“Rush” is as sleek and engaging as it is philosophically muddled.

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Some directors gain a degree of their reputation on the basis of sheer versatility; greats like Howard Hawks, Akira Kurosawa and their modern equivalent, Spielberg himself, are distinguished by both their remarkable variety in genre, scope and style and fairly singular thematic focus. Ron Howard, by contrast, may be one of the most undecipherable directors today — and oddly enough, one of the most popular. Just when he seems to be a dedicated provider of high-stakes adult dramas (Apollo 13, Frost/Nixon), Howard takes a bizarre sidetour into simplistic childrens’ film garbage (How the Grinch Saved Christmas), or abysmal Tom Hanks conspiracy dramas (The Da Vinci Code). Even after four decades in show business, it’s frustratingly difficult to get a grasp on where Howard is coming from, and worse yet, where he’s going much of the time.

Rush makes the quest to understand Howard no easier, but that’s only because it’s much more progressive than anything else in his oeuvre. Collaborating again with Frost/Nixon screenwriter Peter Morgan, Howard has crafted a biopic that’s surprisingly edgy and wickedly entertaining for the exact same reason — its protagonists, two real-life Formula 1 rivals, must literally cheat death every time they go to work. It is a job requiring both intense calculation and a loose, improvisational outlook on life, and Rush largely focuses on this disconnect.

The two protagonists, James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) and Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl) embodied clashing perspectives as well. At the peak of their 1976 powers, which Rush explicitly chronicles, the two represented wildly opposite ideologies, with Hunt being the carefree playboy counterpart to Lauda’s clinical, calculating professional. What unites the two, however, is their perverse comfort with deathly conditions, savage hunger to rise to the top of their field, and willingness to throw most other relationships in life to the wayside in order to succeed.

The young leads performing them, Hemsworth and Brühl, are uncannily good. Hemsworth’s calling-card to the role was his effusive charisma in the otherwise unremarkable Thor, and I can’t imagine a better output for his signature intelligent arrogance. Brühl, by contrast, is steely, intelligent, and is a genuinely intense, fascinating presence. His character, Lauda, is certainly more in line with the general philosophies that guide Rush; there’s a sleek professionalism brimming beneath the surface here, often driving forward the more kinetic sequences but somewhat diminishing any emotional impact.

The film has to compress so many events into such a narrow timeframe that they’re often explained rather than truly evoked. One never gets much of a sense of triumph, loss, or connection to the protagonists and their achievements. It is only in Rush’s extended racing sequences that it transcends its emotional emptiness and becomes something else entirely — a manic, rapid, mechanical dance with death. Anthony Dod Mantle, one of the most adventurous cinematographers today, gives the film a deliriously colorful pop that is good enough to convince us we are watching events more thrilling than we are, especially when the characters are off the race-track.

But for all of the things Rush absolutely nails, it’s difficult to make out much of a guiding philosophy to the film. It presents two clashing philosophies on racing and spends considerable time demonstrating they’re equally valid, but given that its author, Mr. Howard, has spent an entire career avoiding statements of major controversy, one doesn’t come away with much. Rush brings us ever-so-closely to the verge of major ideas and genuine contemplation, then speeds away.

“Gravity” is among the most forceful, powerful films of the new century.

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Gravity is among the most forceful, powerful films of the new century: a technical wunderkind of unthinkable complexity and a near-miraculous unity of seemingly incongruous elements — both bruisingly claustrophobic while set across the infinite expanse of space, both immediately accessible and sweepingly allegorical, psychologically punishing and totally uplifting, and perhaps rarest of all, touting big, big ideas to match its $100 million price-tag and two world-famous leads, Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.

