Plenty of directors have made movies better than "Pacific Rim," the giant-robots-vs.-giant-monsters kaboomapalooza from Guillermo del Toro. Someone may have, at some point, made a more visually impressive film — but now we're getting into murkier guesswork. What "Pacific Rim" does as well as pretty much any movie ever is to deliver on all its promises. If what you want is to watch skyscraper-sized robots tangle with humongous evil space dinosaurs, this may as well be your "Citizen Kane."
Without any household name among the cast (the closest may be star Idris Elba, who was Stringer Bell in "The Wire"), "Pacific Rim" plays to its inspiration, Japanese "mecha" anime. Fans of the genre will recognize the tropes that launched a gazillion Voltron and Ultraman toys. Humanity's under threat from monsters, called kaiju, so big and ornery that it takes several days to fell them with jets and tanks. They slurk up from the bottom of the ocean through some kind of glowing portal to — "another dimension," I believe is how it's explained, sure, fine. The people of Earth respond by building and piloting massive fighting robots, called jagers (pronounced like the -meister). Those robots fight the monsters, often hip-deep in ocean water, usually near a city, for maximum carnage; Hong Kong, Sydney and San Francisco, among other expendable hamlets, all catch the brunt of "Pacific Rim" brawls.
High-quality carnage results. The music and sound effects and lighting effects and robot effects and monster effects all are top-flight, befitting the director of "Pan's Labyrinth." The fighting scenes echo the earliest Godzilla movies — buildings getting mashed, crowds fleeing in horror — but are rendered so seductively you forget you're watching, in essence, a couple of drawings locked in combat. Digital effects still can't hurdle the uncanny valley of human features (our brains are just too keen to fool when it comes to what a person looks like). In the more abstract realm of robots and monsters, though, we've arrived at graphics so convincing that they suspend disbelief for you.
Beyond mere razzle-dazzle, "Pacific Rim" makes two stylistic choices that feed it an actual plot. The first is to stick two pilots in each jager (to share the "neural load" of mind-melding with the machine). Those people fuse via a science-inspired process called the drift that allows them to act in unison. Thus, when hotshot pilot Charlie Hunnam's brother is killed during their connection, he's haunted by the shared sensation. When he's called to fight again, he has to find a compatible co-pilot, leading him to a "Top Gun"-style bromance with Rinko Kikuchi, except maybe it goes deeper than Maverick and Goose because she's a lady and all but we'll never really know because "Pacific Rim" is PG and the world needs saving (in Strangelovian fashion, it turns out).
The other savvy twist is to set the movie in the mature middle distance of this alien war. As stronger beasts have catapulted out of the ocean, the jagers started losing. Governments cut jager funding and opt instead to build the biggest boondoggle in the history of bad ideas: a border wall around the entire Pacific. It's a laughably ineffective measure that gives the aging jager program the pluck of an underdog (and adds a wry touch in a film written and directed by a Mexican national). As the corpses of kaiju have accumulated over the years, cults have sprung up around them, black markets have emerged for their various parts (bone powder, we're told by trafficker Ron Perlman, is worth $500 a pound), and enough people have made them an object of pop-culture worship (as with full-sleeve tattoos) that the phrase "kaiju groupie" has become a pejorative. It's a gentle jab, of course — shamelessly served up, like nearly everything else in the film, for fans on both sides of the Pacific.
I liked it a lot. People in the theater were laughing out loud.