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Compared to the other summer blockbusters, Pacific Rim is a rarity because it’s not a sequel, prequel, or franchise reboot. Director Guillermo del Toro and his co-screenwriter Travis Beacham may not base their science fiction epic on anything specific, it nonetheless draws inspiration from decades of science fiction and pop culture. With Godzilla and its offshoots as his heaviest influence, del Toro internalizes the inherent silliness of his larger-than-life presence, and adds some gravity with a clever mind-melding conceit. There are character moments alongside the destruction, so there is even a little intimacy as the robots and monsters destroy major cities.

The script wastes no time in establishing its alternate history. Giant monsters, nicknamed “Kaiju,” use an inter-dimensional portal in the ocean to travel to Earth and wreak havoc on human life. World leaders decide to decide to build giant humanoid robots (“Jaegars”) that are controlled by two operators. Why two operators? One person does not have the neural capacity to handle the operation of such a big machine, so the two minds form a link and act as one. This sharing of consciousness is fundamental to Pacific Rim’s emotional core: when a Kaiju kills his brother, Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is linked to him so he literally experiences his death.

Becket walks away from his Jaegar after that, but Kaiju attacks have only gotten worse. The leaders want to scrap the giant robots and focus on a giant wall, Game of Thrones style, but Becket’s boss Pentecost (Idris Elba) knows his men are mankind’s best shot. He convinces Becket to come back from retirement, and explains his final plan: he’s going to send all his Jaegars into the Pacific Ocean and nuke the portal shut. Pentecost’s Kaiju expert (Charlie Day) thinks Pentecost needs to study the monsters before the attack, and there’s still the matter of Becket’s partner. He eventually settles on Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), an inexperienced operator with a dark past who nonetheless possesses the right raw talent. It looks the plan will work, at least until the Kaiju start entering our world by more than one at a time.

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Pacific Rim works as science fiction spectacle because del Toro and his technical team approach the action scenes practically. They thought about how monsters and robots would move, and how a falling one would actually cascade through the cityscape. There’s some unlikely logic during the fight scenes: from moment to moment, it is easy for the viewer to understand what’s happening even if the scale is so improbable. Also, the screenplay leaves enough surprises so that each new tussle has some badass high teach detail (e.g. one Jaegar’s arms transform into deadly fast-moving saws). All this gargantuan combat would be exhausting without a break, so del Toro mercilessly cuts away to a subplot where the Kaiju expert races through Hong Kong to find an intact alien brain (and it’s Charlie Day we’re talking about here, so of course it’s hilarious). del Toro is riffing on his earlier work with this story, and it’s filled with queasy moments that are meant to delight him and not necessarily his audience.

Surprisingly, the best scenes in Pacific Rim are relatively intimate, without the Kaiju showing off their horrific jaws. When Becket conducts auditions for his partner with standard martial arts sparring, the low-stakes fights are more fluid and kinetic than their giant counterpart. This is also where Becket develops his paternal kinship for Mako. This is the shrewdest choice made by del Toro and Beacham: Mako is a vulnerable character, and we care for her the most even when the stakes are at their highest. Whenever they’re in a Jaegar, Becket guides Mako through the fight process, and it’s a testament to Hunnam’s understated acting that we understand the depth the of his non-romantic feelings for her. There is also an emotional component between Mako and Pentecost, one that’s rewarding in a different way since Elba slowly reveals what his character is thinking. The stoic, confident leader is an important character in every movie like this, and the same actor who played Stringer Bell brings slow-burn ferocity to the role. His big line, which everyone has already heard in the ads, rings truer on a giant screen.

Pacific Rim is great fun, filled with clever asides and icky horror sequences, but its bombastic approach is also a source of weakness. I saw the movie on an IMAX screen, and during the climax the audio assault reached a point where I could not make out stretches of seemingly important dialogue. It may not matter, anyway: compared to the centerpiece fight scene on the streets of Hong Kong, the deep sea climax (or what I could make out from it) has less coherence or creativity. Similarities between it and the final scenes of Independence Day are so on-the-nose that they’re unintentionally funny. At his heart, del Toro is an endlessly creative director, and some familiarity is necessary when he’s dealing with a movie of this scale/budget. Pacific Rim is what happens when Hollywood gives the keys to cinema’s most playful madman.

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