The two play astronauts, Dr. Ryan Stone and Walt Kowalski, who are wrapping up a Hubble Telescope patch-up when they are abruptly warned of an incoming debris storm. The debris proves to destroy the telescope, most methods of communication and nearly all of their rides home — leaving the two adrift and alone, miles above everyone they love and everything they have to live for. The 90-minute film unfolds practically in real-time, and as Gravity progresses it becomes clear the film’s focus is largely on Bullock’s character, Dr. Stone, who is already recouping from a piercing personal tragedy. Thus, she must find the will to live again as cosmic chaos rages around her, turning Gravity into an unexpected tale of spiritual rebirth.

It is impossible to consider Gravity without the four years it took to craft; save for the actors’ faces, everything in the film is digitally rendered — every debris particle, every sweeping, jaw-dropping planetary panorama, even every movement of the characters’ space helmets and suits. It’s revolutionary technology applied for perhaps the most old-fashioned purpose of all — to awe, to transport, to inspire contemplation.

Gravity, indeed, sparks one to consider no less than the scale of the universe. Director Alfonso Cuarón (how have I not mentioned him yet?), working closely with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezski and veritable armies of visual-effects artists, create shots that move past the excellent and into the impossible — consider the 17-minute-long opener, which telegraphs our characters’ descent from peaceful space exploration into tetherless catastrophe; consider a subsequent close-up that follows Bullock’s character spinning aimlessly, slowly forcing its way into her helmet and perspective. With a camera that floats and follows as gracefully as its weightless subjects, Gravity marks nothing less than the invention of an incredibly expressive, languid new language of the cinema.

Writer-director Alfonso Cuarón has cultivated one of the most intriguing, diverse bodies of work in modern cinema — from the low-budget sexual exploration of Y Tu Mama Tambien to the best Harry Potter installment, Prisoner of Azkaban, and most recently, the towering fatalistic masterwork Children of Men. When considered together, his films constitute a loose panoramic view of life’s key rituals — death, sex, coming-of-age, societal assimilation. Gravity finds itself at the center of all of them, with the protagonists’ remarkable proximity to death instilling an incredible want, a need to survive. The result is a film of non-stop, pummeling action sequences that all directly speak to and impact the spiritual conditions of the characters. It’s high-wire, high-stakes cinema at its most balletic and its most exciting. Art and commerce intersect to exhilarating ends.

“Prisoners” utter psychological nightmare, utter filmmaking master-class

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While under the guise of a standard ‘investigative procedural’ thriller, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners delves into deeper, darker areas of the American psyche than any mainstream film has dared to touch all year. Full disclosure — this is the exact sort of film that I’m utterly weak for — using big-budget studio funding and mega-watt movie-stars to completely subvert expectations of both. Where many standard thrillers are often content to establish a fairly shallow emotional groundwork with handsome characters, simplistic morality and bombastic action, Prisoners pulls a complete 180 on genre convention from the very first scene and only marches into more sadistic, emotionally bruising territory from there.

It’s likely the most discomforting film of the year without once warranting the cheap label of ‘horror’ or ‘terror’. It’s often said that some of the most horrifying cinema is also some of the most relatable and lived-in, and Prisoners is a textbook example of this. The film opens on two loving families meeting at a Thanksgiving dinner — one patriarch is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a deeply religious carpenter, the other is Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), a much sweeter, more sociable type. It must be noted that Aaron Guzikowski’s script here is a masterwork of structure and texture — subtly establishing our emotional roots with these two families, and then for the next 2 hours and 25 minutes absolutely smashing these roots to pieces.

See, Keller and Franklin allow their young daughters to head across the street and play for a few minutes. But they will never return.

Simple calls for the girls’ names turn into panicked police calls. Panicked police calls turn into careful searching. Careful searching turns into media hysteria and widespread manhunts. Dover’s wife (Maria Bello) enters both a pill-fueled haze and intense state of denial for much the film, while Dover himself has strong suspicions of mentally challenged local weirdo Alex (Paul Dano) — eventually investing so deeply in the concept that he abducts Alex and brutally tortures him for days, hoping to get any information he can on his daughter’s whereabouts. Perhaps most disturbing is that Alex himself offers up very little fight, pleading for his family and further clouding the film’s already-shifty morality.

