No one can question Guillermo del Toro's passion for Japanese monster movies. The fanboy-friendly director, who earned his Comic-Con bona fides by crafting oddball fantasias including Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy films, has spoken at length about being weaned on creature double features as a kid in Mexico. And it wasn't just the granddaddy of all man-in-a-rubber-suit behemoths, Godzilla, who cracked open his mind. He also swooned over the more esoteric beasties in Toho Studios' kaiju (i.e., giant monster) stable titanic brutes like Mothra, Megalon, and Mechagodzilla. It goes without saying that the man's geek credentials run deep.
Now, with his latest film, the gargantuan monsters-vs.-mammoth-robots smackdown Pacific Rim, del Toro has somehow persuaded Hollywood to bankroll his tribute to the giddy junk food he grew up on. And that's exactly what the film feels like: a 48-year-old kid playing with gigantic action figures in the world's most expensive sandbox. Unfortunately, his deep-rooted passion never quite makes the leap from his imagination to the screen.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Pacific Rim picks up after a string of apocalyptic sea-monster attacks have reduced San Francisco, Manila, and Cabo San Lucas to dust. It turns out that a breach in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean has ripped open and loosed an armada of kaiju. Humanity is defenseless against their massive, razor-toothed maws and battering-ram limbs at least until the military's high-tech Jaeger program is conceived. The Jaegers (German for ''hunters'') are 25-story robots operated by two human pilots whose minds are neurally linked in a process called ''the drift.'' The Jaegers are only as good as their operators, who must be able to read each other's thoughts and intuit each other's next moves. Go-it-alone rebels need not apply. But of course one does: Raleigh Becket (Sons of Anarchy's Charlie Hunnam), a hotshot pilot whose brother was killed in a kaiju rampage and who's so wild and unpredictable he might as well have the name ''Maverick'' stenciled on his helmet. It doesn't help matters that Hunnam has to bark goofy lines like ''Stay in the drift, the drift is silence!''
Silly dialogue is not the most serious problem with del Toro's rock-'em-sock-'em monster mash. We've come to expect a few groaners from our action spectaculars. But do the clichés need to be piled quite so high? Raleigh is a loner who must learn to trust his new partner (Babel's Rinko Kikuchi) and heed the lessons of his stern commander (Idris Elba). Few of the actors leave much of an impression. And the ones who do (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as a shrill pair of wacky scientists) are grating.
Let's be clear, though: The main reason anyone wants to see a movie like Pacific Rim is to watch robots smack the snot out of monsters and vice versa. And that's where del Toro hits the biggest snag. The problem is a matter of scale. Pan's Labyrinth cast such a spell partly due to the freaky details of a character like the Pale Man. The giant eye in the palm of his hand was designed with such jeweler's precision that it was seared into your dreams (and nightmares) after you walked out of the theater. Here, del Toro's monsters are so big, and shot in such unrelenting rainy darkness, that the audience never gets a chance to dissect and fetishize their monstrous anatomies and be swept away by their weirdness. And if you can't be transported by a humongous calamari leviathan with suction-cup limbs projectile-vomiting bioluminescent goo, that's an issue.
I don't know if del Toro felt overwhelmed by the pressure of making a megabudget 3-D tentpole for the first time, but there isn't enough of his bewitching poetic touch in the film. In a sense, Pacific Rim winds up being not enough of a Guillermo del Toro movie. It's more like a mash-up of Real Steel and the Transformers pictures. Which is a shame, because the idea is undeniably cool. But I'd be surprised if a kid in Mexico or anywhere else walked out of Pacific Rim with a burning desire to direct a tribute to it when he or she grows up. B-