If there’s one thing we like to see in movies, it’s two things fighting. If there’s another thing we like to see in movies, it’s two GIANT things fighting. That’s the simple premise behind “Pacific Rim,” an enthusiastically subtext-free sci-fi spectacle in which mankind retaliates against gargantuan reptilian monsters by building big robots to fight them. Directed by visionary nerd Guillermo del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”), the film is better than its schlocky Godzilla-vs-Transformers concept makes it sound, with an imaginatively fleshed-out vision of what the world is like after a dozen years of periodic attacks by these beasts.
A succinct prologue covers the basics of the ongoing battle, skipping us past the early skirmishes and tactical failures that led to the creation of the Jaegers (German for “hunters”), which is what the fighting machines are called. They’re not robots, strictly speaking, but are controlled by two pilots who stand in the Jaeger’s head and establish a “neural interface” (i.e., plug their brains in) with the machine and each other. The more compatible you are with a person, the better you’ll work as a duo in controlling the complicated Jaeger and killing the Kaiju.
When the story begins in earnest, the Kaiju have been getting better at defending themselves against the Jaegers, and the frequency of the attacks has increased. The Jaeger program is about to be abandoned, in fact, for being too costly and no longer effective, so its commander, the delightfully named Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), determines to execute One Last Mission to destroy the ocean-bottom portal that brings the Kaiju into our world from theirs. For this he recruits Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who was his best and brightest Jaeger pilot until a personal tragedy made him retire to civilian life a few years back. Reintroduced to the Jaeger training facilities near Hong Kong, Raleigh butt heads with a cocky rival (Robert Kazinsky), earns the respect of that rival’s pilot father (Max Martini), and has an affinity for another trainee, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi).
The screenplay, which del Toro co-wrote with Travis Beacham (“Clash of the Titans”), follows an old-fashioned and straightforward plot formula much like the one found in old war movies. There are few surprises in the story, and very little dialogue that’s memorable, or even particularly good. (Not helping: Charlie Hunnam’s wooden, uninteresting performance.) Things are improved considerably by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as a pair of squabbling scientists, and by Ron Perlman as a black-market dealer of body parts from dead Kaiju — but in general, there’s little humanity or emotional connection to what’s going on.
The fight sequences are the film’s primary reason for existing, and del Toro delivers there. We always have a clear sense of which Kaiju is fighting which Jaeger, and where they are in relation to each other — elements that sound like basic principles of an action scene but which some films ignore in favor of shaky cameras and frantic editing. (That being said, I wish del Toro hadn’t set nearly every fight at night or underwater, giving the action a dimness that’s exacerbated by dark 3D glasses.) Many of us have almost a primal fondness for seeing two big things tear each other apart, and if “Pacific Rim” doesn’t do much else, it certainly taps into that.
B (2 hrs., 11 min.; )