As Dover, our supposed protagonist, descends into booze-soaked fury and righteous self-certainty, Prisoners actually begins to shift its focus more to the efforts of Jake Gyllenhaal, as the furiously driven detective Loki. The film trails more closely his rigorous efforts to seek out the girls and the often disturbing, destructive consequences it has on both himself and the families he’s trying to restore.

The star of the film, more than anyone else, is director Denis Villeneuve. For all of the film’s (considerable, at two-and-a-half-hours) runtime, Villeneuve demonstrates impeccable control over tone and technique. His visual compositions reflect an ever-growing sense of dread and fatalism while rarely calling attention to themselves. Furthermore, the massive length of the film actually works strongly in its favor, ultimately providing a sense of body and scope that makes Prisoners less of an abduction thriller and more of a sprawling, epic tragedy.

Hugh Jackman offers up perhaps his most furious, feral performance as Dover, chewing on every emotional speech and devastated glance that the script offers him. Prisoners turns the ferocious, nakedly emotional yet distinctively heroic persona established in his Wolverine character — and inverts it to brutal and cruel ends. Gyllenhaal, however, has set himself up as one of the most valuable young actors in American cinema — expressing a sensitive charisma and simmering intensity, both of which reach wonderful peaks here.

Prisoners certainly spends time juggling very hefty issues — the morality of torture, the long-term consequences of psychological trauma and exactly at which line dedication becomes perversion. But if there’s a central occupation to the proceedings, it’s watching a tight family unit completely crumble once robbed of its emotional center.

Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners penetrates into the deepest recesses of parental trauma, subtly marking itself as among the most skillful 9/11 allegories in recent memory — in the way it depicts the crumbling effectiveness of human psychology, morality, and institutional effectiveness in the wake of a massive, massive calamity. And as with the end of that disaster and the end of Prisoners, everything is concluded while an unthinkable magnitude of pain is awakened.

Why Quentin Tarantino’s work over the last decade really, truly matters.

Consider the panache with which Quentin Tarantino arrived into American culture. With the one-two punch of structurally revolutionary crime thrillers Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino set himself apart in endless ways: with his incredibly funny, elaborate dialogue, his French New Wave-meets-Looney Tunes aesthetic, shocking bursts of violence, and especially his gift for repurposing ‘70s grindhouse-movie sleaze into something a little more palatable for America’s critical elite. At age 31, he more-or-less grabbed early-’90s independent cinema by the balls. It was the best thing that ever happened to him — two decades later, he’s still riding on the momentum picked up back then — but it’s had something of an unexpected effect.

See, when one hears the name “Tarantino”, what comes to mind is exactly what I’ve mentioned: dialogue, violence, humor, et cetera et cetera. But what often goes unspoken in endless praise for Tarantino is that he’s become an incredibly humane artist, and has evolved from sophisticated showman to an unexpected champion of the underdogs of American culture and history. One of the reasons I’m so convinced of his greatness is that he’s developed this attitude while continuing to improve all that made him so appealing in the first place.

Uma Thurman's "Bride" starts out bloodied, beaten and objectified at the beginning of KILL BILL, VOL. 1 (2003).

Uma Thurman’s “Bride” starts out bloodied, beaten and objectified at the beginning of KILL BILL (2003/2004).

His references to genre (slasher, western, men-on-a-mission, martial arts) are only becoming more obscure, his naughty-boy, smart-ass dialogue is only becoming more outrageous, and his violent set-pieces are now comparable to the masterful action auteurs (Sam Peckinpah, Jackie Chan) that directly inspired him. Witness Kill Bill, Vol. 1’s near-balletic climactic fight, in which lead actress Uma Thurman lays waste to 88 (!) male (!!) swordsmen. Consider also Django Unchained’s infamous final shootout, in which Jamie Foxx’s uprising against dumb-fuck slavers genuinely transcends its roots as mere screen violence and becomes something closer to visceral, blood-soaked opera.

