Director del Toro creates throwback to Kaiju films in ‘Pacific Rim'

July 18, 2013

As a child growing up in Delaware, I remember the limited stations available to those of us who did not have the luxury of cable. One was Philadelphia’s Channel 17 (on the UHF dial … kids, ask your parents about that one), which broadcast Dr. Shock’s “Mad Theater” and “Horror Theater” on Saturday afternoons (there was also “Creature Double Feature" on Channel 48 and “Chiller Theatre” on Channel 29, but neither of them had hosts to giddily guide us through the flick like the zany Dr. Shock).

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Whether it was his alliteration-filled openings (“Salutations my little Saturday Celluloid Sick Slicksters!”) or his signature sign-off (“Let There Be Fright!”), I credit him for giving me my initial dose of city-stompin’, dubiously dubbed Asian invasions. I’m speaking about “Godzilla,” and perhaps his lesser-known Tokyo-leveling counterparts (Mothra, Yog, Rodan, etc.) who would stomp the rather resilient city time after time and battle in some of the most gloriously ridiculous ways.

Dr. Shock was the key to open doors of countless homemade movies by friends and I in which entire cardboard cities, fleets of Hot Wheels cars and various other carefully constructed landscapes would be mercilessly marauded by angry beasts who enjoyed razing entire blocks all in the name of destruction.

Something tells me that while he may not have grown up near the broadcast range of that Philadelphia television host, director Guillermo del Toro had a similar influence in his life for him to create such an epic throwback to the Kaiju films of yore with “Pacific Rim.”

This feels like the film he has been trying to make since he was 9, but now has just a few more million dollars at his disposal.

The end is nigh as the opening credits of “Rim” roll; giant, ugly lizards are crawling through an interdimensional breach in the ocean and are slowly carving their way through the world, city by city. After almost a decade of these attacks, the world is fighting back by creating monsters of its own: equally colossal battle-bots designed to kick the slimy stuffing out of these oversized pests.

But unlike, say, "Transformers," there's a heart that beats inside each of these mechanical creations; in fact, there are two, as the robots require both pilots to synchronize thoughts and movement (referred to as "mind-melding," one of the many details in a sprawling universe Del Toro creates to tell a simple story). Raleigh Becket (played by Charlie Hunnam) is our narrator and guide, and his latest battle left him scarred and subsequently ended the robotics program in which he was such a star.

Five years later, his old boss Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba) tells him that even though the government may have aborted the program, there's one still active in Hong Kong that may be humankind's last hope. It houses all the formerly famed pilots from around the globe, as well as the world's top scientific experts who are hunting to expose a weakness in these skyscraping salamanders.

Instead of telling you all "Pacific Rim" has up its train-sized sleeve, let me tell you what it DOESN'T have:

• A rock soundtrack by the latest artists from the studio's music division;
• gratuitous product placement;
• T&A;
• scatological humor;
• a screenplay with pop-culture shout-outs.

Essentially, "Pacific Rim" is devoid of all the things a film like this usually must succumb to in order to get financing. And maybe that is why it feels so close to the heart of a child's imagination. Hope and spirit permeate even the darkest hours of "Rim," and we are treated to characters and scenes from a comic book that has never been written.

But even more than that, it is thrilling in a way that envelops your senses. Sure, it's loud and proud, but in all the best possible ways. It adds characters who are immediately distinguishable (Ron Perlman's shifty underworld kingpin and Charlie Day's hyper scientist immediately come to mind) and stages battles that are unrelentingly colorful, thrilling and just plain fun.

"Pacific Rim" is also impressive in its efficiency. Each character and concept introduced is front-loaded with meaning in its movement, eliminating the need for tedious explanations of backstory and minutiae that can often stall films this large in scope. There is no chance a film such as this would have ended up on Dr. Shock's Saturday-afternoon showcase, as that was often relegated to showing the barnacles of the monster movie world. But director Del Toro does approach the genre with the same giddy glee that the former host showed when introducing such features. And I hope it will spawn another generation of children who rush out to the sandbox armed with a camera, toys and imagination to start plotting the next round of films that are as wildly engaging as "Pacific Rim."