Move over, Superman and Iron Man. This summer’s real men of steel are here—Guillermo del Toro’s giant Jaegers, hulking, building-tall robots built for the purpose of defending earth from an army of fearsome Godzilla-like sea monsters (a plot synopsis that will doubtless make Toys R Uses everywhere rub their hands with glee).
I suppose after several years of endless superhero movies, a film about giant robots punching giant monsters can feel fresh and inventive, even when its riddled with just about every action-movie cliché del Toro managed to squeeze into its two-hour running time. You’ve got the generic American hero, whose most prominent character trait appears to be his rippling abs. You’ve got his hot love interest. The tough commanding officer with a heart of gold. The jerky, rival pilot who learns to swallow his pride. And two bumbling doctor sidekicks who feel as if they were lifted straight from a 90s Disney movie musical. There are pre-climactic war speeches, heroic sacrifices, troubled pasts, and all the usual hallmarks of blockbuster action flicks. If you’re looking to be surprised, look elsewhere.
In fairness, I suppose del Toro realized people weren’t going to come to Pacific Rim for the scintillating human drama. This is a movie about giant robots punching giant monsters in the face. It contains a scene in which one robot hits a giant acid-spitting pterodactyl in the face with a cargo ship. Subtlety was never a key component of this movie.
The real question is—do the robots kick giant monster butt? The answer is an unqualified yes.
While it may be regrettable that Pacific Rim seems to have devoted all its attention to its two big battle sequences, hey, at least it got one thing right. The fight scenes are some of the most awe-inspiring and suspenseful committed to film in recent memory. This is a far cry from those films (like Man of Steel) where heroes and villains pummel each other endlessly, without suffering so much as a scratch, making you wonder exactly how much it would actually take for one of them to die. Each blow in Pacific Rim has weight. The movie establishes early on that one misstep can mean the difference between life and death. The monsters feel as perilous as giant monsters should. From a building-smashing romp through Hong Kong to a final scene that seems to have been inspired by this Bionicle commercial, Pacific Rim’s action scenes are on point.
A kaiju (monster) faces down a Jaeger in Pacific Rim.
Another laudable aspect of Pacific Rim is its break from the American-ness that plagues most movies of its type. Del Toro, a Mexican himself, embraces a multi-racial, international cast. Though the main character, Beckett, is a cookie-cutter American white male (Paciffic Rim’s primary concern is ticket-sales, after all, and as we all know all blockbuster action movie heroes must be American men), Beckett has an asian woman as his copilot, a black Brit (Idris Elba) as his superior officer and two Australians as his comrades-in-arms. The film’s central fight scene takes place in and around Hong Kong, not, thankfully, in New York City.
Of course, having a diverse cast only goes so far when you have a movie where the characters are so generic that their race and nationality may be the only real way of describing them and distinguishing one from another. The actors work gamely with what they have, but it isn’t much, and any sort of emotional connection is due entirely to the earnest, albeit simplistic, portrayals of the actors, not the ability of the screenwriter.
Well, a few scenes of forced dialogue can be endured for the sake of city-smashing monster mayhem. Once that music (courtesy of Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi) gets going and the Jaegers spring into action, the awkward posturing between Beckett and his rival or the absurd antics of the Dr. Strangelove-esque British scientist can be quickly forgotten as giant beasts spring from the waves, spraying the air with water. In a summer filled with super-strong bipeds slugging each other in the fight, Pacific Rim might be the best one of them all.