It could be argued that he’s gotten too good at this, to the point that audiences are missing the point as to why it’s being done — to confront the sins of America itself, and provide a sort of cathartic release against those sins.

The Bride at the peak of her combative powers, ready to take on the Japanese mafia in KILL BILL (2003, 2004).

The Bride at the peak of her combative powers, ready to take on the Japanese mafia in KILL BILL (2003/2004).

Kill Bill may be the greatest pivot point in his body of work — it was here that he picked up both his chapter-divided structure and strong fixation on cultural revenge. The lead character, known simply as the Bride, is a woman whose wedding rehearsal is ambushed, leaving her in a coma for years — during which she is stripped of her infant daughter, raped in her sleep, and nearly assassinated by the gang she once belonged to. She wakes up one day and begins to take revenge on all who wronged her.

It’s at once Tarantino’s most expansive film — around four and a half hours, front-to-back, yet probably his most focused. Rather than tackle entire racial/cultural groups (as he would later), he allows an outrageously defiled woman to reclaim her dignity and daughter.

The women of DEATH PROOF (2007) fighting for their lives against Stuntman Mike.

The women of DEATH PROOF (2007) fighting for their lives against Stuntman Mike.

He continued much at the same rate for 2007’s Death Proof, likely his most under-seen movie, and quite unfortunately so. It’s the story of psychotic serial-killer ‘Stuntman Mike’, whose main trade is luring young women into his ‘death-proof’ stunt car and creatively offing them.

Even for such a film with such sleazy qualities — frequent close-ups of womens’ feet, incredibly sexualized dialogue, an extended lap-dance sequence — when a group of young women take revenge on Stuntman Mike, it’s immensely satisfying all the same. The key image of the film is in the midst of the famous car-chase — where Stuntman Mike stops chasing a car full of women and instead, the women begin chasing HIM. It’s where victimization turns into empowerment, buried within one of the greatest car-chase sequences of all time. It’s great stuff.

The overarching villain of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) -- and 20th century history itself.

The overarching villain of INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) — and 20th century history itself.

But with 2009’s Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino took his biggest leap forward in artistic maturity and thematic complexity. It’s a revenge movie (noticing a pattern…?) but one accomplished all too cleverly — imagining an alternate reality in which Hitler and much of his Third Reich are violently gunned down in a movie theater by a group of bloodthirsty Jewish-American troops. In essence, this distills his career’s entire thesis statement into one solitary sequence — proclaiming the power of cinema to correct cultural evils and prejudices. This decision to rewrite history drew lots of controversy — by design, it should be noted — but it’s total genius in my book; subtly implying that artistic freedom is a higher end to achieve than historical reverence. Why can’t fictional characters kill Hitler in a fictional movie theater? Why does adhering to history demonstrate any sort of higher ethical value than straying from it?

The hysterically clumsy, utterly doomed Klansmen depicted in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012).

The hysterically clumsy, utterly doomed Klansmen depicted in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012).

By the release of his most recent masterpiece, Django Unchained, popular consciousness began to catch up with the subliminal agenda Tarantino’s set out on for the last decade. (The film, probably his best-received since Pulp Fiction, took home two Oscars for acting and writing.) But this may be his first instance of copy-and-pasting his own themes from film to film. While it’s an incredibly impactful work and certainly among the best American films of its year, depicting the protracted payback of a slave against southern slave-owners, there’s not nearly as much value beneath the bloodshed as the films that came before it. Each new Tarantino film presents a new interpretation of revenge — whether it’s revenge as inversion of genre-film trope, revenge as cathartic release against millenniums of oppressive white male presence, or revenge as example of transcendent power of art. Rather than dig up anything new, Django just sorta cobbles all of these previous philosophies together. It works but it’s not new.

