Film Review: Pacific Rim

Giant robots are the last hope against an alien invasion in Guillermo del Toro's affectionate tribute to monster movies.

A massive, lumbering behemoth of a movie, Pacific Rim resurrects the "kaiju," or giant monster genre, by returning to its roots in Japanese science fiction. Fun enough during its pounding action scenes, Pacific Rim has less to offer when it comes to story and characters. Although kaiju fans will be delighted, Warners faces an uphill battle to win over mainstream viewers.

A 15-minute pre-credits sequence sets up the story. Entering through a portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, alien kaiju attack and level coastal cities like San Francisco. To fight them, military forces build giant robots called "Jaegers," operated by ranger duos who meld minds in control rooms located inside the robots' heads.

After seven years, the kaiju monsters evolve into better fighters. World leaders decide to retire the Jaegers, relying instead on giant walls constructed along coastlines. But scientist Herman Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) warns that the attacks will only increase in intensity. Kaiju easily break through a test wall.

Former ranger Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) quits when his brother and Jaeger partner is killed in a kaiju fight. But ranger leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) summons him to Hong Kong, where he will stage a final battle with his remaining Jaegers before funding stops. His plan: Drop a nuclear bomb into the ocean portal.

Becket trains with several rangers, ultimately teaming up with the diminutive Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who as a child lost her family in a kaiju attack. Rival rangers like Herc Hansen (Max Martini) and his son Chuck (Rob Kazinsky) wonder if Becket still has the guts to fight.

Meanwhile, Gottlieb's scientist partner Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) melds minds with a captured kaiju brain, discovering an imminent scheme that could destroy humanity. He seeks out black-market kingpin Hannibal Chau (Rob Perlman) to find more kaiju body parts.

Yes, Pacific Rim is just that confusing, despite efforts by Travis Beacham, writing with director Guillermo del Toro, to shoehorn information into the narrative. Unlike del Toro's Hellboy, the pacing here seems clunky, and the rules behind the movie needlessly complicated. Why two rangers per Jaeger? Why can't rangers operate Jaegers by remote control, like drones?

To his credit, del Toro makes the Jaegers and their actions as realistic as possible. We see the rangers inside initiating movements, and then the Jaegers responding—a process that can feel repetitive. And since the Jaegers and kaiju are so enormous, their battles sometimes seem to be taking place in slow-motion.

Like the movies and TV shows that influenced del Toro as a child, Pacific Rim has bland human characters and a simplistic plot. The cast is competent enough, but only Charlie Day, playing a reckless nerd, seems to be having much fun.

But the appeal of the original Godzilla and its kaiju followers is more fundamental. In del Toro's hands, the kaiju have a destructive power that is truly awesome, especially compared to the relentless effects in a movie like Man of Steel. Del Toro and his crew deliver phenomenal action as the Jaegers and kaiju pursue one another through city streets, towering over buildings, crunching trucks and overpasses, colliding with thunderous booms and unearthly shrieks.

Del Toro is a thrilling filmmaker, and Pacific Rim is an admirable effort even if its goals seem a little juvenile. It's going to be tough for Warners' planned 2014 Godzilla reboot to top the action here.