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If one wants spectacle in their films, can there be any greater way to achieve it than by having giant things duke it out while the terrified masses of humanity watch helplessly? Since the golden age of cinema, audiences have thrilled to gargantuas like King Kong, Godzilla or any number of Ray Harryhausen’s iconic stop-motion creations. There’s something about watching a gorilla the size of a skyscraper throw elbows at a toothy dinosaur, something that seems to cut beyond notions of story and right into the primal: this is storytelling stripped back to its childhood, sandbox essence. While technology (and patience levels) may have changed since those glory days of guys in suits stomping about miniature cities, the public’s thirst for spectacle seems just as strong as ever. And if there’s one modern director who knows a thing or two about spectacle, it would definitely have to be Guillermo del Toro.

Although he began his career with his most subdued film (1993’s Cronos, which still stands as my favorite del Toro film), del Toro quickly moved into the realm of big-budget spectacle films with Blade II (2002), before clinching his spot in fan-boy history with his all-in adaptation of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy (2004). Hellboy, while filled with endlessly inventive, frequently stunning imagery, was also stuffed to bursting with some of the most interesting characters in parade through a film since the glory days of Star Wars, not least of which was Ron Perlman’s epic performance as the big red guy. Although his next film, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), would split the difference between the more subtle emotional beats of Cronos and The Devil’s Backbone (2001) with the eye-popping imagery of Hellboy, it was a character-heavy piece that showed del Toro hadn’t lost sight of the human actors on his phantasmagorical stages. A return to Hellboy, in 2008, would yield an even bigger, more epic version of the original film, although there seemed to be slightly more focus on the effects and imagery than on the characterizations.

When I heard that del Toro’s follow-up to Hellboy 2 was going to be an original film about giant robots fighting giant monsters, I’ll admit that I was conflicted. On the one hand, my primal self wants nothing more than to see giants things kick the ever-loving crap out of each other…that’s just a given. On the other hand, I don’t really find myself particularly drawn to mega-budget spectacle films anymore: even something like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation grew tiring, for me at least, and I’ve studiously avoided the various tent-pole pics like Battle: L.A, Battleship and Ender’s Game that have cropped up lately. Since del Toro seemed to be moving further from his characters and more into the spectacle of it all, would Pacific Rim end up being a delicious but empty fistful of cotton-candy? As it turned out, the answer was “yes”…but man…that cotton candy…

Pacific Rim jumps right into the thick of things by bringing us up to speed on the state of this particular version of reality: gigantic, Chthonic monsters called Kaiju have been popping out of the office, bent on destroying mankind. As defense, humans create Jaegers, which are basically giant robots that require two pilots, both of whom are psychically linked to each other and their custom-made Voltrons. These lead to giant melees where giant, tentacled monstrosities get pounded into submission by a multinational coalition of Jaegers, including Russian, Australian and American versions. Raleigh (Charlie Hunam) and Yancy Becket (Diego Klattenhoff) are brothers who also happen to be super-close and the best in the Jaeger biz: if you don’t suspect a looming tragedy, you’re probably in the wrong multiplex room. Yancy dies, Raleigh vows never to fight again and the world keeps on spinning.

As usually happens in these situations, however, Raleigh ain’t gonna stay retired for long. He gets called back to the majors by his old commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, with the best character name in the movie) and ends up partnered with a complete newbie: Mako (Rinko Kikuchi). Mako is untested but you just know that kid’s got potential. Something’s brewing, however, and the Kaiju seem to be up to something. The old methods might not be good enough now, but never fear: it’s always sunny at the Pac Rim, it turns out, because we have Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) to help. That’s right: good ol’ batshit Charlie shows up as…well, a pretty batshit scientist, to be honest. He ends up “drifting” with a Kaiju brain and gets the inside scoop on their plan: this is wholesale apocalypse, baby! Time to get some advice from Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), suit-up, shit talk the Aussies, admire the Russians’ fashion sense and open a super-sized can of whoop-ass on these bio-luminescent goons. Stacker says it best: “Today, we’re cancelling the apocalypse.”

There’s obviously something inherently silly about any film that features giant monsters and giant robots wrestling: unless the proceedings are being filmed like a dour mumblecore snooze (which would be kinda awesome), you’re still dealing with giant monsters and giant robots wrestling. In and of itself, this isn’t really an issue: as previously mentioned, cinematic history is jam-packed with similar films. The big challenge, then, is to do something inherently different with the subject matter, something to make it stand out from the field of similar fare. On one hand, Pacific Rim was always going to have a leg up on the competition since the film is completely state-of-the art, featuring the finest effects work that money can buy. In that aspect, no prior film of this ilk can even stand next to Pac Rim: the 1954 version of Godzilla may as well have been from 1854. Del Toro has proven, time and again, that he’s particularly adept at shooting this kind of spectacle. He’s always seemed like a fan, first and foremost, and he shoots what similar fans want to see.

