If the great god of movies, whatever slippery Mount Olympus of money he resides on, decrees that summer is the time for larger-than-life 3D blockbusters, Guillermo del Toro may as well make one. His Pacific Rim is summer entertainment with a pulse. The effects are so overscaled and lavish as to be occasionally mindless. But then, the deep-sea monsters that populate the movie — scaly, nubbly, pissed-off behemoths called by their Japanese name, kaiju — are also motivated by something primal, a drive that can't be readily explained. Their summer job is a simple, glamorous one: qualifications include being able to breathe electric blue fire, or open several of their false mouths before revealing the really treacherous maw. What reason for existing do they need, other than to lure us to the theater? For del Toro, the creature is the feature.
Giant robots matter to him, too, but less so. And unlike recent extravagant, listless robotsploitation exercises like Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim is big and dumb in a smart way. The movie's brief voiceover prologue, accompanied by a montage of destruction, explains it all: In 2015, one disgruntled kaiju after another rose from the ocean to come ashore, smashing cities like San Francisco, Manila, and Cabo, until it was discovered that the big bruisers could be defeated by giant manned robots known as Jaegers. Phew! "Jaeger pilots became rock stars; kaiju became toys," the opening monologist explains, until the kaiju regained their mojo and came back stronger than before.
The voice belongs to Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh Becket, a former Jaeger pilot whose fellow-pilot brother died in battle as he watched. Actually, "as he watched" is an understatement: Jaeger pilots work in teams, connected by a neural bridge — their minds hold hands, figuratively speaking, a connection that allows them, from within their robot fortress, to defeat the kaiju. But after his brother's death, Becket can't fight anymore. He drifts until he's lured back into commission by a surly official determined to kick those damn kaiju back to whatever hellhole they came from — he's played by Idris Elba, and he has the most kickass name of all time, Stacker Pentecost, even though he's mostly referred to as plain old "marshal." The pilot who will share the cockpit with Jaegermeister Becket is a rookie with an ax to grind: Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) wants revenge against the kaiju, and a little red shoe holds the key to her past trauma — because in a Guillermo del Toro movie, childhood always means war, even if it's just the inner-space kind.
Everything you think is going to happen in Pacific Rim eventually happens. One character or another chokes at the moment of truth; noble warriors sacrifice for the cause. But del Toro shapes the movie so it's not just one booming attack after another: There's breathing space amid the action, and in a gorgeously choreographed sequence, a bout of old-fashioned hand-to-hand human-to-human combat becomes its own special effect. Elsewhere, when the pilots strap themselves into their skyscraper-sized robot machines, both their bravery and their vulnerability come to the fore. Their success or defeat depends on how literally they translate the line the Replacements' Paul Westerberg once sang: "You be me for a while, and I'll be you."
Touches like that elevate Pacific Rim above your typical noisy summer bonecrusher extravaganza. The material, written by Travis Beacham and del Toro for the express purpose of making a really big movie, is blessedly non-elitist. Anybody who goes to see Pacific Rim can be an instant Jaeger-vs.-kaiju expert, without having absorbed the entire DC and Marvel libraries by Vulcan mind-meld beforehand. Ron Perlman, the star of del Toro's two crazily poetic Hellboy films, even makes a cameo.
In other words, Pacific Rim is just the kind of big-ticket sci-fi adventure you'd want del Toro to make — provided you'd want him to make one at all. In early 2011, The New Yorker ran a half-rousing, half-despairing profile of del Toro, touching upon his inability to get projects off the ground but also suggesting that he just might be inching closer toward making his dream movie, an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's novella At the Mountains of Madness. The fact that a visionary director like del Toro is crafting movies like Pacific Rim means there's hope for blockbusters; it's also depressing as hell. Is this what the multi-headed love-kaiju of Lovecraft, James Whale, Edgar Allan Poe, and Alfred Hitchcock should be making?
No. But still, we'll take it. Because the battle sequences in Pacific Rim, while suitably braggadocious, are also brushed with the right amount of cartoon majesty. I've never been totally sure about the expression "I'll box your ears," but I'm pretty sure that's what a Jaeger does to a kaiju here, using a couple of shipping containers. It's so dumbly brilliant you can't believe you're seeing it. And while the Jaegers are cool enough, sleek metal giants that look toward the future even as they hold Robby the Robot close to their hearts, it's the kaiju — angry, destructive, ready for an eon-long time-out — that flourish onscreen. Some have the skin of overgrown horny toads; others sport scorpion tails longer than a freight train. An infant kaiju disappoints — he's not quite the alluring menace he ought to be. Still, these are all del Toro's children, and every mighty footstep is a place marker for the future, a promise that he'll soon be on to smaller and better things. There will be time to murder and create.