Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Max Martini, Robert Kazinski, Clifton Collins Jr and (of course) Ron Perlman.
When I was a teenager, I loved going to the cinema on Saturday mornings and watching Japanese monster movies. The Odeon in Stafford showed pretty much all of the Toho Corporation's output and I was there to see it. Of the Godzilla movies I saw, one in particular sticks in the mind: Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla. By this time in his career, Godzilla was the good guy; he appears to fight an evil robotic version of himself that has been built by aliens in order to lay waste to Tokyo. For sheer cinematic spectacle, things don't get much better than a kaiju fighting a giant robot. I'm not the only movie buff who feels this way, and Guillermo del Toro is clearly of the same opinion.
Pacific Rim is the tale of monsters which are entering our world through an interdimensional rift that has opened up at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. To combat this menace to humanity, the world unites to build gargantuan machines called jaegers. Jaegers are hundreds of feet tall and so complicated that their pilots have to mind-meld in order to achieve sufficient coordination. Pilots have to be neurologically compatible with one another to work together, and the film opens as one such pilot describes the situation to us. The film doesn't hang about - San Francisco gets levelled in the opening minute. If you've seen the trailer, most of the things that you've seen take place in the film's first five minutes.
For a geek like me, the film is a delight. The fact that the jaeger Gipsy Danger runs the GLaDOS operating system from the Portal video games (voiced by Ellen McLain) had me literally punching the air. It's such a nerdy touch that I was sold on the movie from that moment on. But visually, the film is sumptuous. You don't see anything as stunning as this every day (or even every year). I have never seen a film with such impressive special effects work. The kaiju and jaegers are shown in extraordinary detail and their interaction with their surroundings is utterly convincing. I was sold on the concept immediately. The monsters have a weird beauty to them, particularly the ones which attack Hong Kong. Without going into spoiler territory, the last ten minutes of the film shows something I have never seen on the screen before and it is done in a way which outclasses every other science fiction film I have ever seen. Guillermo takes on a task as daunting and impossible as showing us what happened to Richard Dreyfuss after the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and he delivers on it 100 per cent.
Once you accept the opening conceit - and let's face it, the visual effects are so good that I completely forgot about them being special effects and just concentrated on watching monsters and giant robots - the plot hangs together remarkably well. There's a refreshing humanity to everything; the whole world pulls together to fight the alien threat. At the same time, the idea that there would be squabbles over where defence budgets ought to be spent is entirely plausible. The war against the kaiju is not going well, and the politicians are more interested in building a giant wall around the Pacific and moving inland (and of course the audience immediately figures out that this is a Bad Idea because it was dreamt up by politicians. Needless to say, the audience is rapidly proved correct.)
On the whole, the script is workable and gets the plot moving along nicely. But there are several moments where the dialogue is so unbelievably clunky that it took me right out of the film. You'll know them when you see them and they are so awful that they have a certain "so bad they're good" entertainment value so I won't quote them here but the worst example is where Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) hints to Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) that he has feelings for her - just before they go on their final mission. The line is so bad that the folks I went to see the film with were snorting with derision. I can only assume that this line was imposed on the film by studio execs who were worried that the focus group results from girls weren't as impressive as those from the boys. The line is particularly jarring because it makes no sense in the context of the film. It ignores one of the film's central tropes: that Jaeger pilots share their thoughts and feelings through something called Drift. The relationship between the Australian pilots is problematic for exactly the same reason.
The acting is pretty good, on the whole. Hunnam is a likeable hero and Kikuchi is both gorgeous and a kick-ass fighter. It's worth going to see the movie for Ron Perlman's character Hannibal Chao, an unscrupulous businessman who specialises in selling kaiju remains as black market medicines. He gets all the best lines in the movie and his shoes alone are more awesome than anything I saw in the most recent Star Trek movie.
There are some problems, though. Idris Elba's accent is quintessentially British one moment, and American the next. Aside from recognising that he had the best name of any of the characters in the story, I had no idea who Stacker Pentecost was supposed to be. And the two scientists - played by Charlie Day and Torchwood's Burn Gorman - chew the scenery so enthusiastically that it's painful to watch. Their performances do get toned down as the plot progresses, though, so by the end of things they are just profoundly irritating rather than excruciating.
The score by Ramin Djawadi is excellent, and he hits the tone of the movie perfectly. Importantly, the music is put to good use. It's not drowned out by the film's sound effects, as was the case with Hans Zimmer's score for the woeful Man of Steel. However, I was less taken with the rap song performed over the end credits by Ron Perlman's daughter Blake and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan. It felt like it had barged in to the cinema from a different movie - it just didn't fit. And the lyrics? Oh dear...
So - no, the film's not perfect. It won't get five stars from me. But at the end of the day, this is not a film for the grown-up part of who you are. This is about being a kid again, watching your favourite monster movie at the local fleapit and eating so much popcorn or salted peanuts that you make yourself sick. This is about letting yourself get carried away by spectacle and not worrying about performance or dramatic structure or consistency. This is a film about monsters and robots and weird stuff that glows in the dark; it's about the end of the world, and tragedy and triumph. And I can think of few films that do a better job of covering that ground. This should be Guillermo's Star Wars - for kids, that's the sort of level at which this film should be appraised. After all, nobody who saw Star Wars rated it for its convincing dialogue. I enjoyed it hugely.
I was touched to see that Guillermo dedicated the film to the king of the monsters, Ray Harryhausen, who passed away earlier this year. And I spotted several moments in the movie (mainly to do with Charlie Day's character Dr. Newton Geiszler) which are obviously intended to leave things open for Pacific Rim 2. If a sequel gets made, I'll be there.
Chris's rating: Four and a half Stars