First, a recommendation: my eight year old absolutely loved this film. For children of a certain age and temperament, it is an absolutely thrilling night at the cinema. Giant robots versus giant monsters, what’s not to like? For grown-ups? Well… That’s where it gets a little complicated. It depends on the grown-up.
The premise is nifty: huge monsters from another dimension called Kaiju cross to Earth via a portal under the Pacific, only for Earth to fight back with gigantic robots called Jaegers. They are so complex they have to be controlled by two human pilots sharing a consciousness. This process, called the Drift, is a fascinating Phillip K Dick-esque idea, as pilot compatibility becomes a serious issue. For one thing, total trust is required, as each pilot will have full access to the other’s memories.
Certainly director Guillermo Del Toro is in touch with his inner eight year old, and his passion for Japanese Godzilla movies, Anime and the films of Ray Harryhausen is very evident. As a fan of all the above, I also greatly enjoyed this loving tribute to such films – a gleefully escapist piece of utter nonsense. Yet in the back of my head I hear critical voices which I long to suppress: wafer-thin characterisation, leaden dialogue, not enough humour and so on.
Actually that’s not quite true. There is some humour, and stock characters are a staple in this genre. Furthermore, said characters have a Del Toro-esque spin that’s just different enough to mark this out from, say, the stock characters of Michael Bay’s Transformers pics. There comparisons with Transformers must stop, because this is a vastly superior work to anything in the Bay canon. For one thing, the direction is coherent and cinematically interesting, resulting in some tremendously memorable imagery. The production design and visual effects contain all the usual Del Toro artistic flair that made his Hellboy pictures and Pan’s Labyrinth so distinctive.
Furthermore, there are scenes here that would never exist in a Michael Bay movie, such as a powerful and very well acted sequence involving a little girl’s memories of a traumatic Kaiju attack on her city. Acting in a film like this is never going to attract Oscars, but that little girl (Mana Ashida) looked genuinely terrified. Elsewhere performances from the likes of Idris Elba and relative unknowns Charlie Hunnam and Mako Mori play second fiddle to special effects, though comic support from Charlie Day, Burn Gorman and the legendary Ron Perlman fare a little better.
From a moral perspective this is a straightforward tale of heroism, teamwork and sacrifice, but it was a bit more sweary than is ideal for the target audience. Furthermore, the idea of the Drift has potentially fascinating spiritual implications (“One can put a thousand to flight, two can put ten thousand to flight” is the Bible verse that springs to mind), yet it is not explored in any really interesting ways.
Ultimately, those with eight year olds or inner eight year olds will have a blast. If you’re expecting anything remotely profound, forget it. This is a gloriously superficial, spectacularly designed, stunningly directed helping of hugely enjoyable mayhem.