I have a friend who’s a bit of an expert on Japanese kaiju movies and anime. Seriously, I’ve seen his DVD shelf–it’s made up of Godzilla films, assorted anime and a whole lot of Jackie Chan movies. It’s the sort of stuff I’ve always wanted to get into but have had, unfortunately, little experience thus far.
I have seen two Godzilla movies–1962’s Godzilla vs. King Kong and 1971’s Godzilla vs. Hedorah. The former is a delightful blast of cheesy awesomeness while the latter is…well “of its time” would be putting it loosely; there’s a lot of psychedelic weirdness and heavy-handed environmentalism that could ONLY come from this particular moment in culture (if you want to know more, check out James Rolfe’s excellent series of videos about the Godzilla franchise). Anyway, I betcha a whole lot of people will be interested in Godzilla movies and similar other kaiju or “giant monster” movies now because that word is used exclusively to describe the pictures of the current nerd-friendly blockbuster, Pacific Rim. It’s not only a terrific love letter to those sorts of movies, it’s also a fantastic film in its own right and easily this year’s answer to The Avengers, proving once again that a big summer movie can be fun and easy on the eyes rather than grim and hard to follow.
So all those things I mentioned my friend was an expert in? That pretty much informs this movie: it’s basically a giant robot anime combined with a giant monster movie, mashed up in director and co-writer Guillermo Del Toro’s unique worldview and stylistic sensibilities.
So what’s the story? Well, in the near future, an inter-dimensional rift dubbed “the Breach” has opened up in the Pacific Ocean between two tectonic plates, which allows giant monsters called “kaiju” to come through and attack every coastal city worldwide. In the wake of the mass destruction, humanity bands together to create massive, humanoid fighting robots called Jaegers (after the German for hunter) to combat the monsters.
Because the mental strain caused by piloting the Jaeger is too much for one pilot, two pilots operate the machines while neurally linked together–a “neural handshake,” as the movie calls it–sharing all of each other’s memories and feelings in order to balance the load of piloting such an enormous machine. The film opens at the height of humanity’s success against the kaiju, with Jaeger pilots having ascended to rockstar status. In Anchorage, Alaska, brothers Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy Beckett (Diego Klattenhoff) pit their Jaegar, codenamed “Gipsy Danger”, against a kaiju that they seem to defeat relatively easy but it survives and destroys Gipsy Danger and eats Yancy alive while he’s still connected to Raleigh–meaning Raleigh feels all the agony his brother feels in his last moments. The experience, combined with the exhaustive effort of defeating the monster and getting to shore under his own willpower, traumatizes Raleigh and he quits the Jaeger program.
Several years later, the kaiju have gained the upper hand and humanity is on its last leg. The world’s governments have opted to defund the Jaeger program and focus on building gigantic walls to defend themselves; never mind that the monsters can break through the wall in less than an hour. In response, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the head of the Jaeger program, decides to rally the remaining Jaegers together in Hong Kong to plan an all-out assault on the Breach itself. He goes to recruit Raleigh from Alaska, where he’s working on one of the walls; although Raleigh doesn’t want to bond with someone that close again, he agrees and winds up paired with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a young woman with savant-like piloting abilities who has a connection to Pentecost. Combined with the other pilots from around the world–okay, just Russia, Australia and China–they prepare to mount an all-out assault while scientists Newton (Charlie Day) and Hermann (Burn Gorman) try and unlock the mysteries of the kaiju themselves.
That may all sound complicated and worthy of a ton of exposition–indeed, I can think of several other directors who would take that path–but that’s not what happens here. Del Toro and his co-writer, Travis Beacham (who also wrote the story), keep things remarkably lean and focused; we get all we need to know about anything through an image or some quick dialogue, nothing more. It’s a tactic that works remarkably well and reminds one of the original Star Wars trilogy. Combine that with some truly fantastic and visionary visual effects work, photography and set design and you have a movie that made me go “WOW” about every ten minutes.
The cast also helps keep this movie grounded by being totally committed. No tongues in cheeks here. Hunnam gives Raleigh the stoicism and solidarity one expects from your typical action lead, but he has some strong emotional moments too. Kikuchi, most famous in America for her role in Babel, has some terrific heavy lifting here that goes beyond your typical shy, blue-haired anime love interest and she plays it like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Elba–who is, in all honesty, one of my favorite actors–is terrific as Pentecost, taking the typical tough-guy commander role and really making him feel like a true leader, with all that that implies. Day and Gorman are a terrific comedy pair, with Day’s sheer mania and energy bouncing off of Gorman’s deadpan nerdiness. Del Toro regular Ron Perlman has a part here, although he’s so great that I’m gonna let you find out who he is for yourselves.
In addition to being a terrific movie, this film also highlights the creativity and importance of new ideas in the Hollywood landscape. If you see only one blockbuster this summer, make it this one. Recommended.