film that finds grace amid the grandiosity.
The opening montage depicting international chaos echoes the classic Kaiju films del Toro remembers with fond admiration. From a crevice in the ocean floor rises mankind's worst nightmare: Godzilla-like mega-monsters from another world that ruthlessly target highly populated areas like San Francisco and Hong Kong. But what's their endgame?
Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), one of the Jaeger pilots operating the metal gladiators, narrates the vivid prologue and contemplates that very question with a level of cautious critique. "Danger turned into propaganda," he says, commenting on humanity's desire to either demonize or deify the Kaiju. Unfortunately, this is a fascinating thread that gets pushed to the background.
Each battle sequence unfolds carefully, with a strong buildup of textural and audible details before bursting with body blows and surprisingly brutal kill shots. Actions matter here, especially since the monsters often duke it out in densely populated urban skylines.
If Pacific Rim handles elaborate fisticuffs with precision and patience, it fumbles multiple attempts to craft complex characterizations. One core plot device seems like the perfect bridge between the two: Jaegers are functional only when two pilots connect through what's called a "neuro-handshake." Their brains fuse together while in the hull of the machine, one pilot operating the right hemisphere, the other the left.
This allows del Toro to examine specific memories through an interesting spin on the flashback device. But the approach produces minimal tension, the exception being when Raleigh's talented new co-pilot Mako (Rinko Kiucki) relives a devastating Kaiju attack that almost claimed her life as a child. The scene is horrifyingly surreal.
Unfortunately, banter between Raleigh and his superior, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), borders on bombastic, while his rivalries with other Jaeger pilots gets relegated to competitive terms. The film never achieves a sense of rhythm whenever dealing with personal interactions.
Ironically, del Toro garnered a reputation for crafting nuanced emotions within genre films like The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. No such balance exists here. The real stars of Pacific Rim are the Jaeger and Kaiju. Every inch of these behemoths is meticulously crafted, giving them a distinct identity and skill set that reflect larger thematic undertones during battle.
A Jaeger's design mimics its operator's nationality: Chinese triplets operate a three-armed machine that's as deadly as it is nubile, and gruff Russians man a Soviet-era bone crusher. Fittingly, the American Jaeger is a wonderful synergy of the two, powered by a nuclear reactor that allows it to fight even when its digital interface is compromised. This becomes a metaphor for del Toro's sly endorsement of analog filmmaking during its dying days.
The Kaiju are equally singular, one more slithery and grotesque than the next. Their battles with the Jaeger are monumental, and del Toro films these intricate blitzkriegs from both close-up and afar, capturing the magnitude and intimacy of each wallop.
Certain violent images take on a lyrical quality: Watching a Jaeger get hurled through the air in almost perfect quiet is one of the most striking cinematic moments of the year. It's the perfect example of a filmmaker who understands how to capture the calm before the storm. Here, Pacific Rim transcends its many dramatic inadequacies and becomes the equivalent of blockbuster poetry.