One of the most striking images in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim was off-screen rather than in the movie. As a screening of a 3D and Imax version of the futuristic science-fiction adventure wound down, a row of geeky-looking young men stared in silent awe at the credits, as though they had witnessed a divine vision.
Directed by a self-described monster movie fanatic, Pacific Rim is a wet dream for fans of amped-up give-them-what-they-deserve spectacles in which a group of doughty holdouts save humankind from annihilation. Pacific Rim takes its moisture content seriously. The mean-minded kaiju (Japanese for monster) that are destroying swathes of urban infrastructure rise out of the depths of the ocean. In order to battle these mega-sized and foul-tempered creatures, various governments have come together to set up a fighting force of robots called the Jaeger (German for hunter) that are controlled by pilots who have to act in unison, like synchronized swimmers, to navigate the hulking beast of metal.
Unity in the face of adversity is the big idea in del Toro’s noisy and dark-toned but light-hearted yarn. The cine-literate screenplay by the director and Travis Beacham is dedicated to pioneering American animator Ray Harryhausen and references several other fantasy adventures, including Alien, Transformers and Avatar, as well as the kaiju genre in Japanese popular culture. The genre’s best-known representative is Godzilla, which is unleashed by the atomic bomb and emerges out of the ocean to torment human beings. Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla (1954) is a cautionary tale about the perils of tinkering with science, but subsequent versions have stayed with the less complex and apolitical idea of a monster on the rampage.
Pacific Rim boasts of another Japanese connection in the form of actor Rinko Kikuchi, who memorably played a deaf-mute teenager in Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Babel. Kikuchi seems ill at ease in Pacific Rim, in which she is cast as a trainee who partners Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh to operate a Jaeger. The pairing of the drivers involved the fusing of their neural pathways and, therefore, their memories and past experiences, an exciting idea whose possibilities are barely explored in del Toro’s Hollywood vehicle—except in one tremendous sequence, in which a younger version of Kikuchi’s character Mako confronts the loss of her childhood at the tentacles of a kaiju.
Like most movies of its ilk, Pacific Rim comes to life only when machines are in the frame. The exchanges between Raleigh and his boss, played by Idris Elba (from the TV series, The Wire), are as stilted as the attempts at humour by two stereotypical mad scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Groman). The emphasis is on creating jaw-dropping spectacle, underlining the contrast between skyscraper-tall robots and the humans who control them, and making the robots as graceful and mobile as possible. It’s awesome or tiresome, depending on your taste.