According to the movies, revenge makes the world go 'round. Revenge is the reason Tony Stark goes after the Mandarin, the reason Khan attacks the Enterprise, and the reason the main characters from Quentin Tarantino's last five films get out of bed every morning. So it's borderline blasphemy when, early in Pacific Rim, a character asserts, "Vengeance is like an open wound." The implication is that humanity won't win its long war against the kaiju — giant, ever-evolving outer-space sea dinosaurs — by framing each battle as a chance to settle the score, because such wounds will never heal. Cooperation and devotion to duty might get the job done, though.
This unusually refined summer-movie morality check permeates Pacific Rim, director Guillermo del Toro's excellent homage to Ray Harryhausen, Toho monster movies, and anime epics like Neon Genesis: Evangelion. With one crucial exception, the film's human-interest level is fairly low. But Pacific Rim does for CGI action sequences what Coraline and Avatar did for 3D: It justifies the format while suggesting new advances and possibilities.
The three major confrontations between the kaiju and the gigantic, man-made, and team-operated robots — called "jaegers," or hunters — take place in a finely textured, digitally enhanced futurescape whose oceans and metropolises pulse with life and tactility. Buildings are demolished and seas crash against these titanic warriors as they rip each other to pieces, but hardly any images look as thin, shadowless, and flimsy as the ones that have rendered similar set pieces unwatchable for nearly a decade. As Grantland's Wesley Morris astutely noted in his review, "On one hand, it's probably just somebody's computer. On the other, it's a miracle."
The second kaiju-jaeger battle, which takes place in and around Hong Kong, is the most potent stretch of action filmmaking I've seen all year. The whole thing unfolds like an improbable run at a craps table: Each outrageous gamble not only pays off but is topped by the next. The climax of the scene is so grand, though, that when it finally ends, the letdown lingers a bit too long: No matter how hard it tries in the finale, the film can't possibly top this scene.
For maximum impact, scenes like these simply must be seen on a big screen. However, before you see Pacific Rim, you've got to make a choice. The film's effects may be even more dazzling in 3D, but the 3D glasses will make the already-dark scenes taking place at night (or on the ocean floor) even darker.
Like fellow fantasist Terry Gilliam, Del Toro clearly loves all the small details about his digitally manufactured creations. But he's smart enough to know when to pay attention to human drama as well. In a film whose male leads are often more cartoonish than convincing, there's a long and important flashback that follows a lost little girl as she tries to hide out from a rampaging kaiju. Its payoff is well worthwhile and it works, because, in monster movies as in life, it's the small stuff that matters.