Pacific Rim is one of the greatest, dumbest action movies I've seen in a long, long time. And I mean that in the best possible way. This movie isn't dumb like, say, Star Trek Into Darkness, whose villain's behaviour can only be reconciled by assuming he is both working for and against another villain simultaneously, or The Dark Knight Rises, which completely wastes the entire emotional arc of the trilogy by having the people of Gotham not do a damn thing to save themselves. No, Pacific Rim is dumb in the biggest, coolest, most fantastic way possible, in the kind of way that doesn't let silly little things like reality and physics get in the way of grandiose displays of pure spectacle.
For example, there's a scene in the trailers where the hero's robot, Gipsy Danger, wields a cargo ship like a sword. This scene is dumb as a box of hammers. Just picking up a ship like that from one end would probably snap it in half amidships, nevermind dragging one end along a pretty long causeway. And then it gets swung through the air and collides with a giant monster. Multiple times! You can punch a hole in the hull of a ship like this by hitting it with a particularly sharp rock; the chances that it would've remained intact long enough to serve as a make-shift weapon for not just one, but several strokes, is essentially nil.
But it looks cool as hell!
Alright, so The actual review. Pacific Rim is about Raleigh Beckett, a former jaeger (giant robot) pilot who's called back in for the ubiquitous One Last Mission by his former commander, Marshall Pentecost. The world is under increasingly overwhelming attack by kaiju, giant monsters appearing from a mysterious rift just above the ocean's floor on the bottom of the Pacific. With the jaegers outmatched by the kaiju, who seem to regularly grow bigger and stronger and more dangerous, the governments of the world have decided to put all their hope into the Wall of Life instead, a huge fortification along the coastlines of every Pacific-facing nation. The jaegers are to be mothballed, if not outright broken down, and the Pan Pacific Defence Corps disbanded. But Pentecost has pitched an alternative, an audacious last assault to close the rift itself, and the governments of the world have given him a base in Hong Kong, the remaining four jaegers, and exactly zero support to undertake this mission. The now-worthless jaegers are his to do with as he pleases, but with no money coming in from the governments Pentecost has to move fast, before his combat capability degrades to the point where he can't launch his attack. It's a fairly decent ticking clock set-up, and the movie pushes hard to keep up the intensity of Pentecost and his people scrambling to get ready before they're too broke and worn down to go. Better a two hundred-plus kiloton bang than a whimper.
The movie has a decent-sized cast, including Pentecost (Idris Elba) and Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), and manages to strike a good balance between giant robot fights and character work. Raleigh is still getting over the death of his brother, whom he was connected to through Gipsy Danger at the time (jaegers are piloted by two people, connected mentally by a process called the Drift), and he's reluctant to open himself up again or get back into a jaeger. Pentecost is clearly driven by more than just a desire to see the world safe, as though that's not good enough. And then there's Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), an aspiring jaeger pilot who, no spoiler warning needed, ends up being Raleigh's partner in Gipsy Danger. Raleigh gets a rival in the crew of the Australian jaeger, Striker Eureka, clashing with the shoulder-chip-toting Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) while his father Hercules Hansen (Max Martini) tries to rein him in. The main cast is rounded out by a pair of scientists, Newton (Charlie Day) and Hermann (Burn Gorman), who have the most fantastic Odd Couple dynamic going. Honestly, at the end, I sort of thought they were going to kiss, their relationship is that good. I'm a little disappointed they didn't. It would've been a nice little moment, and one that would really have felt earned.
There's also a supporting cast, but they're almost entirely voiceless. There's a Chinese jaeger team, triplets, and a Russian team who I assumed were siblings, but the internet assures me are husband and wife. The only one of these who get any real lines are the Russian woman, and that's just relying information during a fight back to headquarters. The Russians are by far the more interesting of the two teams simply because of their design, which really has to be seen to be believed, and because they get at least a few off-hand character building referemces from Pentecost. They're less world-saving heroes than punk rock gangsters. The Chinese, in contrast, are utterly bland. It's three guys who look alike in matching red pants and shirts. The only two really meaningful supporting characters are Tendo Choi (Clifton Collins Jr.), the reliable, slightly snarky voice of mission control for the jaeger teams, and Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlmann), an absolutely fabulous Hong Kong gangster dealing in kaiju body parts. Because of course there are people who think ground kaiju bone encourages masculinity. Oh humanity, will you never change?
