“Pacific Rim” is a big, lumbering, rock ’em, sock ’em mash-up of metallic heft and hyperbole, a noisy, overproduced disaster flick that sucks its characters and the audience down a vortex of garish visual effects and risibly cartoonish action.
And you know what? It’s not bad!
Leave it to Guillermo del Toro — that overgrown fanboy with a heart of gold and a mind of impressive philosophical complexity — to bring some sense and sensibility to this summer’s crop of dumb spectacles. “Pacific Rim” will never qualify as part of the director’s high-end oeuvre — “Pan’s Labyrinth,” it most decidedly ain’t. But as an example of del Toro’s abiding love for comic books, pop culture and movie genre excess, it ranks with his less intellectual but equally imaginative efforts, maybe somewhere between “Blade II” and the gloriously bodacious “Hellboy.”
In fact, “Hellboy’s” mordant star, Ron Perlman, shows up for a cameo in “Pacific Rim,” not sheathed in red leathery skin but his own, as a black marketeer working Hong Kong’s neon-noir byways. It’s in that port city, sometime in the future, that an apocalyptic invasion of sea creatures called Kaiju will or won’t be repelled by a ragtag army of Jaegers, 25-story robots that look like super-size versions of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, right down to the whirring mechanical hearts that glow in their tungsten-clad chests.
“Iron Man” isn’t the only movie “Pacific Rim” conjures in the course of its overlong running time. The central standoff between fantastical creatures bears echoes of “Mothra vs. Godzilla,” as well as the anime classics that del Toro has cited as inspirations. The visual design recalls “TRON,” some plot elements recall “Inception,” the crunching action recalls “Transformers” and the relationships recall “Top Gun,” wherein a group of cocky flyboys try to one-up each other in the name of saving the world.
At least that’s the initial vibe of “Pacific Rim,” which begins as brothers Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) and Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) suit up to inhabit their Jaeger, which is powered by two people who meld minds in order to create a unified consciousness, the better to smoothly manipulate their giant armored sheath and dispatch the voracious Kaiju.
But what begins as just another boys-and-their-toys smash-and-gab turns into something more, as del Toro expands the Jaeger universe into something far more balanced, even nuanced. The fantastic English actor Idris Elba gives “Pacific Rim” sex appeal and gravitas as the Jaegers’ commander, Stacker Pentecost, a titanic force and physical specimen himself. When Raleigh meets an ambitious, beautiful Jaeger pilot trainee named Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), “Pacific Rim” promises to introduce some welcome gender balance to the world of end-of-the-world heroics.
And del Toro, ever mindful of the exigencies of the genre, never succumbs to the humorlessness and over-plotting that has dragged down so many of his contemporaries this season: He keeps “Pacific Rim” firmly focused on its utterly absurd raison d’etre (Kill those Kaiju once and for all! You’re welcome, Hong Kong!). But he makes sure to leaven that mission with moments of humor, most often at the hands of two goofy Jaeger research scientists, played by the charmingly hapless Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, who proves the rare performer capable of channeling Jerry Lewis and Roddy McDowall simultaneously.
“Pacific Rim” isn’t nearly as visually rich as del Toro’s finest efforts: The ultimate showdown between the opposing behemoth forces is a murky soup of pulsating blue lights and writhing steel (as always, 3-D adds nothing to this enterprise), punctuated by dialogue clearly written in the belief that shouting something loudly enough makes it less ridiculous.
But “Pacific Rim” earns points for some terrific performances (Elba’s chief among them), maintaining consistently engaging momentum and for making the radical — if subtle — suggestion that empathy can be a bona fide superpower. That humanistic touch is pure del Toro, and it makes all the difference in “Pacific Rim,” whose own whirring, glowing heart doesn’t belong to any machine but to the director himself.
PG-13. At area theaters. Contains sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and for some profanity. 131 minutes.