pacific-rim-poster-jaeger-kaiju-bannerI genuinely don’t know what people expect from blockbusters anymore. With budgets ever skyrocketing, scale multiplying, and studios desperate to build franchises, the endless entertainment media cycle of building anticipation feels more and more tenuous by the day. Pacific Rim feels, to my mind, like the film most at the mercy of this system; the rare movie indebted to, but not based on, existing properties stands a lot to gain but vastly more to lose. Add to this the difficulty of having a venerable director at the helm taking on his largest project to date, and it’s a recipe for incredible division. Part of the problem is this: someone like Guillermo del Toro’s name carries, based on his reputation and previous work, certain expectations. For those of us who have seen Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy, it’s confronting to imagine that his first directorial effort in five years is more of a departure than a continuation of an already storied career.

Pacific Rim feels, at every turn, deliberate. Whether you like what you see is up to you, because you get the overwhelming sense that this is precisely what del Toro wanted to put up on the screen (at least, within constraints of its budget, at least). There’s intentionality to every aspect which I suspect will be both disarming and perturbing to many viewers.

For all the complaints about the marketing – e.g that the trailers showed nothing of the characters, that it just looked like a Transformers-ripoff – it’s worth noting that the trailers did exactly the opposite of what most do these days, which is overexpose. Looking back, the trailers for Pacific Rim showed, if anything, too little of the end result, which just proves how tenuous promotion for a film can be.

The film itself gets right to it. The first thing we get is a language lesson; the robots are named jaegers, and the monsters named kaiju. A tectonic rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean has opened up a dimensional portal to another world, through which come the kaiju. The first attack in San Francisco took great pains to bring down, and once it became clear that these monsters weren’t going to stop coming, various nations banded together to build jaegers.

The jaegers, skyscraper-sized robot colossuses, are so massive they require two pilots, who must meld mind with machine and each other to operate it. Pilots require prowess and harmony with each other, and so we meet Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy Beckett (Diego Klattenhoff), brothers who pilot the jaeger named Gipsy Danger. After tragedy strikes fighting a kaiju off Alaska’s coast, Raleigh disappears, before surfacing six years later working to construct a deliriously ineffective anti-kaiju wall.

Head of the jaeger program Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) reenlists Raleigh in a last ditch effort to prevent an imminent kaiju onslaught, and after Pentecost’s initial, mysterious resistance, he is paired with the brilliant young rookie Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Mako, like most of these characters, is a badass with a tragic past revealed in The Drift, the term the film uses for the deep neural connection – or “handshake”, as the film calls it – that allows for the jaegers’ operation. Raleigh is a psychologically wounded man, and an immediate bond with Mako over a common goal helps bring him back to life so they can undertake a mission to close the dimensional portal.

Pacific Rim is a gargantuan neon spectacle fused with a glorious, highly self-aware ‘80s and ‘90s blockbuster sensibility. Del Toro has turned up the volume on everything in the film to correspond with the action – the performances are big and hammy, his and co-writer Travis Beacham’s dialogue is cheesy, and the whole enterprise has an air of, “Yeah, this is kind of silly; but it’s also really awesome.” Del Toro seemingly wants to evoke the tone of Japanese monster movies as well as classic blockbusters. There are echoes of everything from Terminator to Independence Day to Jurassic Park to Blade Runner, with the film’s Russian jaeger pilots looking for all the world like more stylish versions of Rutger Hauer and Daryl Hannah.

This all just adds to the fact that it’s pure, adrenaline-fuelled fun. The sheer size and scope of it is elegantly drawn; del Toro has created battle set pieces that feel like natural extensions of the ones before, with both the human side and the kaiju adapting and responding to each other. Many a mountain has been made of molehills in regards to the numerous night-based scenes, but the atypically luminescent colour palette makes it a dynamic and interesting alternative to depthless fights in broad daylight (it’s worth noting that claims that you can’t see anything in these night scenes is utterly baffling).

Conversely, del Toro has inserted plenty of lovely, world-building detail which is easy to miss happening in the background. While the flesh of a kaiju body can be harvested, as it is by gaudy black marketeer Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), the skeleton is too big to move, so humanity has simply build on top of it. There’s something haunting and affecting about the sight of kaiju bones protruding from buildings, or seeing a temple constructed from a skull by those who believe the kaiju are God’s retribution.

The set pieces, too, are well-paced and neatly interwoven with the human drama, which spans from father-son bonds to “kaiju groupie” Dr. Newton Geiszler’s (a very wildcard-ish Charlie Day) experiments with kaiju remains and human technology alongside wacky scientist Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman). Perlman, Geiszler and Gorman work as the comic relief and the most outward representation of del Toro’s weirdness. Hunnam is an extremely attractive, able lead, hyping his masculinity up to winking levels, while Elba plays his powerful badassery with aplomb (and equivalent handsomeness).

The film revolves around the refreshingly platonic – that’s right, no daft romance subplot – relationship between Raleigh and Mako. It’s similarly wonderful to watch a tentpole that isn’t obsessed with the American; though Hunnam is the archetypal American hero, he only functions in tandem with those of different nationalities. If there’s a message in Pacific Rim, it’s of human unity, a need to throw aside difference to face issues more important than just the individual. Also that we should immediately build giant robots.

Kikuchi is stellar as Mako; not only is she a strong female lead, but an Asian one at that, a distinct rarity in today’s Hollywood. However it is disappointing that she’s more or less the only female character with more than one line; at times the characters’ machismo overwhelms, even if it’s to point out the silliness of the tropes that construct them. Similarly stand-out is Iron Man and Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi’s terrific soundtrack, which is simultaneously grandiose and quietly odd.

Pacific Rim functions as an antidote to the self-seriousness of recent blockbuster filmmaking. Where the recent likes of Man of Steel and The Dark Knight trilogy staunchly focus on the tormented individual, obsessed with the burden of heroism, in this film heroes get shit done. It’s certain that not everyone will go along with what del Toro has created as this simply isn’t the ‘done thing’ these days. The disconnect between the supposed realism we’ve come to expect and the almost surreal quality of Pacific Rim is great, from the Lovecraftian beasts to the performance style to the oddness of the scientists, and this may prove a struggle for those whose sensibilities aren’t aligned with the film’s.

For others the very concept won’t excite – though I really can’t stress enough how much this movie nails the spectacular. But as far as expensive blockbusters go, this is the kind that is the most exciting; it’s bold, different, and passionate about itself, thanks to the loving hand of del Toro. It’s unabashed pop art filmmaking on the largest earthly scale to date. There’s so much more to explore, and hopefully del Toro will be able to delve into this narrative universe’s massive potential. Until then, it’ll be hard to wipe the grin off your face.

[rating=4] and a half

Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.