In 1924 the great silent-film director D.W. Griffith proposed a simple solution for resolving a dreadful war like the one that Europe had recently endured: Choose one combatant from each side and let them duke it out, winner take all. Griffith’s idea never caught on in the world of realpolitik, but lately Hollywood has applied it in a slew of action films. Who wants to see the teeming maneuvers of ordinary soldiers (unless they’re zombies)? Wouldn’t you prefer the intimacy of brute-on-brute, fist-into-face? In such movies as Thor, The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel, that’s just what happens. God-men and brawny dudes take a break from killing or defending millions, and decide the fate of planets in a cage match, without the cage.
Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 3-D Armageddon adventure, extends this tactic to its ultimate, Griffithian conclusion. It leaves the defense of besieged Earth entirely to the professionals. In a way, that’s considerate: few civilians as collateral damage, to be gobbled up or tramped on by the dinosaurish creatures called Kaiju (the Japanese word for “strange beast,” as in the old Godzilla films) that have risen from the seas to devastate our coastal cities. In response, the world’s military-fantasy complex calls on Jaegers (from the German for “hunters”). Each of these giant robots, in clanking humanoid form, is manned by two Rangers, expert fighters whose perfectly twinned minds activate the controls. They’re not drone pilots, aiming at targets in Africa or Asia from the comfort of a Virginia bunker. The Rangers are inside; they feel the Kaiju’s wrath.
(READ: Howard Chua-Eoan on the classic Godzilla movies by subscribing to TIME)
In the script by del Toro and Travis Beacham, ace Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam), who quit the Rangers after his brother died in battle, gets called back to service by his old Commander, Stacker Pentecost (The Wire’s Idris Elba). He is eventually paired with first-time pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, the girl from Babel), herself orphaned in one of the earliest Kaiju attacks. Hovering on the sidelines are a pair of nerd scientists — the would-be hipster Newt Geiszler (Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and the purringly Teutonic Gottlieb (Burn Gorman, from Torchwood) — and the war profiteer Hannibal Chau (del Toro regular Ron Perlman), who collects Kaiju organs for research and resale. He’s in the spare-parts business.
Pacific Rim (an oddly muted title for this choleric rave-up) is itself a spare-parts movie — a massive collision of popular action films, or maybe a Storage Wars with the emphasis on war. The picture certainly means to fill the summertime void in an odd-numbered year left by the absence of a Transformers episode; it has the same world-in-peril scenario, similar rock-’em-sock-’em robots. The 1954 Godzilla spawned a couple dozen Japanese sequels and a teeming bestiary of dinosaur types (Rodan, Mothra, Gamera and their prehistoric pals), plus the sea monsters here. As in World War Z, we’re plunked into the middle of an invasion, with dinosaurs instead of the walking dead giving large cities the big hurt. (And this time we fight back with men inside machines.) Raleigh’s connection to his dead brother recalls the hero of Avatar, who’s recruited to Pandora because he shares his late twin sibling’s DNA. Like Top Gun, this is an all-out recruitment PSA for the supercool machismo of combat. Pacific Rim could be called Transformatar, or Top Gun-zilla.
Since his 1993 feature debut with the sleek horror film Cronos, made in his native Mexico, del Toro has been quite the globe-trotting auteur, shooting in the U.S. (Mimic), the Czech Republic (Blade II and Hellboy), Hungary (Hellboy II: The Golden Army) and, for Pacific Rim, Canada. He also spent a frustrating two years in New Zealand preparing the Hobbit series, before Peter Jackson stepped in and took back his favorite toys.
The craggy humor and steampunk décor of del Toro’s mass-market thrillers earned him a host of admirers, often including me. But his most esteemed features, filmed in Spain, are The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. In these art-horror tales set in the years just after the Spanish Civil War, the director flexed a different, more complicated set of movie muscles. The films creep instead of pound, and their haunting spell can last a lifetime. (Del Toro may be one of the few filmmakers whose new $150-million action movie opens the same month that a Criterion Collection retrospective disc of another of his films — 2001′s The Devil’s Backbone — is issued for connoisseurs.)
(READ: Corliss’s review of the Del Toro masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth)
Del Toro must think that the human element informing his two Spanish pictures is way too analog for a robots-vs.-dinosaurs movie. So he doesn’t bother. There’s little life in the drama of Raleigh’s return to the Rangers and his growing respect for Mako; or the threat that his brand of Jaegers will be replaced by a newer model; or the purported comedy of the goofy scientists. That part is dead air. The director poured all his enthusiasm and ingenuity into the grudge matches between the Kaiju and the Jaegers, which shoot bullets at their prey and, in desperation or just for kicks, stun the beasts with a roundhouse punch, Hulk Hogan-style.
These fights are executed with a spectacular artistry that Michael Bay, director of the Transformers trilogy, could only dream of. For one thing, consecutive shots actually “match” in classical Hollywood style, rather than the eye-catching but incoherent melange of the Hasbro movies. In shallow or deep water, at twilight or midnight, the battles make spatial sense and build melodramatic suspense. And the Jaeger robots are handsome artifacts of sinewy metal; as Newt exclaims on seeing one, “That’s two-thousand five-hundred tons of awesome!” Purely from the perspective of action filmmaking, Pacific Rim is Transformers transcended.
Which raises the question: Why would Del Toro want to do that? Perhaps because, as he quotes Orson Welles, making a movie is like playing with “the biggest electric train set a boy ever had.” In the book Pacific Rim: Man, Machines & Monsters, del Toro adds, “we had an amazing sandbox full of robots, monsters, buildings and toy cars, and we played with them endlessly.” In an end-of-the-world movie, that aura of playfulness suggests a child inventing war games for his G.I. Joe figures as his parents argue in the next room — a way to escape real anxieties by creating a grander fantasy peril — and gives lift and life to the Kaiju-Jaeger mano-a-monstruo conflicts. But the rest of Pacific Rim is inert. You get 45 minutes of awesome encased in 90 minutes of yawnsome.