Pacific Rim, the latest jaw-dropper from director Guillermo del Toro ( Pan’s Labyrinth, The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy), contains some of the wildest, giddiest sights of any movie this summer — building-sized robots fighting enormous creatures from beneath the sea to the death, their brawls sometimes demolishing entire cities. This combination of Godzilla-style kaiju (giant monster movies) and mecha animes (cartoons that feature piloted robots) is unlike any you’ve seen before. It is a kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy for anyone who shares del Toro’s love of genre and fantasy and make-believe. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a kid playing with his toys and smashing action figures together, except del Toro does it with more grace and imagination than most. There are long sequences in this movie that merit that most overused of terms, “awesome.”
The film fares less well when it’s focusing on plain old human beings. Del Toro, who co-wrote the script with Travis Beacham, relies on hokey cliches to define his characters, all by a single trait. Set seven years into our war against the kaijus, the film focuses on Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) a retired pilot who quit after seeing his brother die but is now reluctantly pulled back into duty. Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) is his co-pilot (each robot requires two people to operate), still traumatized by an encounter with the monsters when she was a little girl. Idris Elba is their commanding officer, a no-nonsense marshal who refuses to give up on what increasingly looks like a losing battle. Charlie Day plays a neurotic, bumbling scientist. And so on.
Archetypes can sometimes work well in the context of a giant movie that has so much ground to cover, you don’t have time to notice how two-dimensional the characters are. But that’s not the case with Pacific Rim, whose central premise demands that we are emotionally invested in the people inside those iron warriors. Del Toro usually excels at this (he even managed to make you care about the parade of oddball creatures in the Hellboy pictures), and he tries to emphasize the human element in this enormous fantasy by requiring each team of pilots to mind-meld before operating the robots, so they understand each other’s emotions and pain.
For all his efforts, though, the characters remain uninteresting stock types — the daredevil hero, his jealous rival, the stoic captain, the vulnerable heroine. Fortunately, Pacific Rim spends more time with its eye-popping battle scenes than it does with people standing around talking. Each new monster looks different and is bigger than the last, and del Toro holds on his incredible creations in long shots that allow you to take in the action clearly, instead of the incomprehensible whirl and noise of the Transformers movies. As mankind’s robot army dwindles and the stakes are raised, del Toro makes you wonder how, exactly, the good guys will win the day. Pacific Rim is by turns goofy and thrilling and dumb, and it’s probably a half-hour too long (after a while, the battles become exhausting). But every time you’re about to check out of the movie, something cool happens that pulls you back in, like a robot plucking a freight ship from the ocean and using it like a crowbar to bash his gnarly enemy in the face. As summer popcorn entertainment goes, you could do a lot worse.