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The first movie I remember that truly made me marvel at the magic of cinema was Jurassic Park, with its magnificent computer-generated dinosaurs that looked as real as the actors and felt more terrifying than any made-up monster. Every so often, a film will take a giant leap forward in its visual achievements and remind us why we pay to sit in the dark for two hours and stare at a flat screen: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Toy Story, Avatar. To this list we should now add director Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a movie that reinvigorates the movie going experience with its rich visuals and superb sense of spectacle.

Though the film should be praised by both audiences and critics, del Toro made this movie for himself. Watching Pacific Rim you get the sense that del Toro would be fine if he was the only person who ever got to watch the finished product, like a five-year-old who puts on an elaborate show in his room with only his toys and stuffed animals to serve as the audience. Why? Because it’s fun! Quentin Tarantino is the only other filmmaker whose sheer enjoyment of making a movie comes across so clearly.

Pacific Rim is a monster movie, or, more specifically, a movie whose villains are kaiju (meaning “giant monster”), a Japanese word co-opted for the genre defined by Godzilla and his ilk in the mid-20th century. In Rim, gigantic creatures from another world begin invading our planet through an inter-dimensional breach deep in the Pacific Ocean. As the creatures, soon referred to as Kaiju, begin attacking more and more frequently, the nations of Earth come together to fight back. Their solution is to build 200-foot tall robots, called Jaegers, which match the Kaiju’s size and strength.

For 20 or so years, the plan worked. The Jaegers are able to kill the Kaiju that continually cross through the breach and the military forces become very efficient at detecting disturbances and dispatching fighters. Eventually, though, the Kaiju seem to be coming more frequently and fight more aggressively. One of the remaining military strategists, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), realizes they need to make a final stand against the Kaiju. He enlists a former pilot named Raleigh Becket (Charles Hunnam) to help him despite Raleigh’s traumatic past fighting Kaiju. Pentecost understands that, unless the Kaiju are stopped for good, the people of Earth will not survive much longer.

Pacific Rim is a spectacular theatrical experience. Instead of regurgitating just another formulaic Hollywood orgy of CGI, del Toro chooses to take the framework of a blockbuster and unleash his creative team’s talents. The film’s look is absolutely beautiful with a subtle color palette one would never expect to see in a film like this. The design of the Jaegers and Kaiju is unlike anything you’ve seen before, with details so specific that it would be easy to believe they were based on actual creatures. (This is what Transformers should have looked like, had it been handled by someone more competent and passionate.) There were moments when I was distracted from the action because I just wanted to stare at the Kaiju’s limbs or massive jaws. As far as visual effects, nothing has looked this good in years.

Since the resurgence of the use of 3D in movie, there have been very few live action films to properly employ the technology. Unsurprisingly, del Toro grasps both the technology’s strengths and limitations and weaves it seamlessly into the action. When Jaegers are fighting Kaiju, the camera swoops around the action (eschewing obnoxious quick edits) to give the audience the most advantageous angle. The fights aren’t choreographed around what will look best for the audience; the fights happen and we just get to sit back and watch as much as we can.

Along with co-writer Travis Beacham, del Toro has crafted a backstory that is detailed and intricate, but that is also summed up nicely in the first ten minutes of the movie. With the history of the Kaiju invasion out of the way, del Toro is free to focus on the present and how humans will survive. The film’s only real fault is its weak characters who feel thin and rote. Hunnam does what he can with the character of Raleigh, but there is very little on the page for him to enhance. Elba is always a dominant force on screen, but is given little more to do here than shout every line. Rinko Kikuchi is opposite Hunnam as Mako Mori and, though she does a decent job, her character exists only to serve the plot.

There is a dearth of creativity and originality in Hollywood these days and this era in which we are mired does not seem to be abating any time soon. Few films are able to reignite the passion for going to the movies in the way Pacific Rim does and for that we should applaud and appreciate the work of Guillermo del Toro.

Grade: A

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