In the near future a pan-dimensional rift opens deep in the pacific ocean from which spew beasts dubbed Kaiju (a Japanese word that translates as "strange beast"). The Kaiju cause vast devastation and although the first wave is repelled, the cost in lives and hardware is immense. The world’s nations come together, pool resources and birth the Jaeger defence programme. Jaegers are human-piloted mech warriors capable of going fist to claw with the invading behemoths. These titans require two pilots to link their consciousnesses in a kind of mind-meld called "the Drift". Soon the tide of the war changes and the humans start to win, Jaeger Jockeys become the new rock stars. Of course this is the set-up for a fall, soon larger, more ferocious Kaiju appear. The fight is on!
The bulk of the film takes place in a devastated world in which humanity is on the brink of extinction. The global government, disillusioned with the failure of the Jaegers, cuts funding to divert the Earth’s remaining resources and faith into the construction of a giant wall. The last battle-scarred Jaegers are to protect the construction before being decommissioned. This isn’t going to fly with the programme’s determined general, the magnificently monikered Stacker Pentecost (Elba). Pentecost decides to go it alone, transforming an officially-sanctioned military into a resistance. Y’see, he has a plan to end the conflict once and for all. To execute this, he needs to re-enlist washed out pilot Raleigh Becket (Hunnam), whom he needs for his experience to co-pilot an early model Jaeger.
Becket is assessed by Rinko Kikuchi (Mori) a young woman raised by Pentecost. Kikuchi proves herself to be the best choice for co-pilot, but the commander’s protectiveness creates friction. Also in the mix are a pair of bickering scientists Drs Geiszler and Gottlieb (played by Day and Gorman in a manner strangely reminiscent of Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode). Geiszler is a Kaiju expert who believes the animal’s behaviour holds the key to victory, Gottlieb is "a numbers man" who believes that the maths is everything.
Pacific Rim is an oxymoron of a film. Its plot and structure are highly derivative. Its influences obvious and copious. However, in its visual style and in the way it compiles apparently familiar elements is to be found a strange originality. Epic in scope, huge in action, and deafeningly loud, but made oddly intimate by its characters and their relationships. Like the Jaeger’s themselves, a hard carapace of iron and steel hides fragile human heart(s).
Directed by the extraordinary Del Toro – one of those rare filmmakers to actually earn that most overused of trailer voice-over adjectives, "visionary" – the film’s visual style is one of its greatest strengths. Presented in 3D (2D is available), the film takes place either in rain, fog, or underwater in environments where Del Toro uses volumetric particles to fill the screen creating space and depth. It will no doubt set off alarm bells to hear the film favours nighttime for its scenes of bombastic mega-biffing, but light loss is not a problem as the colour scheme is by Haribo. Kaiju bleed phosphorescent blood, and have neon varicose veins. A major battle takes place in a Hong Kong that is lit up like a Christmas tree. Light glints of the Jaegers' hard metal bods (more on hard bods in a minute) then refracts in the shattering glass of toppling skyscrapers. It is retina-searing stuff and brilliantly realised. This is the first 3D film of 2013 genuinely worth the irritation of plastic glasses.
Luminously photographed, the live action visuals are as impressive as the CGI effects. Unlike many a sci-fi epic, the human figures are placed in what look like massive sets rather floating in front of a green screen waiting for the world to be dropped in afterwards. The Jaeger cockpit’s are particularly impressive, a combination of tank and elliptical training machine that looks like an industrial BDSM dungeon. Production design is outstanding and marshalled by Del Toro in a concerted effort to build a fully-realised world.
If all of this sounds like a glowing unconditional rave, there are also issues that cannot be ignored. Kikuchi’s character is the only female of any note in the entire film. It has already been noted by several commentators that the movie fails the Bechtel Test spectacularly badly. This is a genuine failing, and disappointing from Del Toro who has been much better than this in the past.
There is also a perfunctoriness in the exploration of the reason behind the Kaiju attacks. Much is made of Day’s character trying to enter a "drift" with a recovered monster brain. Hints about a greater purpose to the creatures' attacks are dropped throughout the film. Sadly when the secret is revealed, it is boringly generic and feels like an afterthought.
Pacific Rim is a really interesting film masquerading as a very stupid one, but there is more genuine depth here than in most of this summer’s efforts and it would be a very great shame if it were to be the new Speed Racer (full disclosure, I liked Speed Racer too).
• This review is condensed from an indulgent director’s cut blog at Chris & Phil Present