One of the most important things any great action movie needs is a lead actor who can deliver an absurd line and have it sound awesome. One who makes you cheer instead of laugh when he says something that is by all rights laughable. Pacific Rim doesn't have one of those. But it still manages to be the best summer action movie since Independence Day.
It's awesome because it delivers what it promised us: giant robots fighting giant monsters with a giant, giant amount of fun and imagination. We trusted Guillermo del Toro with this thing, and the dozen or so moments of You thought that was cool? No, THIS is cool! moments mixed into the smartly choreographed action and dumb-in-the-good-ways plot pays off that trust.
Pacific Rim drops us in the last days of the Kaiju war, a battle between man and giant monster that's been escalating for the previous decade. The bulk of the early portion is spent in a base housing the last remaining Jaegers (giant robots for fighting said giant monsters) and their crews. We follow around a Jaeger pilot wash-out named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), his boss Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), a few other pilots presumably with other Action Movie Refrigerator Magnet names, and a research team of two (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman). There are only a few Jaegers left, and Becket's the only one who knows how to pilot one of the older models. Collectively, it's their job to finish off the Kaiju in one last push before the balance tilts and the world ends.
From here, you will notice the story's jumps in logic. There are so very, very many of them. They don't matter. In fact, they're honest to god plot features, not holes. They're like the travel scenes in an Indiana Jones movie, where we don't need to know how you get from Point A to Point B, just show us on the map.
Forty seconds into the Pacific Rim, we're told the Kaiju come from another dimension, through a portal at the bottom of the Pacific. This is never questioned scientifically, or logically (why does it have to be at the bottom of the Pacific if it's just a dimensional portal?). And it doesn't matter. Explaining that, or even trying, would slow the movie down for no reason. No one wants two scenes about dumb non-science when we already have what we came for: Giant-ass, interdimensional Kaiju monsters. GO. Oh, what's that you say? The beaurocrats want to just build a wall instead of using Jaegers? EFF THAT. Let's just take all our giant robots to one giant base and smash things!
Speaking of that base (named "Shatterdome", in case you had any lingering doubts about exactly what you were here for), it's pretty great. The Hong Kong stronghold is where most of the movie takes place, and if it doesn't have the same "the entire world is fighting this fight" vibe as ID4, it's got enough of a multinational thing going on that it's almost like Bloodsport or even Mortal Kombat, in that the story is almost totally separated from the rest of the world, and individual nations are represented by their Jaeger teams.
The Shatterdome can best be summed up by one scene. We're led around the launching bay, given the names of the Jaegers and their crews, sizing everyone up. It made me wish there were fifteen more of them, even if we only got to see them fight from a distance. And that's pretty much all there is to say about plot.
Without much plot go on Pacific Rim is the kind of movie that lives and dies by its special effects. They're phenomenal, but more importantly, imaginative. Through most of the big action sequences, you will totally buy the scale, fluidity, and physics of how these giant, impossible robots are fighting these giant(er), impossible monsters. There are maybe two shots in the entire movie—five seconds total, if that—in which the effects look a little awkward. Whatever. The action is totally followable, with the exception of some portions of the climactic showdown. You know what's happening, and to whom. That's rare in a lot of current action movies (looking at you, Transformers). And it's FUN. Oh man is it fun. So many parents are going to have to dig out ice packs because of "ELBOW ROCKET" punch incidents after this.
The characters aren't characters so much as attitude vessels, arranged neatly into places to fight with monsters or each other or deliver a certain kind of line. And the thing is, THAT'S TOTALLY FINE, because del Toro comes in and out of everything just before the wheels come off. But you do wish the performances were a little better. You almost feel bad for Hunnam in some scenes, where he's handed a cheeseball line you just know Will Smith would have made sing in ID4, or even lesser action stars, but he just doesn't have it in him, so he goes through the (still very enjoyable) motions.
Day, Gorman, and Ron Perlman keep their side-stories moving along—Day and Perlman especially—with plenty of jokes. And Rinko Kikuchi (Brothers Bloom), who plays Hunnam's Jaeger co-pilot, does fine with the little she's asked to do.
It's Idris Elba who makes this thing work, though. He's the only actor on hand that can take this corn-fed script and turn it into the quotables that fill up middle school buses for summers at a time. His lines are just as outrageous as everyone else's—"The world is coming to an end. Do you want to die here, or IN A JAEGAR?", "We stopped being an army, we're the resistance now. [beat] Welcome to the Shatterdome."—but he buys in so hard that you go right along with him.
One last thing: There is no scene that seems to scream, HEY TEENS, PLEASURE YOURSELF TO THIS. No Megan Fox bending over a car engine, or Alice Eve stripping to her bra apropos of nothing. Guillermo del Toro has never been one for dumb, sexed-up scenes, but it says something extra that what will probably be the biggest summer movie this year, and which explicitly caters to young, hormonal men, can be excellent without a whiff of cleavage.
The thing is, there's so much going on here, the audience won't even know it's missing. The best parts of Pacific Rim, aside from the amazing action (a few unspoilery highlights: last weapon, flying, coolant, samurai), are just an amalgam of the best parts of a bunch of other movies. There's a ton of Independence Day in here, and lot of Top Gun, and all kinds of Japanese Kaiju tradition. It always feels like high-level homage, though, in the very best of ways. It works.
There are places Pacific Rim could have been stronger, sure, like a tie to how regular people see this absurd story playing out just a few blocks away, and maybe it ended up one or two actors short (man, to have someone like Channing Tatum here), but that's almost entirely beside the point. This movie is so fun. It's SO FUN. You can't go to it and not have a good time. You can't go and keep from making excited, gurgly, half-laugh-half-cheer noises. And what's a summer movie if not that?