It's hidden in plain sight at the tail end of the end credit roll. But if you didn't stay that long, it still wouldn't come as a surprise that Guillermo del Toro dedicates Pacific Rim to the memory of visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen and Godzilla creator Ishiro Honda. In essence, this state-of-the-art visual-effects extravaganza is an old-fashioned double-feature monster movie, part WWII suicide mission war film, part outlandish futuristic serial - turning the Battle of Britain into a last stand of a few brave robot pilots against inter-dimensional alien monsters laying waste to Earth. It's just that it was given a tentpole budget and sprinkled with the deliberately skewed, surrealist sensibility of the Mexican director, as a counterpoint to the very basic storyline of giant mechanical robots battling oversized monsters.

     Mr. Del Toro effectively mashes up the classic concept of the 1950s monster movie as warped mirror of modernity (Godzilla as the obvious model) with the sheer playfulness of a scaled up children's toy (think of a less sophisticated, humanized Transformers), showing all the glee of a ten-year old given free rein with the biggest toy box ever. Therein lies both the film's strength and its weakness. Mr. Del Toro's glee in creating a digital-steampunk universe that is both futuristic and throwback, superbly realised by production designers Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier and lensed by his regular DP Guillermo Navarro, is the pure decision of a director who has never forgotten the fanboy in himself and is very simply doing here the exact type of film he would love to see. What makes Pacific Rim such a singular, strikingly personal blockbuster is the awareness that the film teems with small, surreal details only the Mexican knows how to pull off, from the sly broad humour of the two "mad" scientist researchers (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) to the outlandish conceptions of The Breach, the inter-dimensional portal that connects our universe and the origin world of the Kaiju.

     But that full-on immersion in this 2020 Earth on the brink of apocalypse at the claws of the alien Kaiju monsters comes at the expense of... knowing when to stop. All of this is stifled by the need to fulfill the quota of spectacular monsters-vs.-robots battles, staged in virtuoso manner but drowned out by Ramin Djawadi's pompous, overbearing score, all the while extending the film beyond its "natural" length into a bloated, two-hour-plus attempt at a tentpole Summer franchise that may be too fanboyish in its set of references to hit a nerve with a general audience. More isn't necessarily better, and there's always a sense that Pacific Rim is consistently teetering on the brink of derivative irrelevance, with a stylish or humorous pirouette saving it in extremis.

     There is, however, no denying the impressive conception of the project, and Mr. Del Toro's insistence in casting character actors for what is essentially an ensemble piece is another proof that the Mexican helmer isn't working on the same wavelength of hacks for hire. Pacific Rim never takes itself seriously enough to become ponderous, and never forgets that it is essentially a disposable Summer diversion, an oversized genre film.

Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Travis Beacham, Mr. Del Toro, from a story by Mr. Beacham
Cinematography: Guillermo Navarro
Music: Ramin Djawadi
Designers: Andrew Neskoromny, Carol Spier
Costumes: Kate Hawley
Editors: John Gilroy, Peter Amundson
Visual effects: John Knoll, James E. Price, Hal Hickel
Producers: Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mr. Del Toro, Mary Parent (Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures, DDY)
USA, 2013, 130 minutes

Screened: AMC Metreon 11, San Francisco, July 12th 2013


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