Somewhere in the world tonight, Michael Bay is crying himself to sleep.
“Pacific Rim” is Guillermo del Toro’s monsters-versus-mechas spectacular. It is not a perfect movie, but it is an awe-inducing, jaw-dropping achievement in the visual qualities of the summer blockbuster.
The film does not suffer from a slow start. Residents of the Bay Area should anticipate feeling the rush of pride and horror usually reserved for citizens of Tokyo; San Francisco is the first city attacked on screen. The story follows the sudden invasion of monsters given the Japanese name “kaiju” and the rush to contain them by military force. Naturally, when fighter jets and tanks fail, the superpowers of the world band together to build enormous Gundam-style mechas. This solution leads to some of the best sci-fi battle scenes ever to be born of models and CGI.
The film’s cast members are not its stars. Charlie Hunnam plays the hero, Raleigh. He’s an all-American type with almost no personality and walks around holding on to his crotch for the first half of the movie. His partner, Mako Mori, is played by Rinko Kikuchi with an intensity that is wasted on a part that is little more than a nod to the Japanese origin of the “kaiju” concept — though the only female character in this movie is written with a satisfyingly ungendered hand. Idris Elba, in the role of (essentially) two-eyed Nick Fury, slides through every British accent but his own, occasionally delivering plot exposition or character development that we don’t really need. Those developments will seem familiar to anyone who has seen “Independence Day.” Three nameless Chinese acrobats are introduced in time to die in a red mecha, followed by the Russian team of Dolph Lundgren and Dolph Lundgren in drag, who die with barely a word said. The film is occasionally unintentionally funny, and it’s hard to remember anyone’s name.
None of this matters.
What does matter is the real stars of the film: the monsters and mechas. Once their battles get started, all criticisms are dissolved into the quivering, childlike and overawed terror of the battle scenes. Del Toro’s undeniable genius is all over this. The monster concepts are true to genre but still pack some surprises that no one sees coming. The battles are set up with incredible foreplay, readying and delivery of the mechas (called Jaegers), which are shot with an unhurried confidence in their beauty and scale. We get a good look at these things from every angle — the visual concept of armor and servos are laid out in industrial glory in action and at rest. The Jaegers have several different designs, boasting different special attack features and leading to delightful variety in the fight scenes. This is the triumph of the film.
Comparing “Pacific Rim” to others of its kind shows there is no competition. The late adaptations of “Godzilla” made the right move in making the monster the star but failed to deliver on terror through effects, a dropped challenge that “Jurassic Park” picked up with glee. The “Transformers” franchise delivers thinner stories and shinier robots but gives them to us with a desperate, whirling cinematography, as if afraid to let us get too close. “Pacific Rim” does not have the warmth of “Avatar” or the depth of “Inception,” but it blows every fight scene in every big-budget movie of the last 10 years completely out of the water. The film is playing in IMAX and IMAX 3D. This reviewer is not a 3-D fan, but this is one place where the extra ticket money is worth it. Go see “Pacific Rim.” It’s going to be the one everyone is talking about.