Like I said, the movie does a decent job with character work, but surprisingly Raleigh gets almost none of it. Despite being the white male lead with a tragic past, Raleigh has basically gotten over the worst of his trauma off-screen and does very little wallowing or brooding; it's Mako and, amazingly, Newton who go through the biggest and most interesting personal storylines in this film. Mako's is a little easy to predict, but Kikuchi does a good job of selling the very particular characterization she's called on to project, while Day simply runs delightfully wild with Newton, giving the movie almost all of its considerably amusing funny moments while still moving the serious, end of the world plotline forwards. As for the others, the Australians don't have much room for growth, and Pentecost, despite some nice, surprising moments of development and revelation, is what he declares himself to be to Raleigh; a fixed point for every man and woman under his command. Elba portrays Pentecost with a perfect mix of iron control and barely-restrained fury, knowing just when to raise his voice and when, far more regularly, a dryer, more restrained response would better serve the character. Gorman's Hermann also gets a couple of nice moments, playing off Newton, with the decidedly mis-matched pair helping each other grow into a better aggregate whole. Also, he's fantastically fussy. It's simply a delight to watch.
But this is still a summer action blockbuster, so at the end of the day the question is, how is the action? And the answer is, spectacular, albeit with an annoying tendency to put the camera too close to the combatants. Each one of the kaiju are distinct creatures, ranging from giant enemy crabs to gorilla-like bruisers to dragon-esque serpents to horn-headed living battering rams. No two kaiju look alike, which really keeps the action fresh, and left me thinking of things like Evangelion and Dai-Guard in terms of the sheer breadth of monster designs. The jaegers are equally distinct, with Gipsy Danger as the generic baseline, Striker Eureka as the sleek, next generation model, Crimson Typhoon as a three-armed killing machine taking advantage of its triplet pilots, and Chemo Alpha, the hulking Russian behemoth that looks like an angry nuclear power plant on legs. No two jaegers fight the same, right down to none of them even having the same weapon loadouts, and the constant recombination of combatants means that the fights never get a chance to feel stale or done-to-death. There's even an underwater fight at one point, in which the kaiju exploit their superior speed and mobility in that environment, leaving the jaegers to counter as best they can. It's damn intense, and given that this is not a movie that shies away from a high body count, it's a genuinely open question as to whether anyone, even Raleigh and Mako, will actually make it back from the final assault on the rift.
My only real complaint with Pacific Rim is that the movie is, frankly, a bit of a sausage fest. Of the seven main characters, only one is a woman, and when you add in the seven secondary characters, that number only rises to two. Yes, Mako is a strong character with depth and her own emotional arc, but one in seven is kind of underwhelming, particularly since Hercules Hansen could easily have been swapped from father to mother, not only without losing anything character-wise, but actually gaining significantly in her relation to her son, to Pentecost, and in regards to her position at the end of the film. Considering it's the end of the world and you need all hands on deck, you'd think women would be represented a little more evenly than they are. I suppose you could also swap out Ron Perlman easily enough, but that would mean not having Ron Perlman, and I'm not sure a Perlman-less world is one any of us want to live in. I know I don't.
So, should you see Pacific Rim? As long as you're okay with spectacle overriding realism, absolutely. This movie is unbelievably fun, mixing action, humour, tragedy and pathos together shockingly well for what looks on the surface like just a big, dumb blockbuster. Only the most committed of nitpickers need not apply for this one, though if you just can't extend your suspension of disbelief to cover the boat-sword, or the moment when a monster the size of a building lifts a robot the size of a building into the air by flapping its wings, I can entirely understand. These things are just beyond wrong, and insane to try and think about what it would take for them to actually work. But if you can turn that little portion of your brain off that wants to point out all the ways a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters is unrealistic, there's no reason you shouldn't have an absolutely fantastic time.
Oh, and the voice of the base's computer system? GLaDOS. How neat is that!