Long ago in suburban California, a boy named Scott watched a TV station whose programming seemed to consist entirely of Lakers games and monster movies. He grew up with big names like Godzilla and lesser-known gems like War of the Gargantuas, which feature 50-foot-tall villains and heroes. It was for kids like him, grownup or not, that Guillermo Del Toro made Pacific Rim.
Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, The Devil's Backbone) takes the Toho and Toei era of Japanese film, in which guys in rubber suits punch it out in miniature cityscapes, and transfers it to the CGI age. Pacific Rim posits a world where giant monsters called kaiju have started crawling through a dimensional rift beneath the Pacific Ocean. Efficiently skimming through much of the backstory, Del Toro brings us to 2020, seven years into the invasion. Giant robots called jaegers, which are piloted by humans, have become the planet's defenders.
When Del Toro kicks the story into battle mode, it's pretty satisfying. A three-armed robot turns its hands into whirling buzzsaws to take on an acid-spewing beast. A jaeger picks up a freighter to play T-ball with the skull of a kaiju. It's epic. It's goofy. It's irresistible.
But Del Toro is too inveterate a world-builder to make a movie that involves nothing but rock-'em, sock-'em robots and underworld beasts. That's why he introduces a haunted hero, former jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), who was traumatized when his copilot brother was killed in action. We get a look at Raleigh's possible new partner, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), as the planet unites to fight a common foe. There are even glimpses of the world following 12 years of monster wars. It contains a Hong Kong slum built on the skeleton of a defeated kaiju and a culture that sells the scraps of dead beasts. It's a richer universe than you might expect.
Unfortunately, this universe doesn't always work. Hunnam turns in one of the most staggeringly inept lead performances in blockbuster history, making painfully ridiculous faces to convey emotion. Del Toro gets some mileage out of a pair of eccentric scientists (Charlie Day, Burn Gorman) trying to understand the kaiju, but most other human interactions are thin and perfunctory. It feels as though Del Toro is torn between wanting to offer something besides the crunching set pieces and knowing that the bulk of his resources must go toward robot-on-beast action. The result feels like an attempt to copy Independence Day as much as a nod to the old-school Godzilla. It's also a reminder that some tastes eventually mature.