Guillermo del Toro’s new film is very much the product of a vivid imagination, though one that wouldn’t have been possible without an enormous financial investment. Watching this intriguing but overstuffed vision, of man-powered robots doing battle with alien creatures that slip into our world via a breach somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean, I was reminded of all the times I used to step into my cousin’s basement-cum-playroom and beheld, with a mixture of revulsion and jealousy, the vast sea of action figures that his father had bought him. In this unbelievably chaotic dominion, there was no respect for the singular legends established by the cartoon franchises that thrilled us on Saturday mornings, and it seemed as if for no other reason than one figurine’s proximity to another from a different world, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle was often required to chill within the confines of the Ewok Village, Cobra Commander ruled Snake Mountain, and Lion-O shunned Cheetara for Teela. Watching Pacific Rim, one feels as if Voltron, defender of the universe, has been invited to go a few rounds with a number of Godzilla’s nefarious foes.
This may be the closest del Toro will ever come to realizing At the Mountains of Madness on screen, and there’s a strong sense throughout that the filmmaker is most interested in the aspects of the story concerning science’s struggle to defeat the monstrous kaijus, quasi Cthulhus quickly decimating our world, one big city at a time, with each new and increasingly empowered stage of attack. In the end, victory against this alien-orchestrated assault is sealed by humankind’s military might, though it’s impossible without the gumption of one Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), a dweeb who ventures out on his own in order to explore his theory about why the kaijus are attacking Earth after his wisdom is bullishly disregarded by the military regime he works within. Del Toro has always been an elegant craftsman, and the film’s highpoint, set in Hong Kong, is notable for its stunningly detailed visual effects and coherent montage, though it’s made truly special by the distinctly personal nature of Geiszler’s ambition. It’s impossible to not to see this geek—so in awe of and at home within the blinged-out black market operated by Ron Perlman’s colorful Hannibal Chau, a trader of kaiju parts—as a stand-in for del Toro, a connoisseur of all things creepy-crawly who will die, or at least travel to the ends of the Earth, to prove that his hermetic interests are crucial to our cultural survival.
If del Toro is less excited by the story of the jaegers, the man-made machines used to battle the kaijus, it’s not for lack of trying. That these enormous robots are manned by two people, one operating its left hemisphere, the other its right, speaks to the filmmaker’s unquestionably humane interest in the interconnectivity of our existence. He instills the building and movement of these machines with a sense of purpose that’s striking, making the nonliving seem unmistakably alive, and if his desire to show up Michael Bay wasn’t already obvious, the battles between the jaegers and the kaijus never pass for jingoist fantasy, nor does he stoop to predictably conveying the struggle of Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) to operate a jaeger, and against the wishes of her superior and surrogate father, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), as easy feminist uprising. One of Pacific Rim’s taglines is “To fight monsters we created monsters,” and that desire for leveling the playing field in the battle between man and alien extends to the film’s sexual politics, insofar as sex—and sexuality for that matter—are so beside the point of the story.
But in spite of its narrative richness and thoughtfulness, Pacific Rim lacks for poignancy. For all the attention paid to how soldiers puppet the jaegers in ostensibly empathetic lockstep, del Toro only skims the surface of his human relationships, asking audiences to only take them at face value. Just as Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) seems to shake the memory of his deceased little brother almost as soon as their jaeger is destroyed in the film’s opening battle sequence, there’s no acknowledgement on either his or Mako’s parts that the reason they make such great jaeger-powering partners is that they share a history of trauma. Even the revelation of Mako’s relationship to Stacker is oddly unaffecting, as the scene exists mostly as a tribute to the magnitude of the film’s effects. Del Toro may be uninterested in flag-waving and feminist commentary, but he also shuns emotional intimacy, and in the end doesn’t rise above the obligations of staging a film of this sort as a multi-level video game, a stylish but programmatic ride toward an inevitable final boss battle, replete with blustery one-liners, cartoony shows of masculinity, and, in an unexpectedly longing exchange between heroes, unearned romance.