According to Guillermo del Toro's thunderous, thumping monsters-vs.-robots throwdown Pacific Rim, it's all our fault. Bad eco-karma - rising CO2, depleting ozone layer, too many Victoria's Secret catalogs - has essentially turned the planet into an environmental nightmare, making it less hospitable to humankind, but just about right for a gang of alien puppetmasters who have unleashed a horde of mega beasts from a portal beneath the sea.
Once these humongous super demons, fiery-eyed and skyscraper-high, wipe out civilization - and, by 2020, they've made considerable progress, flattening whole metropolises and killing millions - Earth is up for grabs.
The world's last best hope are the Jaegers, gigantic robots, each controlled by a pair of pilots who must work in mind-melding tandem. Dropped down in the path of the marauding Kaiju (Japanese sci-fi-inspired, shark-headed behemoths, angry mega-crustaceans, towering, flame-throwing insectoids), the Jaegers whomp and pummel, wielding shipping containers and plasma cannons.
And so, for at least half of Pacific Rim, that's what you get: carnage and conflagration on an epic scale, as the dinosaurian creatures from the deep do battle with the man-made leviathans. It's a nuclear-powered mixed-martial-arts match, and pretty soon you lose count of how many rounds they've gone.
But unlike, say, Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich - fellow directors who have similarly laid waste to vast swaths of the universe - del Toro isn't just here to show off his high-tech toys, whooshing action shots, and awe-inducing visual effects. Pacific Rim shares much with the Mexican filmmaker's Hellboy franchise - jokey and comic book-y, full of muscular tableaus with huge squads of people coming and going (and running for their lives). In its fantastical realization of the monsters - monsters that certainly owe much more than just their name to the Kaiju movies of Godzilla and Mothra, Rodan and Gorgo - Pacific Rim also brings to mind the creepy nightmare beings of del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. This time, though, they're a lot bigger.
Like many of del Toro's movies, this one boasts Ron Perlman in a prominent role. He is Hannibal Chau (the moniker's provenance is good for a one-liner), a shifty entrepreneur who trades in black-market body parts. Kaiju body parts.
But it is Perlman's Sons of Anarchy costar, Charlie Hunnam, who has the lead in Pacific Rim: The British actor is Raleigh Becket, an ace Jaeger pilot, grappling with the loss of his brother in battle. Raleigh goes off to Alaska to do construction work, and mope. But he is brought back by Stacker Pentecost (a terse, terrific Idris Elba), the marshal who heads the Jaeger program, and who needs his best pilot back in the 'bot business.
Enter Mako Mori - Rinko Kikuchi, the Oscar-nominated Japanese actress (for Babel). She has blue highlights in her hair, and a blue look in her eye. She works closely with Stacker - and shares a history with the commander that is revealed in a striking series of flashbacks (evoking the World War II wastelands of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). Mako and Raleigh turn out to be "drift compatible" - that is, perfect partners to meld their memories and become one in the Jaegers' elaborate, VR gamelike cockpit. But for reasons that take a while (and a pair of little red shoes) to explain, Stacker resists teaming Mako and Raleigh.
But then, of course, they are teamed. Elba gives his rousing battle speech (yes, "today we are canceling the apocalypse!"), and off the mighty Jaegers and their pilots go, for one final, earthquaking showdown.
Pacific Rim looks great. It's one of the rare 3-D features that probably delivers more in the large-screen, stereoscopic format - severed Kaiju limbs, comin' at ya! Hunnam and Kikuchi work well together, even though most of what they're required to do is stand side by side, suited-up and helmeted, their bodies attached to control gizmos, moving in sync like dancers - or like somebody on a treadmill at a gym, working with their mirror image.
But then the "category 5" Kaiju rears its giganto head. And so, once more unto the breach.
Pacific Rim *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro. With Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, and Ron Perlman. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 2 hours, 11 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (intense action, violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters