If you're a big city, this has not been a good summer for you: White House Down, World War Z, Man of Steel and This Is the End have all seen major world cities savagely attacked or obliterated. Times are tough, too, in Guillermo del Toro's sci-fi actioner, Pacific Rim, which opens with the Golden Gate Bridge being de-spanned and ends with Hong Kong half flattened.
In between is yet another exorcism of our collective post-9/11 anxieties in which first-world technology battles ginormous dino-lizards, who are surfacing with increasing frequency from a wormhole-ish breach beneath the ocean. These beasts are known as kaiju, and come in numerical ferocity categories like hurricanes; the men who fight them operate giant killing machines known as jaegers, and come in categories such as "has troubled past," "stoic," "Australian asshole," and "first day on the job."
The jaegers, operated remotely by mind-melding pairs of pilots inside the robot's head, get in bone-jarring fist-fights with the kaiju. Some bouts are surprisingly satisfying, such as when one jaeger grabs two handfuls of railcars to box a kaiju's ears. Both creatures are rendered exquisitely via plenty of digital tricks. (If you want to be right in the mix, get the 3-D glasses.)
However, the story and characters are woefully thin, the acting flat, and the outcome predictable. Dialogue is pure comic book: "To fight monsters, we created monsters of our own." Oh, there is a line or two trying to contextualize this boxing match into something meaningful; we get some pissy world leaders and a nod to man's poor stewardship of the planet. (As if floods, fires and super-storms aren't enough — now we're getting giant lizards!)
The film's pleasures are mostly on the surface — enjoying the battles and the visually spectacular, super-sized set pieces. There are affectionate nods to Godzilla, Blade Runner and a subset of Japanese anime, such as Evangelion, that features human-robot mind-melds. Our star pilots — Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) and Rinko Kikuchi — are easy on the eyes. (It's also nice to see a woman warrior, even if she does cry a lot.) And who doesn't enjoy seeing Idris Elba, who plays the boss, pitch that glare at friend and foe alike?
If only del Toro had dropped the tedious subplot involving the odd-couple, hissy-fitting, very unfunny scientists. One is a tattooed braying American (Charlie Day), the other a prissy Brit (Burn Gorman) who may as well have been wearing a monocle. It was as if there were only two scientists left on Earth, and both would rather have been in an Adam Sandler movie.