Pacific Rim is good largely on the level of "that was cool". Whereas everything that is bad about it is bad on the levels of character psychology, narrative structure and logic, interest in the world beyond white adolescent North American males, or the general feeling that no serious consideration of the story needs to go further than cataloging the other properties that Pacific Rim is ripping off, or "paying homage to" if you like the movie.
But it is, nonetheless, inordinately cool. And cool matters, particularly in this summer of 2013, where such a very large number of movies have not been cool. Besides, even if it is certainly his most uncharacteristic and money-poisoned film since at least Mimic (which I have never, anyway, seen), it has been directed by Guillermo del Toro, and there's no way of taking all of the interesting bits out of a Guillermo del Toro movie.
The most fun you can have in describing the plot is by picking the movies that del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham have pillaged that you want to reference. Mine are Robot Jox, the 1998 Godzilla, Blade Runner, and the 1966 Japanese TV series Ultraman for various details of the scenario and design, all of it yoked to a storyline rather similar to Top Gun, though of course that film didn't invent the idea of the hotshot pilot with demons any more than Pacific Rim did. Anyway, the idea is that a dimensional rift opened in the floor of the Pacific Ocean sometime in 2013 - so it had better get a move on - and released giant monsters that all looked different but more or less resemble nightmare version of Earth animals; they are called Kaijus, for the Japanese word that the film mistranslates in its very first line as "giant beasts", which is in fact daikaiju; kaiju means any kind of strange creature irrespective of size. Having concluded that conventional weaponry would be of no use fighting these monsters, the governments of Earth sunk all of their time and resources into developing skyscraper-sized bipedal robots called Jaegers, from the German word for hunter (the first of many niggling but ultimately trivial complaints I had with the film's conceptual background: why a German name for the giant robots you have fighting city-destroying monsters localised to the Pacific?). By 2020, the battle between the sides had reached a stalemate, with humanity just being able to get back on its feet in the weeks between Kaiju appearances, and it's in this year that we meet Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and his older brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff), pilots of the Jaeger Gipsy Danger, the robots being necessarily controlled by two humans sharing a mental link to operate the two hemispheres of the giant machine's synthetic brain. The Becket boys are able to successfully fend off a Kaiju, but at grievous cost, and Yancy is killed during the battle, sending Raleigh into a depressive spiral where he hides for five years, watching as humanity slowly loses a war of attrition.
That huge-ass block of text? I am unbelievably happy to report that it takes up all of 10 minutes of Pacific Rim's 131-minute running time. In this obscenely origin-obsessed blockbuster culture of the modern day, the idea of a film condensing all of its backstory into a pre-title sequence so that we can get to the good stuff as quickly as possible feels like the Second Coming; it's all too easy to imagine a more sober, serious-minded director taking an entire film to cover the ground that Pacific Rim blazes through before it even features its protagonist onscreen for the first time, and if it did nothing else besides remember that the primary calling of a summertime popcorn movie is to be fun, and not to lay out in nerd-friendly detail the mechanics by which its plot works, that would already be quite enough for me to seriously consider anointing the film my favorite tentpole movie of the summer (the only other candidate, Fast & Furious 6, is also notable for how quickly it disposes of exposition in favor of getting to the razzle-dazzle that we paid for).
The rest of the movie plays out as an unresolved tension between two forces: how immensely wonderful the design of everything is, and how terribly uninteresting the people are. Oh, and how humanity, led by irascible military leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), fights against the Kaijus with the last tattered remnants of the now-defunded Jaeger program, with the clock ticking down and all hope lost, and the haunted Raleigh has to return to the game, with an untested new co-pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). But clearly you already could have guessed that part.
It's certainly not a sign of the movie's failure that every single human being feels like they came out of a die-cast mold that hasn't been cleaned out since the 1980s; that is plainly what del Toro was gunning for, in his endless zeal to create a movie that has been visibly influenced by, presumably, every science fiction movie that the director has ever enjoyed at any point in his entire life. The talented but untested newbie, the scarred vet, the hard-ass leader, the snotty rival (Robert Kazinsky), the wacky scientist comic relief (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), the venal black marketeer (Ron Perlman). If Pacific Rim entirely fails to have any demonstrate any kind of depth or complexity to any of these characters besides the exquisitely-named Stacker Pentecost (and he only attains complexity because Elba couldn't play a coma patient without imbuing the character with nuance and soul), that's only because it never, at any point, wanted them to be more than archetypes who could carry the story without being the story. It's shallowness by design, because that's the kind of movie that Pacific Rim loves and the kind it wants to be. Which is nice and all, but a bit of a cold comfort in the lengthy scenes (it might have solved the origin story problem, but Pacific Rim, like all other modern popcorn movies, could still afford to be tightened up to the tune of about 20 minutes in the editing room) that don't involve combat, when you're wondering why you're spending time with any of these characters, or why the only woman in the film with a speaking part is such a convenient embodiment of one of the most clichéd fanboy masturbatory fantasies.
On the other hand, the film's visuals are so intoxicating that just living in the movie's world for a couple of hours is entirely worthwhile, even if it's not the most dramatically compelling place to be. Production designers Carol Spier (who has sometimes worked with del Toro) and Andrew Neskoromny (who hasn't, and whose filmography is in fact quite awful: set designer on Star Trek V: The Final Frontier? Bless your soul) have overseen the creation of a miraculous world, no two ways about it: one where something as simple as a metal warning notice has been positioned in such a way and designed with just the amount of aging to imply great narratives behind every single little grace note; it's not simply a lived-in world but a living world where everything that exists has some reason to exist, a function it fills that implies a long history that led up to it. And that's just signs and props. The big details are even better, like the Hong Kong slum built out of a Kaiju skeleton, or the way that each Jaeger's design suggests, in little ways, the preoccupations of the different cultures that built them.
And the action which is, when all is said and done, the thing that brought us all together, is pretty superlative, bombastic and creative in its scale, while also maintaining a sense of dignity about the human cost of massive destruction. Much chatter has gone around online about del Toro's decision to stage all of the fighting between Jaegers and Kaiju at night and mostly in the rain, as though he was ashamed of the limitations of his CGI, as if this was a sign of cowardice rather than smart filmmaking technique; the result is that the giants in Pacific Rim look pretty damn good, and the film overall has the most convincing and involving visual effects that I've seen so far in 2013. So if it's cowardice, it was worth it.
This is, all of it, pretty shallow and experiential, the kind of stuff that's intoxicating in the moment, and the second the movie ends the best you can say is that you weren't ashamed to enjoy it. I'd have loved it if the film had even one other performance besides Elba's that felt credible (Perlman did what he had to, but just in a cameo, and it was meant to be a caricature), or that Hunnam and Kikuchi felt like they had any scrap of chemistry between them. Spectacle is great and all, but the human element of Pacific Rim is sorely lacking, no matter how much fun it is otherwise.