Pacific Rim Review: The monster movie you’ve been waiting for

The formula for a film like “Pacific Rim” is not complicated. Take giant aliens who come from the ocean, add giant man-made robots to fight the global threat, add in a little Guillermo del Toro-inspired madness, and voila.

In truth, formula alone does not make a movie, but it is in its simple structure and stick-to-your-ribs genre purity that “Pacific Rim” stands out as the best big-budget release of the summer.

When the menacing Kaiju emerge from the sea and start wreaking havoc on not-too-distant-future humanity, we decide to create Jeagers, giant robots controlled by top military combat personnel around the world. The humans’ resistance seems to be working, but the Kaiju are getting stronger, and the UN decides to shut the Jaeger program down after too many soldiers (and their pricy machines) are killed.

Our main character, the impossibly good-looking soldier Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), disappears after his brother Yancy is killed during a Kaiju attack. Jaeger pilots work in pairs of two via a “mind meld” (each controlling one hemisphere of the Jaeger’s “brain,” and the team works in tandem to control every aspect of the Jaeger’s movements. But the mind meld allows each pilot to see the other’s memories, and Raleigh hasn’t gotten over his severed mental connection to his brother.

Meanwhile, world governments have resorted to building large walls to keep the Kaiju out, but they don’t seem to be working. The Jaeger program has turned into an underground resistance movement, led by the intimidating Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, and yes, all the names in this movie are ridiculous), who tracks Raleigh down, Raleigh, one of the last living Jaeger pilots, in hopes of recruiting him to help carry a nuclear bomb to the Kaiju’s dimensional rift and closing the portal once and for all.

As Raleigh agrees, he comes across a refreshingly diverse set of supporting characters in the form of fellow Jaeger pilots, including a father-son Australian team and a mysterious Japanese recruit named Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), who senses an immediate connection to Raleigh she can’t quite explain.

I couldn’t imagine a movie like this being made by someone other than Guillermo del Toro. The dude can shoot an action scene. The towering Jaegers are impressive digital creations, and the imposing Kaiju even more so. This is a filmmaker who has staked a career on boundless visual creativity, and it holds true here. The combat sequences are truly something to behold. I suppose some might find some of the environments and cityscapes a bit derivative, but it’s hard to argue when there are so many things for your eye to catch in every scene.

As far as plot is concerned, mostly everything is predictable, but one advantage del Toro has over the monster movies he so clearly pays tribute to is smart dialogue and surprisingly three-dimensional characters. In particular, Idris Elba as Stacker manages the tricky feat of having a sympathetic backstory while still being a complete badass (even when half his dialogue is reduced to grand speechifying). The evolving relationship between Raleigh and Mako is also refreshing in its unpredictability. There’s even some tremendous comic relief in the form of a scene-stealing Ron Perlman (who else) as a shady black-market Kaiju organ dealer.

As the film’s conflicts ratchet up, it thankfully avoids the curse of “science-ese” that has plagued movies like “Man of Steel.” Just because things get more complicated doesn’t mean we have to stop understanding why, and “Pacific Rim” strikes that tricky balance by keeping things light and allowing the audience to keep pace in understanding all the plot’s technological developments as they happen.

On that subject, thank God for a summer blockbuster that doesn’t talk down to its audience. Del Toro is that rare director who is aware of what his audience wants, and is intent to give it to them. It’s a modern monster movie; not a revision, not an interpretation; not a re-boot. Instead of trying to bog his film down with grand messages and morals, he decided to go all the way in making the most kick-ass action movie of the summer. And honestly, why do we need more than that? It’s del Toro’s playground, and I want to see him play. And does he ever.

Hollywood seems to think audiences crave summer movies with brooding anti-heroes, dark themes, and grand statements about the human condition. We don’t; that’s for Oscar season. We want stuff to blow up, but we also want to remember why it did. We also want to laugh in-between the carnage. In that regard, “Pacific Rim” is one of the few truly successful movies of the summer. At a (relatively) brisk 131 minutes, it has a good balance between action and story, and, most importantly, doesn’t overstay its welcome (unlike another metal man I can think of).

In terms of a film delivering on its formidable-yet-gleefully-juvenile promise, “Pacific Rim” is the movie of the summer.