In the increasingly geektrified environment of mass culture, Guillmero del Toro stands out among film directors as Hollwood’s One True(st) Geek, the man who loves monsters and genre fiction so much he has an entire man-cave full of Alien props and Frankenstein costumes. Unique among A-list Hollywood directors, del Toro has pretty much only made geek-friendly genre films. His intimate, intricately woven Spanish-language horror films like The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, remain his best work. His work for Hollywood, like the comic book adaptations Blade II and the Hellboy films, tend to be skillfully made and visually striking, but ultimately less stirring.
Up until now, however, he has mostly made fantasy and horror films. With Pacific Rim, del Toro and his army of collaborators set their sights on science fiction – instead of foklore we get massive machines, instead of creeping goblins, the lumbering kaiju. Del Toro’s best films skew small, focusing children, ghosts and whispers. By constrast, Pacific Rim’s tag line is “go big or go extinct.” It is unquestionably the loudest movie in his oeuvre.
But as the movie monsters beloved by del Toro have proven, from King Kong, to Godzilla to Jurassic Park’s T-Rex some of the greatest thrills in all of cinema come from the thundering roars of giant beasts, and Pacific Rim delivers on this front in spades. The creatures are grand, the sound design cracking, and the roaring is terrific.
The fights between these giant kaiju and the human-controlled machines are stunningly choreographed and often thrilling in a seat-clenching way. Despite rumblings that potential audiences might be regarding Pacific Rim as a Transformers rip-off, there are no robots in the movie, just human-shaped tanks that are more like suits of armor so gigantic they require need two pilots working in sync to drive.
More than the monsters, more than the machines, the idea of needing a partner to pilot something massive is what lies at the heart of the film, and Pacific Rim’s best non-roaring moments are when two damaged people step up to face something bigger than themselves, as a team. It’s a Hollywood cliché, but it works.
Sadly, the characters in Pacific Rim are mostly drawn too broadly to resonate beyond individual moments of triumph. Charlie Humnam gives a great, gravely voice-over, but never elevates his character beyond the stock “stoic hero” role. Meanwhile, Charlie Day oversells the Jeff Goldblum “neurotic scientist” part and Idris Elba capably personifies “steely general.” Rinko Kikuchi gets the best narrative arc, but it doesn’t ever fully develop in between scenes of fighting roaring monsters in the rain.
This is a film that was clearly molded by the hands of Guillmero del Toro, ubergeek. The monsters and the machines are all superbly crafted, the movie looks great, sounds great, and for my money, it’s the best popcorn film of the summer. However, only occasionally are there glimpses of the soul of the director who made those wonderful Spanish-language films about children facing the folklore of a world they cannot comprehend.
However, there’s one scene featuring a terrified child in the rubble of a kaiju-ravaged city, which hits precisely all those notes, and does so masterfully. It’s a reminder that del Toro is a master filmmaker not because he is a geek, but because he knows what fears are, what they mean, and how to reflect them back on us. So if there is more noise than emotion in Pacific Rim, at least del Toro gives us reason to believe the balance may be different in his next film. In the meantime, we have Pacific Rim, which is a rousing spectacle of roaring, no small consolation prize. I’ll definitely be seeing it again.