Where he will go next, no one really knows. There’s been whisperings of more Kill Bill offerings, as well as a script entitled Killer Crow, in which black WWII troops band together and slaughter their oppressive white ‘allies’. But for someone with such an incredible sense of cinematic history and context, Tarantino likely knows all too well what happens when directors repeat themselves far too much. With his work, he’s made an incredible collective statement on the value of recognizing cultural misdeeds and punishing those responsible.  But if he wants to exit the conversation for “best directors of the decade” and enter one more akin to “greatest artists of the last half-century”, the dude may need to start playing a new song.

“The Lone Ranger” seems tragically doomed to misappraisal. Here’s why it doesn’t deserve that.

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How rare it is to witness the situation that The Lone Ranger forces me into.

I’m put into the position of having to champion the work of a studio, Disney, whose work normally alienates me, with a lead star, Johnny Depp, whose idiosyncratic overload bores me these days. To help matters none, it’s based on a source material famous enough to be profitable yet hokey enough to laughable, and whose reception, both financially and critically, landed with a thud on par with the likes of historic ‘fiascos’ Heaven’s Gate and 1941. (I count both among my very favorite films, but that’s another conversation.)

This is a summer where blockbusters have essentially pummeled us into submission. As much as I may have liked some of them, there’s no denying that the likes of Fast & Furious 6 and Pacific Rim essentially proclaim “ENJOY ME! ENJOY ME!” with their complete sensory overload. It seems to me that among this onslaught, critics such as myself have been quick to impugn the motives of the season’s crop. It is evident that many films exist to create the money and (more importantly) the obligation for more films. But The Lone Ranger is no soulless, corporate machination — in fact, it may be the most rousing, genuinely interesting blockbuster of the year.

Director Gore Verbinski has carved out his own unique niche: that of the blockbuster auteur. First he managed to crank out a trilogy that was somehow both overexposed and wildly underrated (Pirates of the Caribbean), then picked up an Oscar for Rango, a wild, animated, Hunter S. Thompson-influenced acid-trip Western. With The Lone Ranger Verbinski assimilates all the best qualities of these films (grandiose, inventive set-pieces, strong emphasis on character, go-for-broke visual splendor), picks up a few of the less favorable (laborious length, a few too many side characters) and yet carves out an identity and social consciousness all its own.

Pacific Rim aside, the blockbuster crop this year seems almost hell-bent on asserting vanilla-white characters (racially and literally) as the ultimate protector and hero figure. So to see a $225 million project that casts a Comanche Native American as lead hero, dares question the massive human cost of 19th century expansionism AND spends a significant portion of time dwelling on the mass slaughter of indigenous cultures at the hands of our great “adventurer” forefathers? You’re damn straight I’m more engaged by this than the new Adam Sandler/Kevin James shit-show. The Lone Ranger is thoughtful and reflective while at the same time pushing ever-forward in its giddy, child-like momentum, from set-piece to set-piece to set-piece. It goes on far too long, sure, but the central meat of the film is so engaging to me that it’d be foolish to let length sink it. And what is that meat, you ask?

Well, sure, the film is totally preoccupied with the themes I’ve stated prior: desecration of Native American cultures over time and the impact of the ever-encroaching railroad, mostly. But at its heart, too, it’s also a really goofy buddy comedy, with Johnny Depp’s Tonto and Armie Hammer’s clumsy lawyer-turned-crimefighter John Reid as the central duo. These two have both strong chemistry and individual rhythms of their own. Depp never caves into the self-conscious showboating he’s taken to with Alice in Wonderland and Pirates 4, and Armie Hammer continues his streak as one of the most likable, assertive male presences in movies today. Given that the movie is 150 minutes, however, it certainly takes a while for the whole ‘buddy’ dynamic to fully kick in.

I’m ignoring the elephant(s) in the room, naturally. The train sequences in The Lone Ranger, maaaan.