On the technical side, Pacific Rim is never short of marvels. The Kaiju are paragons of creature design, nightmarish, bio-luminescent beasts that seem to have been poured straight from H.P. Lovecraft’s fevered skull into our terrified world. They look truly unique, no mean feat in a jaded era where we’ve everything at least twice. As a lifelong horror/sci-fi, I couldn’t get enough of them and was already ready for the next appearance. In particular, a scene where a newborn monster chases Newton is so thrilling, so perfectly staged and executed that it could have been its own self-contained short. The Jaegers are no slouches, either, with the individual machines tailored to the various nations and their designs providing a real sense of heft and reality. Make no mistake about it, however: the entire film belongs to the Kaiju. If all elements of Pacific Rim could be considered del Toro’s children, each one unique and worthy of its own admiration, than the Kaiju are the obvious, over-achieving, doted on favorites…no one else even comes close in Papa’s heart.

This, of course, ends up being a massive problem in the grand scheme of things: Pacific Rim, while being one of the most gorgeous, thrilling action films I’ve seen in some time, also ends up being one of the emptiest. Character development is pretty much non-existent from the get-go. We get so little time with the brothers Becket at the beginning of the film that we just have to take it for granted that they were close, mostly because Raleigh says they were. Nearly everyone else in the film exist as generic types, with particular derision going to the ridiculous father-son Australian Jaeger pilots, Herc (Max Martini) and Chuck Hansen (Rob Kazinsky). Chuck is a ridiculously unlikable character, a sort of spiritual brother to the awful Johnny from Karate Kid: he’s all bluster, bullying, sneering and bad attitude. This really comes to a head in the scene where Herc and Chuck are supposed to share a tender moment: the tone is all over the place and it just comes across as parody. The poor Russians don’t get off much better, mostly reduced to thick “Da”s and outfits that look like they came out of Eddie Izzard’s Mystery Men wardrobe closet. Hunam isn’t terrible as Raleigh but he doesn’t seem to have much personality, which seems strange coming from an actor like Hunam: I don’t think he’s Brando, by any stretch, but the guy definitely seems to have a pulse on Sons of Anarchy…a little more of that fire would have been welcome here.

As can be expected, however, two actors take the football and run it to the next county: Charlie Day and Ron Perlman. I’m an avowed Perlman fanboy who thinks he can’t do anything wrong, is always perfect, yadda yadda yadda but even I have to admit that his performance as Hannibal Chau is something special. Chau is such a complete and total badass, such a funny, vibrant character that I really wish the film was about him fighting Kaiju singlehandedly. Not only does he get the best scenes in the film, he also gets a postscript that manages to one-up the films actual ending. Whether its due to their close working relationship or Perlman’s inherent awesomeness, del Toro always manages to wring great performances from him and Pacific Rim is no different.

Much more surprising, however, was Charlie Day’s turn as Dr. Geiszler. Even though you can see lots of It’s Always Sunny Charlie in the character, Day still manages to make the character his own. At first, I wasn’t ready to buy Day as a scientist any more than I would be to accept Johnny Knoxville as a certified public accountant. He really jumps in fearlessly, however, and makes every single acting choice seem as natural as breathing. Whether he’s doing one of those patented “Charlie freakouts” or bringing some of the quiet storm, Day is always a joy to watch in the film and always seems like he’s having the best day of his life ever. Good for him.

At the end of the day, however, I find myself needing to remind myself of something very important: this is still a film about giant monsters wrestling giant robots. For all of the movie’s subtext about immigration issues (they’re building a wall to keep out the Kaiju, you see, because they’re undesirables), the destructive nature of mankind (Mako’s flashback to the Kaiju attack she survived recalls images of the Hiroshima bombing) and the notion that newer isn’t always better (Raleigh’s Jaeger is analog, making him the perfect hero when a rampaging Kaiju knocks out the electrical grid, disabling the fancier, newer-model Jaegers), the film still comes down to one important element: robots fighting monsters. When the film is amazing, it’s unforgettable (a brief glimpse into the Kaiju’s apocalyptic world is so eye-popping that I hope to hell del Toro gets his At the Mountains of Madness production off the ground) and the whole thing is never less than entertaining. Too often, however, everything gets bogged down in banal dialogue (by the end, I was finishing nearly every line of dialogue, no mean feat on my first viewing of the film) and place-holder dramatics that seem designed merely to get us to the next Kaiju/Jaeger dust-up.

If, however, you are so inclined to watch a mega-budget spectacle about giant robots and giant monsters wrestling, than your first stop needs to be Pacific Rim. This may not be the best action/adventure film ever and certainly is nowhere near del Toro’s best (Hellboy still takes it out with one punch) but I can honestly say that it’s the absolute best film ever made about this particular subject. That is, of course, until del Toro decides to unleash Pacific Rim 2 on the world. As long as there’s plenty of Hannibal and Newton, they’ve already pre-sold at least one ticket.