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Friday, July 12, 2013

'Pacific Rim' delivers robots, monsters, and humans, in that order

JAEGER-MEISTER: One of Pacific Rims giant robots enjoys Hong Kong after dark.
As a technological achievement, Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim shares certain features with the CGI "jaegers" that fill the frame for most of its running time. Built to protect mankind from an incursion of alien monsters, the robotic, Statue-of-Liberty-size jaegers represent impressive craftsmanship on the grandest possible scale, just like the film's special effects. But Pacific Rim also can be loud, lumbering, and occasionally ponderous, even though it ultimately packs a payload of astonishing action.

Del Toro has proved himself to be a visionary filmmaker primarily in the horror genre, creating the charmingly pulpy Hellboy movies as well as two superb ghost stories set against the Spanish Civil War, The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth. With Pacific Rim, del Toro paints on the broadest conceivable canvas, paying homage to the strain of Japanese junk culture that brought the world the likes of Godzilla and Gigantor, the space-age robot.

In an unnecessarily convoluted touch, Pacific Rim plays like its own sequel. A dense chunk of exposition that at the top explains that an extradimensional rift on the Pacific ocean floor has released massive monstrosities called "kaiju" that attack coastal cities. Mankind unites to build the jaegers in opposition, which worked for a while: "Jaeger pilots turned into rock stars. Kaiju turned into action figures."

Seven years after the first kaiju attack, the prologue introduces hotshot jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who operates one of the giant robots with his brother ("Homeland's" Diego Klattenhoff). The jaegers require direct mental controls that prove too much for a single person, so the pilots have their minds linked up through a process called "The Drift." Raleigh and his brother defend storm-swept Alaska from a kaiju that proves unexpectedly formidable, costing Raleigh's brother his life. While occasionally dark and murky, the robot vs. monster battle scenes maintain a remarkable sense of scale: for computerized special effects, the oversized antagonists convey earth-shaking impact, making the similar fights in the Transformers movies seem weightless.

So the film jumps forward another five years, when the jaeger program is on the verge of cancellation in favor of huge, inadequate-looking coastal walls. The depressed Raleigh works as a wall construction worker (and kind of favors Henry Cavill in the first act of Man of Steel), until commander of the jaeger program Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) calls him back.

Pentecost has a plan to use the four remaining jaegers to stop the escalating kaiju attacks once and for all, and Raleigh ends up teaming with untested Japanese expert Mako Mori (Rinku Kikuchi). So not only are giant robots now underdogs, and the protagonists "a has-been and a rookie," they both have tragic backstories that feel recycled from every military-inflected action flick since Top Gun. Why does del Toro devote screen time to these perfunctory, drearily-acted redemption arcs? Isn't trying to fight monsters while mind-melding in order to save the frickin' human race enough motivation for his heroes?

I found myself wishing that Pacific Rim made the protagonist of the comic relief character, "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's" Charlie Day as Newton Geizler, a kaiju expert thrilled by but increasingly terrified of the massive creatures. Geizler clearly serves as the fanboy surrogate, but he also proves funnier and more relatable than anyone else in the cast put together, and his scenes cut through the thickly-accented, nearly incoherent technobabble that command the first hour. Plus, he's the only character who seems interested in those marauding kaiju that should be at the film's front and center.

Surprisingly, Pacific Rim doesn't match the levels of fight and awe of 2008's Cloverfield, which depicted a monster attack from the terrified point of view of innocent civilians. Two of Pacific Rim's most potent scenes take place on or below street level, including Mako's haunting memory of being a child amid urban cataclysm, and Geizler crowding into a Hong Kong shelter that presents precious little refuge.

When Raleigh and Mako finally take their jaeger, nicknamed "Gypsy Danger," to prevent an attack from two kaiju at once, Pacific Rim finally shakes off its angst. The film's second half largely makes good on its promise of sci-fi battles royale, while featuring a charmingly hammy guest appearance from del Toro mainstay Ron Perlman as a black market dealer in kaiju parts. Pacific Rim plays like a love letter to Japan's biggest, freakiest pop exports, but probably won't win over the non-fans. Either you want to see giant robots fight giant monsters, or you don't.

Pacific Rim. 3 stars. Directed by Guillermo del Toro. Stars Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi. Rated PG-13. Opens Fri., July 12. At area theaters.

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