The film begins and ends with extended chase sequences aboard moving, speeding trains. It is to the film’s credit that, even if they weren’t achieved practically (I have no idea), it feels that way. These sequences move, crunch, and squeak with the impact of real, tangible machines and humans aboard. And regarding the grand finale of The Lone Ranger: I am telling you now, this sequence is an instant, stone-cold, MASTERPIECE of action filmmaking. The film’s reputation is fairly soiled for now but, my god, if nothing else I pray this scene finds its audience in the future.

Gore Verbinski, with The Lone Ranger, has taken the structure and body of a Western classic and infused it with unmistakably modern message and mindset. It’s maddening to me how misunderstood this movie already is. It’s no masterpiece but, in its rambling overflow of sensibilities and ideas, it damn well wants to be. And I struggle to find another film even remotely like it.

“Only God Forgives” fascinating continuation of Refn’s unique cinematic language

Nicolas Winding Refn, during the interviews leading up to Only God Forgives, has emphasized that when making films, he largely makes decisions to satisfy his own visual and violent fetishes — going so far as to label himself a “pornographer” in this specific regard. I’m not sure that he’s wrong, and I’m not sure that I mind. Refn’s certainly made philosophically and socially minded films before — his Danish Pusher trilogy is a statement on futile efforts to find social mobility in the Copenhagen crime underworld, managing to evoke unbearable existential dread in the process. But in recent years he’s preoccupied himself with, more or less, visually-driven pop entertainment: the ebullient, rollicking British character study Bronson, as well as the synth-driven, (infamously) hyper-violent escapist masterpiece Drive. Refn’s developed something of his own cinematic language in the process; distinguished by gaping periods of silence, unusually heightened emotions and sudden bursts of hilariously graphic violence.

With 2011’s Drive, Refn pulled off the near-impossible as far as nutty Danish art-house directors go: he solidified a great creative & personal friendship with one of the most famous men on the planet, Ryan Gosling, achieved fairly potent mainstream box office success and the adoration of the art-house community the world over. The possibilities were infinite. He could get his hands on any franchise on the planet. Any superhero Refn wanted could conceivably go between his lens. He could make anything.

He made Only God Forgives.

A $4.8 million pitch-black, Thailand-set crime drama fairy tale with overtones of incest, sexual assault and frequent mutilation, Only God Forgives is at once a bold rejection by Gosling and Refn of the mainstream success they experienced with Drive and a deeply similar continuation of much of that film’s violent themes and detached style. Remember the scene in Drive where Ryan Gosling viciously, repeatedly stomped a mob henchman’s skull into an elevator floor? Only God Forgives is for those that chuckled at that scene.

Gosling’s character actually has a name this time around — Julian — but funnily enough, he goes even further with the deadly-silent persona that he and Refn have established. He may utter around 20 sentences in the movie. His Julian is enslaved to his foul-mouthed mother Crystal (Kristin Scott-Thomas) to the point of alarm — and so when his brother is murdered by a silent knife-wielding policeman known as the Angel of Death, Crystal sends Julian on a revenge mission to strike him back. Further crippling the already sycophantic Julian: living with the knowledge that his brother was killed for abusing an underage prostitute and thus more than deserved what came to him.

The film thus sets up an inevitable confrontation between Julian and the Angel of Death, but takes its sweet time in doing so. Refn has referred to Only God Forgives as a story of a “man who wants to fight God”, and loudly establishes visual motifs of spiritual conflict and ethical guilt. (You will see men looking at their hands, contemplating past deeds..like, a lot.) Larry Smith’s phenomenal cinematography bathes these abhorrent characters in vivid reds and creeping darkness, which bashes the audience over the head even further with its themes, but in the most beautiful way possible.

There’s a lot of surface-level beauty to be extrapolated from Only God Forgives, and I feel no guilt in admitting that I regard the film highly for it. Nearly films will (rightfully) place their significance in theme, in intertextual reference, in character, and in emotional release. This is fine. For those qualities I will go to them. But with his work here, Refn’s highest end seems to be pushing the visual and sensory potential of cinema to a place as graceful as it is garish. Drive, in its many complexities, was both essay and love-letter: commenting on the dangers of machismo taken to its furthest extreme while proudly embracing the romance and corniness of John Hughes-type movies. If you didn’t find value in one, you could enjoy the other, and this is why Drive found its audience.

