Money hasn’t changed Guillermo Del Toro, it’s just increased the size of his sandbox. With Pacific Rim, the director of Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy movies has mounted his first bona-fide blockbuster, in which human-controlled robots wage war on an invading army of God-sized monsters. Every penny of the gargantuan budget is right up there onscreen, applied not just to the apocalyptic battles, but also to the little cosmetic details—the digs and the duds—of the film’s near-future world. Yet for all its expensive grandeur, almost too epic even for the vast canvases of IMAX, Pacific Rim is unmistakably a Del Toro creation. Who but this puckish Mexican auteur would think to include a mind-meld between a squirrelly scientist and a removed monster brain, or to cast Ron Perlman as a black-market bone salesman named Hannibal Chau?
In what feels like a corrective to current blockbuster trends, Pacific Rim largely forgoes origin-story wheel spinning, opting instead to cram all the set-up into a speedy opening montage. Proving that exposition goes down much smoother when it features Godzilla-like behemoths, this years-spanning prologue establishes the basics of Del Toro’s premise: When an inter-dimensional, oceanic rift unleashes enormous creatures—dubbed “kaiju,” in reference to the Japanese monster movies that inspired them—Earth’s leaders commission a fleet of giant battle bots to destroy the invaders. That Pacific Rim is set 12 years into the war, after many of the cities have already been leveled, speaks volumes about the director’s sensibilities. Unlike Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, those maestros of grand-scale destruction, Del Toro is more interested in creating new worlds than blowing up old ones. (He could set a whole movie at The Bone Slums, a Hong Kong ghetto built around and within the skeleton of a fallen beast.)
Del Toro’s interests clearly do not lie with Pacific Rim’s narrative, a hodge-podge of clichés about overcoming trauma; he pairs a “has-been” (Charlie Hunnam), still mourning the death of his brother, with a “rookie” (Rinko Kikuchi), consumed with thoughts of revenge. They’re essentially fighter pilots, but with a twist: It takes two minds, linked through a process called drifting, to mentally operate the mighty machines. That’s the film’s most imaginative conceit, a nifty sci-fi metaphor for the emotional fusion that sometimes occurs between soldiers. Not that Del Toro does much with it, or with any single idea. His summer movie is a spare-part contraption, wedging together elements not just from Toho monster movies and giant-robot anime, but also Top Gun, ’90s disaster movies, Starship Troopers, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and Del Toro’s own oeuvre. At one point, the squadron’s stern leader (Idris Elba, commanding in a stock role) delivers a pep talk virtually identical to Bill Pullman’s inspirational speech in Independence Day. Everything about the movie feels a little secondhand.
Yet what Pacific Rim lacks in originality it largely makes up for in boyish enthusiasm—an infectious affection for cocky flyboys, titanic mechanical men, and (especially) the mythically colossal villains. (Charlie Day, as a motor-mouthed egghead fascinated by the kaiju, is essentially Del Toro’s surrogate.) Dyed-in-the-wool Godzilla fans will appreciate the minor-key blare that accompanies the monsters’ rampages, as well as a city-in-ashes flashback that evokes the somber tone of the 1956 original. The big fight scenes are a little hard to follow (especially in 3-D, which only amplifies the murkiness), but they’re playful, with the filmmaker sometimes lingering on a tiny, comical detail, like a flock of blissfully unaware birds. The combatants might be heavy, but this is a refreshingly light spectacle.