A version of this review originally appeared in the Williamsport Sun-Gazette on July 18, 2013.
On a fundamental level of plot, “Pacific Rim” sounds like a nine-year-old’s dream movie of monsters versus robots. To adults, it sounds enough like “Transformers” to quickly deflate any initial interest you might have had in it.
But on the screen, “Pacific Rim” is an old-fashioned action movie writ large in 21st-century fashion, a visual and technological marvel infused with familiar story arcs and characters, and enough novelty and genre-mixing to become the most fun blockbuster of the summer.
The plot concerns human civilization’s resistance against giant monsters, called Kaijus, that have emerged from an interdimensional tunnel at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The world’s population has set aside their differences to combat their common enemy by creating colossal robots, called Jaegers, that are operated by two pilots.
The way the pilots work together to control the Jaegers reflects the movie’s moral center of teamwork and learning to understand your fellow human being as a way to ensure Earth’s future.
Inside a Jaeger cockpit, two pilots enter what is called The Drift, in which their minds become one, sharing memories and synchronizing their physical movements. Early in the life of the Jaeger program, it was discovered that a single person couldn’t sustain the physical and neurological strain of operating one alone. If two pilots aren’t “Drift compatible,” they run the risk of a malfunctioning Jaeger, which may have a dire outcome, considering their destructive potential.
In one scene, a first-time pilot gets lost in one of her own memories as she Drifts with her copilot, both of them revisiting a traumatic moment in her past. As she does so, she inadvertently activates the Jaeger’s cannon function, almost blowing the hangar to pieces, when such an attack is better suited in a battle against a Kaiju.
The fight scenes between the Kaijus and Jaegers are wildly entertaining, and visually dazzling. The giants move as if they abide by real laws of physics, with slow, lumbering punches and takedowns that give emotional and literal weight to each scene.
At one point of genuine grandeur, a Jaeger wields a naval vessel as a weapon and pummels his Kaiju foe to the ground with it.
But grandeur isn’t exclusive to the fight scenes. Each frame of the movie is full, bustling with life with rich characters and detailed sets depicting a gritty future that feels lived-in without sacrificing a sense of promise. The movie’s color palette is sumptuous, and has the overly-saturated pop of a Japanese anime, a clear influence on director Guillermo del Toro, who understands genre better than most.
All at once, “Pacific Rim” is a martial arts movie, a science-fiction film, a disaster movie, and a drama whose characters have clear and believable motivations. Each character is haunted by their past, sometimes paralyzed by it. If they want to move on, they have to see the world through each other’s eyes, to understand that no one is alone in fighting their own internal monsters, or the Kaiju behemoths that threaten all of humanity.
In this sense, “Pacific Rim” is about empathy itself.
3.5 stars out 4.