"THE AUDIENCE NEEDS to be invested in the difference between what you're doing and something generic, and I would argue that most of the audience don't know the difference between someone who I consider to be making 'cinema' and someone who's not," Steven Soderbergh recently told Empire, explaining his reasons for quitting directing. "That shit—that extra layer of attention—goes right over their heads, and at a certain point you just go, 'Why am I bothering?'"
Before he stopped bothering, Soderbergh made five films in two years. Meanwhile, it's been five years since the last film from Guillermo del Toro, who followed Pan's Labyrinth with Hellboy II, then walked away from directing The Hobbit and saw his adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft novella go tits up. He's finally back with Pacific Rim, a film that proves he has something in common with Soderbergh: He puts in that extra layer of attention. In anyone else's hands, Pacific Rim would've been a generic blockbuster; in del Toro's, it's something thrilling and fun and weird. It's the kind of film you can't imagine anyone else making.
That extra layer of attention pops up a lot: It's in the wobbling beer gut of a giant monster who lunges like a clumsy luchador; it's in the pitiful car alarms that helplessly chirp as, high above, a massive robot drags a goddamn oil tanker down a Hong Kong street before swinging it like a goddamn baseball bat; it's in every line growled by Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), a scene-stealer who took his first name from his favorite historical figure and his last from his second-favorite Szechuan restaurant. When Pacific Rim's city-smashing battles end, it's Chau who harvests the fallen monsters' glowing organs, touting their purported medicinal properties on the black market that's sprung up in Hong Kong's "Bone Slums," where buildings have grown around the towering skeletons of long-fallen behemoths.
But—like the start of Pacific Rim, which takes a while to find its footing—I'm getting carried away in the details. The setup: Years ago, massive monsters called kaiju started rising from our oceans. To defend ourselves, humanity built towering robots, each piloted by two people working in tandem. The war has taken its toll, though, and those robots—called jaegers—are breaking down. It's up to one sad, jaded jaeger pilot, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and one eager new one, Mako Mori (a great Rinko Kikuchi), to go out with a bang, doing so under the command of Stacker Pentecost (Idris motherfucking Elba) and with the help of a kaiju-obsessed scientist, Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day, hilarious). Along the way, there's a lot of monster punching, robot throwing, and Idris Elba speechifying—and a surprising amount of humor and humanity, with del Toro as happy to focus on his and co-writer Travis Beacham's characters as on the film's exhilarating big-screen action.
Don't get me wrong: Pacific Rim is the sort of movie in which Rage Against the Machine's Tom Morello pops in on the thunderous score by Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi just to underscore the rock 'n' roll, rock-'em-sock-'em tone, and anyone who's bigoted against gigantic robots or angry monsters... well, this is not the film for them. For the rest of us, it's a blockbuster done right—clever and inventive and candy colored, with a sense of confident, easy fun unmatched by the rest of this summer's bloated, cynical blockbusters. This is del Toro, giddily enthusiastic, working at the top of his game, cramming in detail and charm, cherry-picking from everything from Godzilla to Top Gun to Ghostbusters to make something new and surprising and cool. Pacific Rim is this year's finest work of cinema that features giant robots punching giant monsters.