The Pacific Rim trailer gave me nightmares. For all the wrong reasons. Seeing machines bumping fenders made me think the great Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy) had transformed into Michael Bay, the Antichrist of techno fantasy. Bay's films feel untouched by human hands. Pacific Rim, thank the gods of cinema, is the work of a humanist ready to banish cynicism for compassion. Don't get me wrong. Robots and aliens still do thrilling battle, but del Toro drives the action with a heartbeat. It makes all the difference.
Let's get our bearings. The script, by del Toro and Travis Beacham, presents us with a future world, circa 2020, decimated by Kaiju – Godzilla-like creatures that enter through a breach in the Pacific Ocean. The Kaiju chomp on San Francisco, Cabo and Manila like appetizers. To retaliate, the Pan Pacific Defense Corps (with reps from the U.S., the U.K., China, Russia and Australia) constructs robots the size of skyscrapers to take on the buggers. The catch is the robots, called Jaegers, need human operators tucked right in the belly of the beast. It can't be done alone. You need two pilots who connect their minds on a neural bridge called "the Drift." Make the wrong move and your brain explodes. Succeed and you're a rock star on the cover of Rolling Stone. It's man fighting beast by pretending to be the beast.
Profound? Not quite. Apologies to Kanye West, who tweeted that Pacific Rim is "one of my favorite movies of all time," but chewing too hard on this plot can cause indigestion. Del Toro juggles prodigiously, but with so many balls in the air, a few are bound to fall with a thud. Still, Pacific Rim, whether you see it in 3D or not, is never less than a visual marvel. Some may find the warfare overkill in a film that unwisely runs past the two-hour mark. But del Toro, aided by ace cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, achieves poetic grandeur in image and sound. His uneven film is dotted with visionary brilliance.
How do the actors manage not to get lost amid the spectacle? At times, it's a bitch. Luckily, del Toro has their backs as well. Idris Elba, the British star of Luther who was unforgettable as Stringer Bell on The Wire, rivets attention as PPDC commander Stacker Pentecost. He gives an order, you listen. It's a lesson hard-learned by Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy), a Jaeger jockey with a rebel streak. Teamed with a rookie protégé, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, an Oscar nominee for Babel, shines), Raleigh uncovers dire secrets during their mind meld. Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky (Warlow on True Blood) excel as Aussie father-son pilots ready to make the noble sacrifice. Comic relief comes in like gangbusters through Charlie Day as a really mad scientist and del Toro's Hellboy Ron Perlman as a black-marketer in Kaiju body parts.
The crowning action moment is an expertly shot and edited sequence of Raleigh and Mako taking down a Kaiju. Their broken-down Jaeger, called Gipsy Danger, is an analog ship in a digital world. It's hard not to cheer while watching it. For my money, Pacific Rim could have ended on this rousing, retro high note. But del Toro still has monsters to vanquish – on a grander scale. Sure, it's too much. What pulls us over the rough spots is the mind meld between del Toro the artist and the child inside him. They both want to astonish us. Geeks everywhere, salute.