The new movie by the visionary fantasist Guillermo del Toro evaporates like seawater before you can finish wiping salt off your 3-D glasses. In CGI scale and body count and decibel peak, Pacific Rim is both epic and indistinct — just this week's enormo-budget summer leviathan, the kind of thing that sends you to Wikipedia three or four times the next morning to verify which face belongs to what actor (besides Idris Elba, whose charisma del Toro unfortunately keeps at room temperature). But its palette and its humanism — the former brilliant, the latter very wobbly — mark the picture as del Toro's. It's beautiful but dumb but beautiful but dumb, over and over until the credits roll and the post-credits Easter-egg gag hatches, and you stand up and leave it for the next audience.
A word now about the pronoun "it." I'm going to lean on that word a lot here because the people issuing the movie under discussion have stated with some insistence that Pacific Rim's title is no longer just those two words but also includes — must include! — the studios' names, minus any possessive apostrophes. A neutral demonstration of this preference, wielded on a familiar title: Paramount Pictures and Albert S. Ruddy The Godfather.
Look, I know the name Pacific Rim is, at best, fatally nondescript or else tantalizingly porny. But guys, did we learn nothing from Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire?
In the time it took to type that short refusal, I've mislaid again all but the premise of del Toro's latest, that premise being a post-millennial riff on the kaiju genre familiar to 1970s latchkey kids as "Godzilla movies after school on Channel 5's creature features." Here that means vagina-dentata-looking sea monsters rising from the depths to destroy humanity, and humanity responding with an armada of Art Deco-referencing iron giants. The vagisaurs and the 25-story mechanical fighters duke it out, one bout at a time. (Muddled in del Toro's mix is a half-effective one-world fantasy centered on that most unifying concept, a shared enemy that happens also to be an Other. There are hints of economic chaos and class warfare; more would have been welcome.)
Among the bipeds, it's all about duos building trust through empathy. Seriously. Each big war machine runs on the shared brainpower of two pilots — usually lunky dudes — mentally linked via computer. They share thoughts, will and memories. Sounds complicated, but think of it as a flashback-generating device with a side of feel-me-brah, and then don't think about it again. We get a couple of people with vengeance in mind, an orphan and a father figure, and a pair of scientists who make The Big Bang Theory seem like Ionesco. There's a nicely subdued romantic inevitability. There is goo. There is Ron Perlman.
And it works. I forget exactly how.
So I've consulted Wikipedia again and ended up staring, again, at Goya's painting "The Colossus," the hypnotic Prado mainstay which various of the usual Internet sectors name as a key inspiration for del Toro's movie (and which may not be Goya's work, but wait, might be after all; that's another wiki hole for another day). Well, duh — the painter is all over del Toro's canon. Pacific Rim isn't as Goya creepy as Pan's Labyrinth or as grounded in wit as the Hellboy movies, but it shares enough DNA with del Toro's previous work to achieve its own identity. And it's not hard to imagine the director — co-writing here with Clash of the Titans vet Travis Beacham, who thought up the story — fixating on the monstrous, acutely tactile "The Colossus." Del Toro and his regular cinematographer, Guillermo Navarro, do vivid, color-rich work that at its best makes IMAX-sized Goyas of Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier's detail-saturated production design.
Not that the look of the thing makes any more sense than the hammer-simple kaiju-versus-mecha plot or the itchy, sub-George Lucas dialogue. At one point, Elba's character — named Stacker Pentecost because fuck you, screenwriting class — has to change clothes. In his quarters, deep inside an offshore-drilling rig retrofitted to launch extradimensional nuclear strikes, he plucks a fresh shirt from a pile of identical garments, each folded razor-sharp. (Somewhere a phone rings and someone answers, "End Times Dry Cleaning, may I help you?")
But that's how this thing gets over. In a movie that's already daring you to reach out and touch its cold ocean and unforgiving metal and otherworldly squish, you even want to feel that shirt. In your better forgettable blockbusters, we're made to remember the lost comforts these cardboard characters are fighting for.