The word “kaiju” has become synonymous with a genre of monster movies that never took off in theaters stateside but nevertheless developed a following greater than cult yet still fell short of the mainstream. Every child since the ’70s (maybe earlier) is familiar with the kaiju poster-monster Godzilla, and not because of the abominable 2000 reboot. Though Hollywood has its one great giant ape, the much-beloved Japanese genre in which humongous beasts topple skyscrapers has not yet been done justice by the U.S. studio industry. . . that is, until Pacific Rim.
In 2020, 7 years into the Kaiju Wars, the world has banded together against a single enemy, creating (what else?) giant mecha (robots) called Jaegers to do battle against the monstrous creatures coming through a portal in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. In perfunctory sci-fi, save-the-world fashion, a ragtag group of misfits are assembled, in this case by the excellent Idris Elba (The Wire) as Stacker Pentecost. Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam ably carries the lead as Raleigh, an ace Jaeger pilot who lost his brother in battle. Rinko Kikuchi (The Brothers Bloom’s mostly mute Bang Bang) is another perfectly cast character, the strong and vulnerable Mako, Raleigh’s co-pilot (or vice versa). Charlie Day brings a toned-down version of his It’s Always Sunny . . . persona and some pitch-perfect levity as the Kaiju-obsessed Dr. Newton Geiszler. The rest of the cast is equally worth mentioning, all at the top of their game for what is essentially just a boilerplate summer blockcorn popbuster, albeit an awesome one where robots and monsters punch each other.
But amidst all the punching, there is a beating heart beneath the movie’s cliché-ridden, explosiony veneer. Del Toro is one of the few directors today (J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon included) who understands that for the action to be good, there must be something at stake, and the genesis of stakes is in story and character. (Also in keeping the cuts to a minimum so we can tell wtf is going on.) Guillermo del Toro may be the master at this; at making a fantasy world, no matter how ridiculous, feel real. Looking at his filmography, to say that Pacific Rim is his most ridiculous yet, is quite a thing. It’s also his most fun.