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

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.

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.