Of all this year's loud, over-long summer action movies that, in various ways, simulate the experience of having a tin bucket placed over your head and being struck repeatedly with a stick, it must be said that Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is by far the most entertaining. The reasons are large and obvious: Monster vs. Robots, with lots of complications and beautiful images thrown in between bathtub fights.
An extended pre-credit sequence packs all the exposition into one huge dollop, with the first fight scene thrown in as an appetizer. In the near-future, a dragon-like monster emerges from the ocean and stomps much of San Francisco into rubble before the military repels it. When more monsters, named Kaiju after old Japanese monster movies, keep popping up and attacking more cities, the world's scientific community, perhaps with help from Mattel, comes together to counter-attack with the most entertaining weapons they can find: Skyscraper-sized rock'em sock'em robots, called Jaegers (the German word for hunter) that require the tandem operation of human co-pilots who are locked in a telepathic "neural handshake" known as The Drift.
All this information is served up in fluttering montages, with a voice-over from jaunty, chisel-abbed Kaiju fighter Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam). We also witness our first skirmish, when Raleigh, along with his older brother, Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff), engages a Kaiju off the coast of Alaska, which offers a quick immersion into the nature of ultimate inter-species battle: Splashing, gnashing, spewing, grappling and lots of "gwahr!" sounds set to a thunderous musical score. Meanwhile, the two pilots, locked in the robot's chest, share flashback memories together and wave their arms in what appears to be a vigorous game of Wii doubles tennis.
A few years later, and the self-important dummies who rule the world have changed their minds. Jaeger fighters aren't winning the war. The new politically correct solution is to build a giant protective wall around the Pacific coast, while foolishly mothballing the Jaeger program. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall," wrote the poet Robert Frost. Now we have the answer: Kaiju! The big beasties stomp right over the one around Australia's Sydney Opera House, the only time Del Toro indulges in the kind of monument Whac-A-Mole game that Roland Emmerich (Independence Day) so delights in.
So, now it's almost the end of the world. The last remnants of the Jaeger program are down to four robots, holed up in a giant airplane hangar in Hong Kong named Shatterdome. The joint has been lovingly designed in a kicky mixture of crumbling medieval antique, army surplus dun and early muffler shop. The commander, with the name of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, The Wire) is a large, immaculately-dressed British man of African descent, who looks and sounds like someone you would want in charge when monsters attack. When Stacker bellows the film's signature line – "Today we are cancelling the Apocalypse," he sounds like he has the authority to make that call.
You may find the robot-vs-monster battles too frantic and dark and three-dimensionally confusing to know who is doing what to whom, but, somehow it works: Usually shot at night, against the backdrop of glowing city harbours, they involve a lot of violent, beautiful thrashing. What distinguishes Pacific Rim from the rest of the summer fare is that is del Toro (Pan's Labrynth, Hellboy), a visual artist, creates living fantasy paintings more than just engineering slow-motion explosions. The design throughout is constantly imaginative, and even at two and a half hours, it moves like a fast drum roll, punctuated with "a-has" of familiar moments.
That's because Del Toro and co-screenwriter Travis Beacham have synthesized innumerable ideas from other creature features and sci-fi plots, paying homage to Japanese studio Toho Co. Ltd. that gave us Godzilla and other post-war monster metaphors of nuclear terrors, but also including nods to Aliens, Terminator, Transformers, and, probably, the Japanese nineties anime series Neon Genesis Evangeline. Sometimes, the mish-mash is too generic: Because the monsters are are supposedly evolving with each encounter, they lack personality, and have a rent-a-beast quality, variously resembling squid, sharks, angler fish, pteradactyls and a wet Cookie Monster.
In any case, the beasts are really just a quasi-Biblical reminder that human beings need to learn how to work together better. Under Pentecost's command are a couple of squabbling nerd scientists, including Charlie Day (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) as Dr. Newton Geizler, a scratchy voiced Gabby Hayes-type who wants to form a neural-bridge with a Kaiju. Burn Gorman plays his twitchy British partner, the statistics-loving Strangelovian, Dr. Hermann Gottlieb. Further pulpy weirdness includes Ron Perlman as Dr. Hannibal Chau, a pimped-out dealer of Kaiju body parts in a Bladerunner underground world.
The cast is refreshingly international, in keeping with the movie's endorsement of co-operation among those of us of the human species. The co-pilot teams include a Australian father and son (Max Martini and Rob Kazinsky), Russian and Chinese couples, and even cross-cultural soul-mate strangers. At the centre of the human story is the relationship between Becket and a Japanese woman, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, Babel), a ward of Stacker Pentecost's. They meet when she is working as a combat analyst but after their first martial arts contest (oh, why not?), they recognize a meeting of the punches as a meeting of the minds. It helps that both are suffering from post-traumatic Kaiju-induced stress syndrome, so when they mind-meld it's like a double visit to a psychotherapists' couch.
That leads to, in the midst of a big noisy kids' game of a movie, what may be the most tender image of any movie this year, when Raleigh and Mako, as a male-female, American-Japanese, monster fighting team, sit on a life raft in the Pacific Ocean and press their foreheads together in a moment of exhausted relief. They look like parents who have finally put a fretful toddler to bed. After a long cycle of action movies in which the protagonists spend most of their downtime introspecting about their heroic obligations, Pacific Rim is something different: a heart-warming team-building exercise.