Anyone who's seen the previews for "Pacific Rim" knows the main reason 10-year-olds and adults (who still act like one) will be lining up at movie theatres this weekend: they want to watch giant robots fighting giant monsters, preferably on a giant screen.
Set in the near future, skyscraper-sized alien creatures dubbed "kaiju" have begun traveling through an inter-dimensional portal located in a crack in the Pacific Ocean floor. So, to prevent them from playing Godzilla in major urban centres, mankind drops teams of fighter pilots into similarly sized robots called "jaegers" to go toe-to-toe with the beasts from beyond. With the jaegers winning battles but losing the war, General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) recruits a former pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) to help make humanity's last stand.
But there's more to Guillermo Del Toro's super-sized summer blockbuster than just its kaiju-on-jaeger action (there's also a lot of Idris Elba shouting). Here's a breakdown of the movie's key matchups.
Jaegers vs. Kaiju:
To be fair, watching jaegers duke it out with kaiju isn't just the main event in "Pacific Rim," it's the movie's raison d'etre. Considering Del Toro's calling card as a filmmaker has always been inventive creature design, it's no surprise then that the kaiju are as varied as the monsters mankind built to fight them. Both are broken down into various classes and categories, according to size: some of the kaiju can fly, others spit acid. Meanwhile, in addition to their government-issued, anime-inspired weaponry, the jaegers gain a competitive edge by using fistfuls of shipping containers like brass knuckles and a cargo ship as a baseball bat.
Verdict: For the most part, the kaiju and jaegers are pretty evenly matched, or at least put up more of a fair fight than the undercard bout of a kaiju versus a giant brick wall.
Raleigh vs. Chuck:
Each jaeger is piloted by a crew of two -- or in one case, three -- merging minds with each other and the machine through a process called "drifting." (Note: it's not as dumb as it sounds.) They're essentially fighter pilots in bigger, badder machines, with egos to match, which helps explain the Maverick and Iceman vibe given off by dueling jaeger pilots Raleigh and Robert Kazinsky's Chuck, who's reluctant to let Raleigh be his wingman after an early-movie tragedy. Sound familiar? Of course, Raleigh's the lead, which gives him a clear edge for audience sympathy. And just in case it doesn't, all those gratuitous shirtless shots are meant to seal the deal.
Verdict: Raleigh and Chuck trade punches and hard stares, but it's Rinko Kikuchi's Mako who makes for the most compelling top gun.
Charlie Day vs. Ron Perlman:
Every summer blockbuster needs comic relief, which means Day and Perlman jockey for the movie's laughs. As a kaiju biologist/groupie, Day's his usual manic self, only significantly smarter (you can tell because he's wearing glasses). Perlman has a much smaller role as a major player on the black market for kaiju organs, but makes his usual big impression. He also has the advantage of familiarity with Del Toro, but Day gets significantly more screen time, driving the movie's main subplot.
Verdict: Perlman steals a few scenes, but in the end, it's a numbers game, and Day lands the most one-liners.
Idris Elba vs. Indoor Voices:
Elba brings his usual intensity to General Stacker Pentecost, a former jaeger-pilot-turned-commanding-officer who apparently hates talking at a normal volume almost as much as the kaiju. At one point, after a sustained minute or so of regular conversation doesn't sufficiently get his point across, Elba ratchets his voice up to 11 in 30 seconds flat, then stays there for the rest of the movie. And his rousing "Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse!" shout is the odds-on favourite to be this summer's "Release the Kraken!"
Verdict: A decisive victory for Elba.
Story vs. Spectacle:
Since anyone who's seen a summer blockbuster before already knows who's going to win in a no-holds-barred jaeger/kaiju fight, this one's the real title card event. And it's a surprisingly fair fight, especially considering this is a movie about, well, giant robots fighting even gianter monsters, rinse and repeat. Most of the world-building is set up via opening narration, allowing "Pacific Rim" to get right down to what you came for: the sensory overload. But despite delivering all the fireworks audiences expect out of a massive summer action movie, Del Toro never short-changes the story for the sake of CGI-driven spectacle.
And while the plot's a relatively simple one, it works because Del Toro takes pains to make sure we actually care about the characters and their various traumas, and that the stakes for each battle royale get increasingly higher. It helps that the mind-meld concept allows Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham to trim much of the genre's usual cheesy speechifying; these characters already know what the other's going to say (and so does the audience, for that matter).
Verdict: As the rare summer blockbuster based off an original idea instead of a line of toys or pre-existing franchise, "Pacific Rim" finds the perfect balance between story and spectacle.
"Pacific Rim" opens in theatres on July 12.