With his fantastical creatures, memorable characters and outrageously detailed set designs in films like Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro has won a place in the hearts of cinema nerds around the globe. So it only makes sense that his latest movie, Pacific Rim, is about robots fighting aliens. There is surely no better way to further mobilize a passionate fan base. Most of you have seen Pacific Rim before. At times, it feels like a spiritual reboot of Independence Day. You've got aliens that want to colonize Earth, you've got a geeky-yet-charismatic scientist who uncovers their nefarious plot, you've got noble sacrifices and rousing speeches and mind melds with alien brains.
But instead of the White House or the Empire State Building being destroyed, it's Hong Kong. Instead of a lily-white cast (plus Will Smith) we get a British-born black actor as the second male lead (and authority figure), along with a Japanese girl as the love interest.
It's as if del Toro didn't want to stray too far from Roland Emmerich's big-budget blockbuster blueprint but also recognized that audiences might be ready for something slightly different. A movie where the aliens are named after a Japanese word, where Bill Pullman gives way to Idris Elba, where most of the action takes place in an area far, far away from the all-knowing, all-powerful east coast of America.
He doesn't deserve an award or a parade for being slightly more multicultural (our hero is still a rugged-but-lovable white dude), but it's a step in the right direction. And it adds a little freshness to the situation; we've seen everything in the Northeastern United States blown to shit before. Asia was the first continent to do battle against giant monsters anyway; they know the drill.
As for the acting, the aforementioned Elba shines as the head of the Jaeger ("big robots") project; he projects the perfect amount of innate confidence as a leader who's strong because that's how he's wired, not because he expects to come out on top. And I'm not the world's biggest Charlie Hunnam fan (his pursed-lipped, "I'm gettin' real frustrated" face, which he employs so often on Sons of Anarchy, is in full effect here) but he does a perfectly acceptable job as the long-lost robot pilot who's called upon to save the world. Although, as my friend noted afterwards, he could've easily been replaced by someone like Taylor Kitsch. The checklist for being the star of Pacific Rim was presumably a short one: Young? Check. Physically fit? Check. Not embarrassingly bad at acting? [hesitates] Check.
And let's not forget the action; there were more than a few scenes of robot/alien fighting that seemed truly unique, both in the physics of how the creatures moved and the intensity of how viciously they pummeled each other. I'm still not sure how del Toro was able to make his giant CGI battles feel so personal, but I found myself genuinely invested in the outcome of showdowns that could have easily felt lazy and included out of action-figure-production necessity. Although there is a "we're out of ammo, what are we gonna do" moment that drew as many groans as it did chuckles. Hey robot pilots, you've been fighting these aliens for what, a decade? You probably should've figured out the right weapon to use in close quarters by now.
So yes, Pacific Rim has its flaws. The final 30 minutes or so feel more than a little blah; a rousing monster battle in the waters outside Hong Kong gives way to a lame "let's wrap this up" scheme involving portals to other dimensions and nuclear detonations. And while it's nice to see Charlie Day in a movie with a $200-million budget, he mostly falls flat as comic relief. Are there no better ways to portray a doctor as eccentric and edgy than a) tattoos and b) talking fast? If there are, del Toro doesn't want to know about them.
But the world that co-screenwriters del Toro and Travis Beacham have created proves very engaging, despite a minimal amount of backstory and explanation. One of the things I respect about the Christopher Nolans and Guillermo del Toros of the world is their ability to shoehorn you into a relatively complicated situation with minimal fuss and maximum enjoyment. Everything may not fit perfectly together in retrospect, but at the time it's near-impossible not to get swept up in what they've put together.
At the end of the day, and especially when compared to some of the summer's other big-ticket yawners (Iron Man 3, I'm looking in your general direction), Pacific Rim is a perfectly acceptable sci-fi adventure with just enough wonderful effects and outside-the-box choices to stand out among a lackluster crowd.