It’s an image as mythic as it is commercial: a metal giant so immense you have to stretch your brain to take it all in, snorting and stomping and outfitted with ingenious weaponry, and sequestered deep inside — unimaginably tiny amid the clanging machinery — the humans who control it with their minds.
As a metaphor for the state of modern Hollywood filmmaking, that’s hard to beat.
As the springboard for a muscular pop vision, it’s pretty impressive, too. “Pacific Rim” is, hands down, the blockbuster event of the summer — a titanic sci-fi action fantasy that has been invested, against all expectations, with a heart, a brain, and something approximating a soul. Amend that to most expectations, since the news that the prodigiously talented Guillermo del Toro was tackling his most mainstream film to date had fans of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the “Hellboy” series crossing their fingers and holding their breath.
Uncross and exhale, because “Pacific Rim” honors both the requirements of modern mega-cinema — monsters and robots, stalwart heroes, global calamities delivered in crystalline 3-D digital imagery — and such unfashionable verities as well-developed characters you care about and witty, passionate storytelling. The movie wants to be the biggest “Godzilla” movie ever and a rousing tale of human solidarity and a straight-up summer hoot. It achieves all three with uncanny confidence.
The trailers make “Pacific Rim” look dumber than it actually is — a depressingly calculated move on the studio’s part — and the film gets its basic setup out of the way with surprising speed. Gigantic beasties called Kaiju (in a nod to classic Japanese rubber-suit monster movies) have emerged from a time-space portal deep in the Pacific Ocean and are trampling the world’s cities in time-honored fashion. The Earth’s governments respond by banding together and building Jaegers, metallic fighting machines the size of the Statue of Liberty, each controlled by a pair of humans neurally bonded to each other and to their rock-’em-sock-’em host.
So far, so silly, even if del Toro uses digital imaging and 3-D to create a spellbinding visual dystopia. (If you really want to feel puny, see this on an IMAX screen.) The story then jumps ahead seven years to 2020, when the Kaiju are coming in bigger and badder sizes, and humans are retreating behind giant walls that offer little security. The Jaeger project has had its funding cut and is scheduled for termination, even as team leader Pentecost (Idris Elba) scrambles to stay relevant.
Here’s what makes “Pacific Rim” different from your average Michael Bay movie: The character of Pentecost is a richly sympathetic figure — a military man weighed down with secrets and sorrows — and in Elba’s majestic performance he’s actually the film’s secret hero. The nominal hero, Charlie Hunnam as a Jaeger pilot named Raleigh Becket, is graced with unexpected humility; he has seen his brother (Diego Klattenhof) killed by a Kaiju and must find a new copilot with whom to enter the neural “drift” that allows them to control their huge metal sock-puppets.
He finds one in Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi, who hasn’t been seen much in these parts since getting an Oscar nomination for 2006’s “Babel”), a black-clad warrior who appears tremulously fragile until someone put a kendo stick in her hands. Mori’s emotional state is directly related to a childhood encounter with a Kaiju — a terrifying scene that by itself puts this PG-13 film in the no-fly zone for any children under 9 or 10 — and the scene where she quite literally conquers her demons pays off in a roar of audience satisfaction.
The pieces are all there for a smug, insular Hollywood hoedown: The American flyboy, the Asian fighter babe, subsidiary Jaeger teams of arrogant Aussies, dour Russians, nimble Chinese. Yet “Pacific Rim” consistently subverts our assumptions: While Becket and Mori are almost comically hot for each other from the get-go, there’s no time for romance, so mutual respect will have to do. The script, by del Toro and Travis Beacham, keeps ducking down bizarre, delightful alleyways: A pair of research boffins played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman — this movie’s R2-D2 and C-3PO — bicker hilariously over how best to predict the Kaijus’ next moves. Eventually one gets packed off to Hong Kong, where a black market in Kaiju organs is overseen by a preening crime lord played with gusto by the director’s favorite Hellboy, Ron Perlman.
Above all, “Pacific Rim” convinces you of its world, the people in it, and the stakes for which they’re playing. The monstrous battles are ridiculous and thrilling, exactly as big as a kid’s boundless imagination yet fit for our modern fears of apocalypse. Del Toro is the best argument (and maybe the only one) for the fan-boy mentality that has trapped modern Hollywood in an eternal adolescence of comic-book heroes and destructo power fantasies. His influences are varied and inclusive, and here they range from manga to “Blade Runner” to the old-school movie monsters of the film’s dedicatees, Ray Harryhausen and Toho Studios’s Ishiro Honda.
Del Toro’s a geek savant, in other words, and the irrepressible brio of his moviemaking is tempered by an awareness of the darker sides of human nature and the way daydreams can capsize without warning into nightmare. If “Pan’s Labyrinth” proved this director was capable of art, “Pacific Rim” doesn’t have the same ambitions: Its maker just wants to conquer the box office and the zeitgeist on his own terms. That he does so while simultaneously widening the scope of blockbuster moviemaking bodes both well and ill for the future. A lot of people will try to do what Guillermo del Toro does here. Very few will do it as well.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.