What Transformers should have been but this ain't no Pan's Labyrinth
It's been five long years since Guillermo Del Toro's last film, the severely underrated Hellboy II, so it was something of a disappointment - to this fan at least - to hear that rather than taking that time to make another, more personal film like The Devil's Backbone or Pan's Labyrinth, the Great Man was instead making the kind of big, dumb blockbuster upon which Michael Bay has made his very bad name. And make no mistake, Pacific Rim is as big and as dumb as its premise suggests.
If you assume, going in, that there's got to be much more to the film than huge robots punching huge monsters then prepare to be horribly let down. The film does spend some time setting up its plot involving giant alien monsters (Kaiju) attacking humanity who then strike back with similarly gargantuan robots (Jaegers), piloted by the best and brightest that the world's military has to offer, but neither its meager, yet exposition heavy plot, nor its flimsy characters, offer much more than a basic context for giant robots to punch giant monsters. And needless to say, there isn't exactly much in the way of subtlety or subtext to be found either.
That's the bad news. However, once we stop judging Pacific Rim according what it's not and start allowing it to be what little it clearly wants to be, it's nowhere near the huge step down from Del Toro's previous work that it might appear at first glance. It's hard to go into a new Guillermo Del Toro film and not expect at least the smart, quirky inventiveness of a Hellboy II, if not the profound maturity and depth of a Pan's Labyrinth, but just because Pacific Rim doesn't deliver on either level, doesn't mean it doesn't have plenty to offer - it just needs to be taken on its own terms.
If there are two areas that Pacific Rim really knocks the stuffing out of the competition - and I believe there are - it's in its spectacular visuals and a genuine sense of enthusiasm that runs all the way through the film. Del Toro describes the film as something specifically designed to appeal to his inner eleven year old and there's nothing in the film that so much as suggests that that is not precisely what he has done and there's even less to suggest that he hasn't succeeded wildly in his goals.
Unlike the vulgar cynicism of Bay's awful Transformers films, Pacific Rim is about nothing more and nothing less than the boyish enjoyment of watching massive robots beat the stuffing out of massive monsters. And everything about the film, up to and including its greatest "flaws" support this vision. Everything from its goofy, comedic scientist sidekicks to its easy, black and white morality to its mostly clear cut characters puts it in the same general orbit as Star Wars. It's nowhere near as good as the better Star Wars films, to be fair, but it still shares a similar childlike aesthetic and a pointedly simple storytelling style.
One area that it does have Star Wars beat though, is in its visuals as Del Toro's hyper-detailed art design and incredibly imaginative creature design combine with a serious sense of scale - you feel every inch of these monstrous creations - to create a visual feast that gives the otherwise straightforward film an added artistic dimension. Regardless of what you think of the story, if you have any sort of appreciation for the artistry in filmmaking, Pacific Rim is an absolute must see.
As for the human components of the film, I seem to like Rinko Kikuchi's Mako Mori more than certain other critics, especially as she gives girls a kickass hero to root for and her relationship with the character played by the always excellent Idris Elba is easily the most interesting in the film. The rest of the cast is given rather less to do - and some seriously ropy dialogue to say - but Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are actually quite funny as those comedic, sidekick scientists and Ron Pearlman is as thoroughly awesome as ever in an extended cameo as a scaly, black-market boss. Pity poor Charlie Hunnam (you might recognise him as Lloyd from the short-lived Freaks and Geeks followup, Undeclared) though, because even if his character is clearly the main protagonist, he is also by far the blandest of all the film's characters.
For all of its faults, Pacific Rim is very far from its creator's best work but as an artistically dazzling, wholly unpretentious and joyfully childlike Hollywood blockbuster, it's far, far better than it might first seem and, if you're going to watch a giant robots movie, this is certainly the one to go for.