Long ago, in a California suburb, a boy watched an independent Los Angeles television station whose programming seemed to consist entirely of Lakers games and monster movies. So the boy grew up absorbing the big names like Godzilla and Gamera, but also War of the Gargantuas and Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot — movies in which 50-foot-tall things trying to destroy humanity were opposed by 50-foot-tall things trying to save it.
It was for boys like this, now grown-up or maybe not-so-much, that Guillermo del Toro made Pacific Rim.
Because Pacific Rim is as purely nostalgic a concept as any of the modern tentpole cinema franchises built around recognizable pop-culture characters. Del Toro transfers the Toho and Toei era, of guys in rubber suits punching it out through miniature cityscapes, to the CGI era, positing a world in which giant monsters called kaiju have begun emerging into our world through a dimensional rift beneath the Pacific Ocean.
Efficiently skimming through much of the back story, he brings us to the year 2020, seven years into the invasion, where giant robots called jaegers, piloted by pairs of humans, have become our defenders. And really, who needs to know anything else? It's giant robots fighting against giant monsters.
It's tempting to mock geeked-out reactions to a concept like Pacific Rim, ignoring the Proustian appeal of recalling those things that delighted us in our youth. Indeed, when del Toro kicks the story into major-league battle mode, it's almost ridiculously satisfying. A three-armed robot turns its hands into whirling buzzsaws to take on an acid-spewing beast, etc. It's epic, goofy and kind of irresistible.
But del Toro is too inveterate a world-builder to make a movie that involves nothing but rock-'em sock-'em robots versus beasts. He needs to introduce us to a haunted hero, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who was once a jaeger pilot but was traumatized when his co-pilot brother was killed in action, making him a risky bet when the story picks up again in 2025.
We get a look at a multi-national operation — including British jaeger-project commander Pentecost (Idris Elba) and Raleigh's possible new partner Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) — as the world comes together to fight a common foe. There are even glimpses at the world that's evolved after 12 years of monster wars, including a Hong Kong slum built on the skeleton of a defeated kaiju, and a gleaner culture led by Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman). It's a richer, more comprehensive universe than one might expect.
Also, it often doesn't work. Hunnam turns in one of the most inept lead performances in blockbuster history, screwing up his face to indicate whatever it is we humans call "emotion." Del Toro gets a fair amount of mileage out of a pair of eccentric scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), but nearly all of the other human interaction is thin and perfunctory. The result feels like an attempt to copy Independence Day as much as old-school Godzilla, and that's not a compliment.
So we find a spectacle balanced on the edge of a rift, between the appeal of its battles royale and the admirable attempt to inject quirky texture and the tedious stuff involving humans. In bits and pieces, Pacific Rim reminds this monster-movie-loving boy what it felt like to grin stupidly at a skyscraping donnybrook. And in other, larger chunks, it reminds that boy, now a boy no longer, that some tastes eventually grow up.