Only God Forgives, by contrast, is pure nightmare. And tell me — do your nightmares have to make sense to penetrate your soul?

“Pacific Rim” among the loudest & clangiest films of all time, which works into its favor every step of the way.

Pacific Rim will inspire far more action figures than prolonged conversation, and I mean this in the best way possible. I cannot profess to be any great monster-movie expert, but one doesn’t need to be in order to absorb the passionate, comprehensive vision that writer-director Guillermo del Toro has cooked up. del Toro may be among the most famous, glorious nerds on the planet, a man whose encyclopedic love of all things fantasy, genre and post-modern is known to anyone even vaguely familiar with him. With Pacific Rim he crafts his loudest, brashest entertainment — possibly among the loudest of all time, actually — and happily doesn’t sacrifice any of the idiosyncratic ecstasy that comes with the title-card “A Guillermo del Toro Film”. (I offer as evidence of his mastery the bloody Spanish-language fairy-tales Pan’s Labyrinth and Devil’s Backbone, as well as Hellboy II, one of the nuttiest, best comic-book movies of the decade.)

The way Pacific Rim has history going down, at some point this year, a trans-universal portal will emerge on the rim of the Pacific (cha-ching!) and a terrifying 200-foot monster, dubbed a “Kaiju”, will emerge and smash cities. In order to combat this creature, global governments pool their resources to create the “Jaeger” machine, an equally towering combat robot piloted by two warriors. The Jaeger wins, but Kaijus continue to emerge from the portal every few months, leading to a full-blown army of Jaegers being rolled out.

The film opens in the year 2020, as the world seems to be on its last leg. The Jaegers’ ranks are down to four and Kaijus are beginning to arrive two, three at a time. Here we meet our rugged heroes — Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), who’s still recouping from the loss of his co-pilot brother a few years back, and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), an intelligent analyst longing to be a pilot. Naturally, these two must end up in a Jaeger together, but the film first insists they work out their respective baggage, making for truly engaging character moments in the mid-section of the film. While closer to archetypes than genuine characters, Hunnam and Kikuchi still infuse more than enough soul and effort to make our sympathies lie with them. Idris Elba has a towering role as the Jaeger’s top commander (in the film’s universe, literally the biggest bad-ass alive) and STILL brings depth, contradiction, even weakness to the role. Charlie Day brings his nutty energy from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia to a berserk-scientist role and may be the most lovable guy in the film.

These individuals are largely the reason that Pacific Rim never suffers from what I call “Destruction Porn Syndrome” — where in a movie, the stakes are so ludicrously high (save the city! save the world! grab the girl!), that the audience’s emotional connection is severed and we reject the film’s reality. This said, the film still features three massive battles between Jaeger and Kaiju — battles that take them to space, to the ocean floor and, most notably, to the gorgeous neon-lit streets of Tokyo. del Toro frames and orchestrates these set-pieces with unbelievable brio and visual clarity — not that its much of a challenge to keep 20-story-tall objects in the frame, mind you. Pacific Rim‘s fight sequences are textbook-reference perfect: exciting as shit, clever in their weaponry, visually cohesive, and constantly elevating to levels of near-unbearable stress. Pacific Rim, more than any film I can think of, is combat as an art-form, loaded with indelible images and rugged beauty.

These visuals are the most original aspect of the flick, to be sure, but even the totally derivative aspects are realized with such life and vitality. The plot, while a nutty amalgamation of Godzilla, Top Gun and Star Wars, is such a loving rip-off that its influences are impossible to hold onto too tightly. It’s giddy, it’s clangy, and more often then not, inspires true awe. B+