Movie review: 'Pacific Rim'

One reason for the great proliferation of Internet movie review sites was that Web access gave fans of genre films a chance to correct what they viewed as decades of injustice from professional film critics.  The big-name critics didn’t really “get” sci-fi, fantasy, or horror – with the notable exception of Roger Ebert – so how could they produce truly fair reviews of such films?  And even Ebert could sometimes slam a good monster mash for reasons that geeks felt had little to do with the quality of the picture.  But now, thanks to the Internet, we could have sci-fi films reviewed by sci-fi fanatics, instead of snooty mainstream critics who lacked all respect for the genre.

Now that such films have made big money at the box office, we have films made by the kind of people who used to fume at those disdainful mainstream critics.  A director like Guillermo del Toro can persuade Hollywood to give his inner child two hundred million bucks to film the greatest giant robot vs. giant monster smackdown ever.  “Pacific Rim” is the movie that was playing inside del Toro’s head when he used plastic monsters to wipe out a city made from wooden blocks.  He was probably doing that in between takes while he made this amazing-looking, paper-thin, gleefully improbable movie.

“Pacific Rim” is exactly what the trailers make it out to be.  Sometime around right now, a hole opens in the ocean floor that provides a gateway to another dimension, which appears to be populated by the cousins of the alien bad guys from another goofy sci-fi blockbuster from the mid-1990s.  These aliens are into 600-foot monsters instead of mile-wide flying saucers, so they begin pumping huge beasties through the dimensional rift.  Killing these monsters with conventional weapons takes days and leaves ruined cities strewn across the Pacific coast, so the only reasonable course of action is to build giant nuclear-powered robots that can take them on in mixed-martial-arts battles.  And I do mean “mixed” martial arts.  Plasma guns, acid spit, and rocket-powered punches are all part of the game.  After 20 years of such battles, the tide is turning against the human race, and a final desperate strike is organized, bringing a burned-out robot pilot back into the game for one last all-or-nothing mission.

No one person can pilot these giant robots – it takes two carefully matched people linked together in a neural interface called The Drift.  This is a clever device for working all sorts of personal issues into the storyline, although a few of them are lunkheaded rip-offs from the likes of “Top Gun.”  Once everyone gets their personal stuff worked out, they can mind-meld with their giant robots and kick some monster butt.

If you have the sort of non-genre inclinations that led those decades of critics to annoy sci-fi geeks by giving bad reviews to movies in their favorite genre, you probably haven’t made it this far without shaking your head and checking to see when the next season of “Downton Abbey” will be broadcast in the States.  “Pacific Rim” is gleefully, giddily, unpretentiously preposterous.  There are crazy scientists running around and screaming at each other.  There are gratuitous kung fu stick battles.  Ron Perlman shows up.  ‘Nuff said.

But if you like this kind of thing, it’s never been done this well before, and probably never will be again.  The collateral damage from the show-stopping battle of Hong Kong is astounding.  The fights are clever and creative, because the giant monsters adapt to the tactics of the robots, which in turn receive weapons upgrades and redesigns.  You never know what’s going to happen next, and all of the battle scenes are eye-popping.  The Hong Kong part is so good that it steals some oxygen from the actual climax, which feels slightly less cool than it should have, since the previous half-hour was a tough act to follow. 

I’ve seen some approving remarks that “Pacific Rim” is the first blockbuster film of summer 2013 that isn’t a prequel, sequel, reboot, or adaptation.  That’s loosely true, provided you’re unfamiliar with the vast amount of giant-robot Japanese animation that del Toro probably watches until his eyes bleed.  There was talk of a Western adaption of the Japanese animated series widely regarded as the paramount example of the form, “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” but not much seems to have come of it except some cool production art.  “Pacific Rim” probably ate its lunch, which is too bad, because this spectacular but hollow film has plot and characters so thin you’ll be forgetting about them before you leave the theater, but “Evangelion” gets inside your head and lives there for a while.  

“Pacific Rim” is Hollywood muscling in on a genre that will seem fresh and different to the majority of summer movie audiences, and it’s 25,000 tons of crazy, low-maintenance, uncomplicated inner-child fun.  A lot of middle-aged guys are going to feel 30 years younger while watching it, and that’s not bad value for your insanely overpriced theater ticket.