While the storyline and emotional core aren't strong, the action and spectacle are, and del Toro builds his world well enough to create plenty of future opportunities.
In Pacific Rim we are greeted by an imminent future in which humanity has been besieged by giant monsters known as "Kaiju," which emerge from a dimensional rift deep beneath the Pacific Ocean in order to wreak havoc on humanity. To combat this threat, humanity comes together to create "Jaegers," giant robots controlled by two mind-linked pilots.
At first, the Jaegers seem like the perfect deterrent for the Kaiju menace; but when the monsters start getting smarter and deadlier - and Jaegers begin falling quicker than they can be rebuilt - mankind finds itself on the brink of extinction. Our last hope lies with the desperate plan of Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and his handful of remaining Jaeger pilots, including war-worn veteran Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and rookie Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), an unlikely pair who may prove to be the best pilot team the world has ever seen.
We can make this short and easy: If the spectacle of big robots battling it out with big monsters is all you're interested in, then Pacific Rim is going to be a five-star experience that you should wholly enjoy in the biggest IMAX 3D theater you can find (earplugs recommended). However, if you require a deeper story and mythos to sell you on all the spectacle? You will get plenty of mythos, but despite a parade of "cool moments," a mishandled central storyline ultimately makes the experience a hollow one.
Director Guillermo del Toro is known for his wonderful imagination and abilities as a filmmaker - demonstrated in signature works like Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies - and Pacific Rim is alive and crackling with some of his best work. From the robot and monster designs, to the well-staged battle sequences and overall concept, Pacific Rim is something uniquely its own within the crowded genre of summer blockbusters (this is no Transformers - and I mean that in the best way), while still (borrowing?)(Paying homage to?)(Stealing from?) a laundry list of other American and Japanese movies and TV series. (Read about a few of those possible inspirations HERE.)
Best of all, there's a pervading sense of fun and joy that the director has infused his passion project with; the goal is to entertain and entertain it does, for the most part (it does get cartoony, but that cartoon is still pretty fun). On the downside, there are plenty of moments that will indeed seem less like homages and more derivative copy of other films not necessarily even related to the "Kaiju/Mecha" sub-genre. See if you can catch those Independence Day and/or Deep Blue Sea moments and you'll know the sort of "borrowing" I'm referring to.
The script - co-written by del Toro and Clash of the Titans scribe Travis Beacham - is not impressive. The story is straightforward enough, but an abundance of sub-plots often makes it feel scattered-brained. The emotional core and character development are even more unfocused: this is supposedly Raleigh and Mako's story we are being told - and Hunnam and Kikuchi are both solid leads with solid chemistry - but beyond a couple of superficial dramatic moments, there is no real conflict between our central characters, and no real arc for them to complete as individual characters. In short: our protagonists are often the least interesting parts of the film, which inevitably means a sort of detached viewing experience.
Oddly enough it is Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost who is the most dynamic character in Pacific Rim, and seems to get the most complete and engaging character arc of the whole ensemble. Elba (by now well established for his talent to stand out even in bit roles - see: Prometheus or Thor) walks away owning every one of the many scenes he's in - which is great for him, but is also clear indication that the writers are not driving the story with full control of the wheel.
Subplots involving Charlie Day (Horrible Bosses) and Burn Gorman (Dark Knight Rises) as dueling expert scientists in the Kaiju field - or Max Martini (The Unit) and Robert Kazinsky (True Blood) as a conflicted father/son Jaeger team - similarly make good use of talented actors, at the expense of a focused, streamlined story. Hellboy star Ron Perlman exists in this movie purely to ham it up for his old pal del Toro, and does so admirably. (P.S.: don't leave the theater before a special mid-credits scene.)
The mythos and world-building are well done, there's the right touch of winking humor - but again, certain sub-plots (like an anti-Kaiju wall) are never followed to conclusion and come off as distraction. The actual mechanics of the sci-fi technology is hastily explained and then craftily circumvented, so that the many, many, gaps in logic and plot are not all that distracting from the enjoyment of watching a hulking robot slamming on freakish monsters.
The infusion of anime themes and tropes is balanced enough to distinguish the film from, say, Transformers, without veering too far into the more obtuse or abstract styles of storytelling that often discourage Western viewers from embracing anime. Del Toro's imagination being what it is, this is "East meets West" in the best way possible.
The sound design is awesome - and by awesome I mean very, very, loud. Actual dialogue sometimes had a cavernous echo to it that made it hard to make out - but whether that was just my theater or the movie itself, I can't say for sure. This is definitely an IMAX experience to be had; but the post-converted 3D, while very well done, doesn't feel as necessary. A 2D IMAX experience would be more than sufficient - but if you are a big fan of the robot/monster stuff, the extra splurging will be worth it to you.
On the whole, Pacific Rim has its creator to thank for elevating it above so many similar and forgettable action blockbusters, through sheer creativity, love and force of will. While the storyline and emotional core aren't strong, the action and spectacle are, and del Toro builds his world well enough to create plenty of future opportunities for re-visits, spin-offs, multi-media projects and everything else fans (and movie studios) love in a good fanboy franchise.
Pacific Rim is now in theaters. It is 131 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief language.
If you want to discuss the film without ruining it for others, head over to our Pacific Rim SPOILERS DISCUSSION. To hear the Screen Rant editors discuss the film amongst themselves, stay tuned for the Pacific Rim episode of the Screen Rant Underground Podcast.