I'm at convention this weekend; I had planned to arrive in time to watch the late-night rerun of Sharknado, because there was no way I was missing Sharknado. As it turns out, there was a way, since the hotel didn't carry the necessary channel, which meant my plans of a sublime B-movie were dashed.
On the other hand, I saw Pacific Rim last night, which pretty much fit the bill,only better.
Pacific Rim offers, in general, no surprises. (Two scientists are at odds – the certainty of numbers versus the intuitive leap of understanding! Will they ever get along in time to solve the mystery of the kaiju?! Spoilers, they will get along in time.) However, the mecha/monster battles at its heart are stylishly executed, and despite some castoff characterizations and the occasional line that only Idris Elba could save, it makes some twists to the usual tropes, and Pacific Rim is a love letter to B-movies that manages to be pretty awesome about it.
The most marked of those is that we're first introduced to golden boy Raleigh (who narrates the prologue, introducing the first monster literally less than two minutes into the movie – Guillermo del Toro knows why you are here and he is not going to waste your time with backstory or witholding kaiju), who loses his copilot brother in the movie's first monster fight. But his comeback from disgrace for One Last Mission isn't the main arc. Instead, we meet Mako Mori, protege of Idris Elba's Stacker Pentecost (actual character name, this movie is not going to waste your time), who's out to be a pilot to avenge her murdered family. She gets not one arc, but two! One of them with Idris Elba! (Two non-American POC headlining a summer blockbuster as badasses? Proceed!)
And refreshingly, her relationship with Raleigh is gendered but not nearly as romantic as one might expect, and it avoids any lazy conflicts between the two. Raleigh, who throws out the occasional quip but generally avoids the reckless shoulder-chipped angle, encourages her pilot candidacy unreservedly and remains supportive throughout her training, going to bat for her inside and outside the cockpit, and if he happens to occasionally stares at her with some subtextual stars in his eyes that a copilot bond can't quite explain, she's mostly too busy to care.
The movie itself is mostly too busy to care; del Toro's energy is elsewhere. He's tried his level best to demilitarize giant military robot fighters by positing a world in which Jaegers function as products of a multinational cooperative, and function only as well as the emotional bond between the two pilots. (Most pilots are teams of siblings or parent/child for this reason, meaning the whole place is a buffet line of small family conflicts.) A uniformless general oversees the deployment of the last four remaining mecha from four countries, and when it comes to their workings, the movie rolls around gleefully in its worldbuilding, offering both the genuinely clever and the accidentally sublime. (The terms surrounding the neural connection are the most obvious one-two punch of careful thought and shamelessly cheeseball; the constant subconscious connection-by-memory in which the pilots operate is called the Drift, and its dangers to the pilots are many, giving us internal as well as external stakes. It's initiated by a "neural handshake," solemnly read by one of the Ops guys in portentious percentages. Keep that neural handshake at 100%, you kids!)
Given this international neural handshake of kaiju defense, it's a disappointment that during the sections spent rebuilding different generations of mecha from the corners of the earth, there's enough time for the camera to lick the armor on every beast, but not enough time for the teams from Russia or China to get more than three lines each [ETA: and though I forgot to include this when originally writing, I could seriously do without the American callsign of Gipsy Danger]. (Meanwhile, Charlie Day gets an entire subplot through which to mug across Hong Kong like an escapee from Real Genius, a detour whose saving grace is the appearance of Ron Perlman as Ron Perlman in Scene Stealer: The Ron Perlman Story.)
But across the board, they're fighters, and del Toro knows that, really, you're probably here because you want to make sure these mechas can deliver a monster fight.
I will be honest; the Jaeger/Kaiju fights were not an aspect of the movie I was particularly looking forward to. Del Toro loves monsters So Much that it occasionally goes beyond the point of even trying to engage the audience into just playing around because he can, that allowing him a movie entirely about huge robots squaring off with them seemed like it could at any moment devolve into the 150-million-dollar equivalent of smashing two action figures together gleefully for hours. And it is that. But damn, those are some good-looking fights. (Anime fans will either get double their money's worth for all the references and/or be furious at his shot lifts.)
In a wise move, he avoids too much landfall, keeping most of the action in the water, where both monsters and mecha are more nimble (and the Man of Steel property-damage effect is less present). It's also aesthetically smart, since every volley is accompanied with wide veils of water under which the fighters churn, water splashing the camera for verisimilitude. At the same time, the emphasis regularly returns to the human presence inside the mecha, and the battles themselves rarely feel overlong or gratuitous; the threat builds, so the fights build. Another advantage of two leads not given to one-liners: with the battle quips kept to a minimum, we get some visually witty B-movie winks instead. At one point a mecha grinds to a stop, its foot gently tapping a dock post; a bird squawks at the interruption and flies off in a huff.
And because this is a del Toro movie, the monsters have their day; Perlman's character runs a kaiju scavenging ring amid a riot of viscera design, including skin mites the size of French bulldogs and brain cavities big enough to walk through, in protective suits that are as whimsical as eldritch horrors get. Please note: this design enthusiasm does not extend to the future of Hong Kong beyond the occasional set of urbanized kaiju ribs; Blade Runner was good enough for 80% of SF futures since 1982 and it's good enough for del Toro now. But if you wanted fifteen-story mecha with personality to go up against three-thousand-ton monster whose very spleens have been lovingly crafted, this is your movie.
It's not a perfect flick, but B-movies never are. It is a film that knows what it is and does what it sets out to do, with flair and with feeling; summer blockbusters could do a lot worse.