In a summer of sequels, reboots, and misfires, Pacific Rim is a brilliant surprise. Its cheerful audaciousness will take you back to a time when blockbusters were original stories that filled you with glee and wonder. This movie works just like a fairy tale, but one whose inevitable moral won't make you claw your face off.
Director Guillermo Del Toro is not one for wasting time, and nothing about Pacific Rim ever feels like padding or useless infodumpery. We begin literally in the middle of the action, as an undersea volcano in the Pacific Ocean begins belching out giant monsters. First they attack San Francisco (at this point the two six-year-old boys sitting next to me in the theater fled in terror with their mother), then Manila, then countless other cities on the Pacific coasts. Despite their obvious similarities to the rubbery kaiju of Godzilla movies, these massive creatures feel genuinely scary. As ever, Del Toro has crafted monsters that hover disturbingly between toylike and horrific.
To combat the kaiju, the world's nations pool their resources to create the jaeger program. Jaegers are giant robots that are controlled by the human mind — much the way today's bionic limbs are controlled by thought. Because they are so huge, however, the jaegers must have at least two humans at the helm, their minds networked via a technology that these robot pilots call "the drift." Our hero is one of these pilots, Raleigh, who goes into the drift with his brother to animate the fantastic fighting machine known as Gypsy Danger.
There is nothing more magnificent than jaegers punching out kaiju. As Del Toro has said in interviews, this movie is as much an hommage to Mexican wrestling as it is to Japanese kaiju movies. And in every fight scene, you can see the luchador moves. You probably won't be able to make it through an entire jaeger vs. kaiju fight scene without growing a goofy grin on your face and pumping your fist in the air. This is pure summer candy action, but the visuals are so crisp and stunning that it's like that one roller coaster ride at the amusement park that is actually, barftastically great.
What elevates this movie above your typical giant monster smackdown is that you actually care about the characters. When the kaiju start getting bigger, the world's governments pull out of the jaeger program and put their money into building a seawall instead. So we actually get to know the few remaining jaeger pilots, huddled in the Shatterdome robot hangar, trying to save the world with scarce resources and very little time. And of course there are two adorable scientists, one of whom has clearly been directed to act just like JJ Abrams (no really — it's kind of weird).
The idea of the drift also helps pack an emotional punch into the action. Each time pilots sync up, their minds share memories. In this way, we come to understand Raleigh's greatest trauma, which was losing his brother; and we take a deep dive into his new partner Mako's (Rinko Kikuchi) dark memories of losing her parents in a kaiju attack. Mako's adoptive father Stacker (played by the awesomely stern Idris Elba) helps provide the emotional heart of the movie, as his relationship with Mako is on the line in the final stand against the kaiju.
There are shades of Armageddon here, with daddy issues and giant explosives at the end of the world, but the difference is stark. Instead of telling a stock story about manhood, Pacific Rim complicates this basic tale by giving us a strong female lead who has to carry the day alongside all the broken and emotionally scarred men around her. The result is that this movie really feels like it's about humanity — men and women, citizens of all the nations that ring the Pacific — fighting back against a global threat to our species. There is no undercurrent of American patriotism, the way you get in Transformers or Independence Day. It's just humans against monsters. No nation or group can do it alone.
This is where Pacific Rim becomes a fairy tale for the global age. Like many fairy tales, it has a simple message about cooperating to fend off danger. But it's also clearly intended as an allegory for the kinds of problems that humanity is dealing with in the twenty-first century, specifically climate change and natural disasters that transcend national boundaries. There is some hilariously bad jibber-jabber about how environmental destruction brought the monsters, but that simply underscores my point about how Pacific Rim is really about something more allegorical than ocean acidification.
It's about how our problems are no longer the purview of one nation anymore. To meet the world's new dangers, we need to stop identifying as Americans or Chinese or Russians — we need to identify as humans. That's why the movie is called Pacific Rim. It's about viewing our homes in terms of the planet's geological features, instead of political creations.
Look, I'm not saying that this movie beats you over the head with a "we are the world" message. Far from it. Mostly it just mashes you in the eyes with mega-fights and crazy schemes to plant nukes inside the throat of another dimension. But what makes it a truly great fairy tale, instead of just another CGI clunker, is the humble truth at the heart of this simple story. We are all in this together. So let's go kick some kaiju ass!
Annalee Newitz is the author of the book, Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction. Follow her on Twitter.