It came from under the sea
Pacific Rim goes straight onto the guilty-pleasures list—at least after one viewing. To see it more than once might be to risk shamefaced thoughts of how many poor families in Kolkata could be fed and clothed with the money spent on just 10 minutes of Pacific Rim’s gargantuan CGI boxing matches.
Ah, well, not every kid wants to grow up to be Mother Teresa. Some kids just want to grow up to make Godzilla movies.
Two such kids are director Guillermo del Toro and his co-writer Travis Beacham. Neither was born nor raised in Japan, so they probably never tuned in to the cultural undercurrents Godzilla and his ilk (Rodan, Mothra, Gamera, etc.) carried for the Japanese of the 1950s and '60s—the only generation to have actually suffered from atomic destruction. For del Toro and Beacham, as for millions of other North American kids seeing those movies as they came east over the Pacific, the kick would have been more primal and childlike: the vicarious thrill of dressing up in a monster costume and kicking the bejesus out of an elaborate scale-model city.
That's the thrill del Toro and Beacham offer us in Pacific Rim, and they construct quite a backstory to justify it. In a prologue narrated by our hero Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), we learn that when “the alien invasion” came, it came not from the stars but from under the sea, by way of a rift between two of Earth's tectonic plates that serves as a bridge to another dimension.
Across this bridge first came a single monster, so huge that tiny humans could make out only bits and pieces of it: a head like a shark's, but 100-yards long; feet that crushed a dozen cars with each step; forepaws that ripped through the Golden Gate Bridge like cobwebs. Tanks and missiles eventually brought it down, but others came along, each one closer in time than the last. The creatures became known as kaiju, Japanese for “strange beast” or “monster.”
The United Nations, galvanized into action, developed monsters to fight the monsters. These were colossal robots, 100-feet tall or more, called “jaegers” (from the German word for “hunter”), each operated by a two-person team telepathically linked, since the job was too much for one person. The jaegers worked for a while, but the kaiju kept coming, learning from experience, growing stronger. Eventually, the jaegers began losing ground, the U.N. lost faith in them and began exploring other defense options, all equally futile. Now, after 12 years of sporadic warfare and with funding for the jaeger program drying up, humankind seems headed for a last stand.
So much for plot. Now for what we shall generously call characters. There's ex-jaeger pilot Raleigh, who dropped out when a kaiju killed his brother and partner in a battle that Raleigh himself barely survived. He gets drawn back by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), head of the jaeger program, and teamed with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a young Japanese woman adopted by Pentecost as a child when her family was wiped out by a kaiju. There's an Australian father-and-son (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky) team of pilots. The son regards Raleigh as a has-been and quitter, but, of course, we know he's destined to change his tune.
Finally, there's a pair of scientists, Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) researching kaiju physiology and psychology. These two are played in such a way that they could be viewed as a gay couple, but they really are sexless dweebs—someone for the movie's target demographic to identify with.
So much for character. All this is just the setup for what Pacific Rim is really about, the hand-to-hand combat between kaiju and jaeger. It's just like the fights in King Kong vs. Godzilla and Godzilla vs. Megalon, but with a CGI grandeur that those 1960s Japanese filmmakers could only dream of.
And maybe that's no small thing at that. After all, Michael Bay has made three Transformers movies, and he hasn't done one yet that was as much fun as this.