Chuck Koplinski: Smart, stylish 'Pacific Rim' raises blockbuster bar

No one could blame you if you were to assume that Guillermo del Toro's "Pacific Rim" is just another empty, overwrought summer movie that delivers nothing but repetitive violence and stock characters. What with scenes of giant robots beating up Godzilla-like monsters being the focus of the film's numerous previews, it seems to follow Dan Rather's logic where ducks are concerned.

However, like "Star Trek Beyond Darkness," the only other summer blockbuster to exceed expectations, "Pacific Rim" is a film that wisely concentrates on the human element in its story as much as its outrageous visuals. Spectacular, smart and epic in scope, del Toro's movie is not just one of the best films of the season, but one of the best of the year as well.

Ostensibly an extended homage to the classic Japanese monster films that started with "Godzilla" in 1954, del Toro ups the ante considerably as "Pacific Rim" doesn't concern itself with one creature trashing one city, but a rash of attacks on major urban centers bordering the Pacific Ocean. They're being carried out by a wide assortment of gigantic alien creatures that have come to our planet via a portal that opens to another dimension. These beasts are known as Kaiju, scaly, finned abominations that tower up to 10 stories tall and have a wide variety of abilities as they've learned to adapt to their environment.

The attacks start slow, with San Francisco and Manila laid to waste first. It becomes obvious that humans lack the firepower to fight them properly, so giant robots known as Jaegers are invented. These are controlled by two operators who meld minds within the machine's interface so that they might operate its body in unison. Siblings or other blood relatives tend to be the most ideal pairing for this task, as the deeper the emotional bond between the two, the more in sync they will be.

The war is in its 12th year when the main action of the film occurs. The Jaegers are being put out to pasture as a supposedly more efficient plan to attack the Kaiju is being adapted by the world's superpowers. This doesn't sit well with General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), one of the first of the robot jockeys who now runs the division that oversees them.

With the remaining Jaegers being shipped off to Hong Kong, he still thinks they will be needed once more, so he recruits Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a former operator who has been out of the game since his brother was killed in a Kaiju attack. He'll need to put his demons behind him if he's going to be able to help Pentecost enact his plan to wipe these monsters from the face of the Earth for good.

From this plot description, this sounds like standard science-fiction fare. But where "Pacific Rim" differs is in the cast of characters that populate it and del Toro's ability to bring it all to life in a singular epic vision. Intriguing backstories are given to Pentecost and Becket as well as Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), an operator with a tragic history that compels her to fight the Kaiju; the father-son team of Herc and Chuck Hansen (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky), whose love-hate relationship must be put aside if they are to be of value; doctors Geiszler and Gottlieb (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), competing research scientists who have widely different approaches in their research of the Kaiju; and finally Hannibal Chau (del Toro regular Ron Perlman), a black market racketeer who specializes in harvesting Kaiju remains for medicinal purposes. Each and every one of these characters is distinct, intriguing, sympathetic and relatable, giving the viewer a rooting interest in the outcome of the various attacks in the film. In taking the time to craft these characters, del Toro and fellow screenwriter Travis Beacham have done what so many blockbusters of this ilk fail to do — they give us people we care for, allowing us to become emotionally invested in the film.

As well as the characters are written and brought to life by the cast, the action scenes are equally impressive. I cannot think of a film better suited for the IMAX screen, as this outsized format is necessary to give the viewer some sense of the scale of the creatures and the robots invented to destroy them. Never overbearing, this approach perfectly suits del Toro's aesthetic, and he must be commended for editing his footage in such a way that the action is always easy to follow.

Far better than "Avatar," del Toro gives us not only an epic vision but a story that provides one pleasant surprise after another as the director has us on the edge of our seat wondering who among the many memorable characters will survive and who won't.

The director ably fills the grand canvas he has given himself not only with fantastic sights but also with a rousing tale that examines the themes of honor, loyalty and sacrifice in a meaningful and poignant fashion. "Pacific Rim" sets the bar high for films of this sort and is likely not to be equaled anytime soon.

'Pacific Rim' (4 stars out of 4)

Cast: Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Charlie Hunnam, Ron Perlman, Clifton Collins Jr., Diego Klattenhoff, Rinko Kikuchi, Burn Gorman, Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky and Joe Pingue.

Directed by Guillermo del Toro; produced by Jon Jashni, Mary Parent and Thomas Tull; screenplay by Travis Beacham and del Toro.

A Warner Brothers release. 131 minutes. Rated PG-13 (intense sci-fi action, violence and brief language.) At AMC Village Mall 6 and Savoy 16.

Also new in theaters

"Let Me Explain" reveals comic to be a lightweight. (2 stars)

I was prepared for Kevin Hart not to be the next Richard Pryor, but that he doesn't have the chops to fill Chris Rock or Dave Chappelle's shoes is a grave disappointment.

"Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain" is the comic's first concert film, one that shows him in performance at New York's Madison Square Garden, thrilling his obviously adoring fans with one slight comic riff after another.

As a humorous set, it has its moments — as a movie, it hardly qualifies as such. Running a scant 75 minutes, only 55 of which feature Hart on stage, the movie is nothing more than a testimonial about how great a comedian the performer is and that he is not only beloved in the States but also abroad. Twenty minutes of the film is spent convincing the uninitiated that not only is the comic a hot commodity overseas but brilliant as well — as his many loyal fans attest to on camera. The rest is devoted to Hart lamenting the problems that have plagued him since his success, something that he seems ill-prepared to handle what with all of the complaining he does throughout.

Needless to say, Hart's style is hardly worthy of the hype as his set is a narcissistic rant in which we are supposed to sympathize with him over the fact that his marriage ended in divorce due to his cheating (for the record, he feels no regret for having been unfaithful but is angry that he got caught), that he may have to deal with the prospect of being replaced in his children's lives by a stepfather and that he's being misrepresented in the press.

All of these may be legitimate complaints from the comedian's point of view, and while they may amuse some in the audience, he keeps the rest of us at arm's length, as he never comments on anything that we can relate to.

Equally troubling is Hart's persona of an immature man-child who fails to take responsibility for his actions and regards women in a less than enlightened manner. None of the difficulties he has to deal with are ever his fault, as he justifies all of his bad decisions or blames someone else for his troubles. That he refers to all women in a derogatory manner only underscores his immaturity as a man and lack of true invention as a comic.

To be sure, there are some humorous moments. When Hart recounts how and why he had to fire numerous bodyguards or is discussing where he is in the celebrity hierarchy, he does show a bit of invention. He proves to be at his most accessible when recounting experiences with his son, in particular a story in which he has to stand back and watch his son get beat up without interfering. This is a common occurrence for most parents, but it's hardly a groundbreaking observation.

Whereas George Carlin, Pryor, Rock and Chappelle told personal stories as well, they also provided sharp-edged, angry commentary on social issues of the day. Railing against corporate greed, gun control, abortion, censorship and racism is the way to become a comic who not only entertains an audience but also makes them think. While he might be able to entertain his followers by regaling them about how crazy women are, as long as Hart limits himself to such subjects, he'll hardly be deemed as an important or trailblazing comic.

For DVR alerts, film recommendations and movie news, follow Chuck Koplinski on Twitter at @ckoplinski or at his blog here. He can be reached via email at chuckkoplinski@gmail.com.

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