Do I wish that this tale of giant monsters and robots pushed a little deeper? Yes. But director Guillermo del Toro, who is also credited with revising the original script by Travis Beacham, is too talented a filmmaker not to have directed a film since 2008’s Hellboy II. Since he couldn’t get the studios to back his dream project, the Lovecraftian At the Mountains of Madness, at least he has gotten a chance to apply his considerable creature-design skills to a fun, popcorn bonanza.
The cast is full of less-familiar faces and dodgy accents. We have Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam, British, pretending to be American), a jaeger (giant robot) pilot with a haunted past, recruited by his old captain, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, also British, also pretending less successfully than his Stringer Bell character, to be American). Since the jaegers require two pilots, Raleigh’s best hope is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Stacker’s disciple.
The movie starts with some rushed exposition, setting up with voiceover the premise of the film and the backstory of the fight against the monsters, or kaiju. The bulk of the movie is about humanity’s last stand. As the kaiju grow ever bigger, the jaeger program comes down to just four teams. One of the teams, a father-son affair played by Max Mantini (American, pretending to be Australian) and Robert Kazinsky (British, pretending to be Australian), has some friction with Raleigh and Mori. Because it’s not enough to have robots and monsters fight, there must also be human fights.
There is also a comical duo of scientists, played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman (American, playing British), hamming it up, providing some welcome if uninspired humor. Their subplot also allows del Toro to bring in his Hellboy friend, Ron Perlman (French, playing ????). Somehow they know the monsters are being sent by an alien race through a portal in the Pacific ocean to another world. Somehow they know the exact periodicity of the attacks. Like many things in the movie (mind-melding with a kaiju hive brain?), it is best not to question.
The plot is that blockbuster goldilocks of predictable/new-enough, but where the film really shines is in the designs. The kaiju are awesome. The jaegers are awesome. The buildings that house the jaegers are awesome. I know that all the jaegers and kaijo are given fun names because that makes them more ‘toyetic’ — readily sold as toys. I don’t care. I want them all.
The effects in this film, credited to at least ten different houses by my count, are superb. There are even fun touches — a seagull, unphased by the battle above; a set of Newton balls on a desk set in motion — that bring a sense of cartoon fun to the story without making it winky. Aside from some water effects that looked particularly digital and one bad 3D matte, I could see no flaws, and much to love. This is seemingly the ten-millionth film to unleash massive destruction on major cities, but at least there is some concern shown for the citizenry.
The movie is dedicated to the stop-motion monster movie animator Ray Harryhausen, and the animators on the film do his legacy proud. These fights are… awesome. Both the jaegers and the kaiju have a great sense of weight and scale and move in a believable way.
The score, by Ramin Djawadi, is full of heavy, almost heavy-metal, propulsion. It didn’t really jump out at me much, except with the opening theme and in one of the fights.
Because the kaiju are related to weather conditions, and because Raleigh speaks, in the opening voiceover, of being strong enough in a jaeger to fight a hurricane, I kept waiting for the film to present itself as a parable about global-warming-induced extreme weather. But I don’t think it is. Nor is it about the futility of a war on terror. (Unless you believe the solution is to nuke the Middle East.) As Freud might say, sometimes a movie about giant machines battling giant monsters is just a movie about giant machines battling giant monsters.