Sometimes the oddest combinations offer the most pleasant surprises. In "Pacific Rim," director Guillermo Del Toro ("Pan's Labyrinth") joins modern technology with inspiration from Japanese Anime and monster movies of the 1950s to create a stunning visual experience. Or to put it more simply, he makes giant monsters fighting robots look really, really cool.
In the near future, from the depths of the Pacific Ocean, monsters called "Kaiju" (the Japanese word for "strange beasts") have destroyed most of civilization as we know it, prompting mankind to pool its resources in one last desperate hope for survival. The results of human efforts are large robotic Jaegers (the German word for "hunter") piloted by two people stationed in their heads, and at first the Jaegers have a good amount of success against the Kaiju.
But then the Kaiju adapt, leaving humans with limited time and one last shot at defeating the monsters. Leading the way are Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), a pilot with a rough past, Jaeger commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) and his ward (Rinko Kikuchi), and two comic-relief scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), each of whom has crackpot theories about how to defeat the beasts. Their scenes aren't as funny as they're intended to be, but they don't hurt the story, either.
If you're thinking there's only so much Del Toro can do with CGI fight scenes between Jaegers and Kaiju, know that there's always a surprise up his sleeve that keeps things exciting. What's more, each action scene offers fresh fighting moves and never feels like a one-note repeat of what's come before. This is key, because it keeps the movie active and engaging rather than redundant.
As a bonus, the visual effects and 3D are top-notch. The picture is always crisp and clear, but never looks cartoonish or fake, which is notable when just about every shot has some sort of visual effect (even cityscape backgrounds need to be believable). The 3D adds welcome depth to the large-scale canvas on which Del Toro paints, and the action is never so fast that we can't tell what's going on. At a time when far too many action scenes are rendered an indiscernible blur ("Man of Steel"), Del Toro should be lauded for this visual clarity.
And now to give credit to people you've never heard of and wouldn't otherwise think about: supervising sound editor Scott Martin Gershin and his team. The sound of each step the robots take, each growl of the monsters, clash of metal and tumbling building needs to be created, mixed together with the musical score and dialog and exactly edited to match the movements on screen. Why do you care? Because if any of these elements are even slightly off or not believable, the whole movie could fall apart. You may not realize it, but sound design is essential to your overall enjoyment of a film of this scale.
"Pacific Rim" is a big, loud summer popcorn-muncher that's satisfyingly entertaining in a relentlessly over-the-top sort of way. It's not smart or complex, but it is darn impressive.