Saturday, July 13, 2013

Review: "Pacific Rim"

If the idea of a director at the top of his game making a movie solely on the basis that it excites his inner child somehow doesn't appeal to you, I need you to stop reading. Right now. This film isn't for you. Go and watch The King's Speech or something droll. Alright? Alright.

So. Guillermo del Toro is indisputably an expert filmmaker, having mastered a fair degree of genres and amassing well-deserved popularity, and that might just be me, but I'm pretty certain it's an established fact. He explored similar "monster movie" ideas in films like Pan's Labyrinth and the Hellboy series - so, in a way, Pacific Rim is a culmination of his previous interests into one colossal, big-budget summer release - a film where giant robots punch giant lizards in the face, with all of the polish such a concept has rarely deserved (or afforded).

Undoubtedly, Pacific Rim's tone is what will ultimately set it apart from its contemporaries. While even the joke-heavy Transformers pulled itself up on (failed) attempts at legitimacy and pageantry, Pacific Rim is a wry, knowing wink to a time where you could laugh at the "serious" parts of a film; where even among unimaginable horrors of war, death, and psychological distress, a thick layer of self-awareness permeated any chance of it becoming in any way grim. Not to say that the story isn't involving, of course. The carefree tone lets the film run wild with a number of extremely curious sci-fi ideas, creating an intriguing world filled with interesting people. The pacing is impeccable, with all the information being doled out at a steady rate without any kind of over-reliance on dumps of exposition, and the action hits astonishing crescendos at just the right moments. Never once is it a boring film, and for a film just over two hours long, it keeps interest maintained with absolute gusto.

In a nutshell, humanity is being invaded by giant beasts called Kaiju (who are attacking from a portal, to another dimension, deep beneath the pacific ocean), and so send manned robots called Jaegers to fight them. Since the Jaegers are so big, it's established two pilots are required to operate them - going into a mind meld neural link kind of thing, sharing the load so their brains don't collapse. (That concept approaches techno-thriller levels of interesting, but, while it is explored in tantalizing detail, it's never so important that it does anything but explain why there need to be two pilots in a Jaeger at the same time.) The Jaegers are sent out to punch and kick and shoot the Kaiju to death. Eventually the Kaiju seemingly "adapt" to the Jaeger's attacks, and the machines become increasing less effective. Thus enter Pacific Rim - ostensibly a story about the Jaeger program's one last strike at the alien threat before its decommission by the government in favour of just building really big walls. Walls which of course end up working perfectly, in a staggering twist on genre tropes that oh wait no not really

The cast is led up by a very dry Charlie Hunnam as "stock troubled white protagonist #7186". He's an expert Jaeger pilot who lost his brother and so has to be wooed back into action with promises of etc. He's joined by Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori, a young rookie who has always dreamed of becoming a Jaeger pilot. So far, so boring. Hunnam's performance is absolutely adequate, while Rinko's is ever-so-slightly above adequate.

The supporting cast, with Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman and Ron Perlman, all absolutely pick up the slack. From a veteran pilot turned fleet commander, to a Kaiju war profiteer who sells off bits of their enormous carcasses on the black market, to a "Kaiju Groupie" of a scientist who obsesses over the creatures and "dreams of seeing them up-close and alive" - they're all colourful, varied, and likable, breathing a welcome personality into the proceedings that Charlie Hunnam absolutely does not provide.

The focus on the human element of the plot isn't intrinsically dense, but it is effective at making sure we, as an audience, understand how big a deal these Kaiju actually are. Human life is given a higher price in this film than one would expect, with careful detail given to show that, yes, buildings are toppling over and cars are being trodden on and boats are being capsized, but citizens have all been evacuated, and loss of human life is absolutely tragic no matter the circumstances. This is in stark contrast to Man of Steel's blatant disregard for human life, and it is damn welcome, make no mistake of that.

The real star of the show is the production design, though. There's a vein of sheer, unbridled craftsmanship and artistry running through Pacific Rim that very much mirrors del Toro's previous films - in particular Hellboy II, which is literally one of the best-looking films ever made, and that there's a fact, ladies and gentlemen. A fear of mine that the lack of man-in-suit or animatronic creatures and robots would somehow diminish the callbacks to the progenitors of the genre; with fantastic art design and staggeringly perfect cinematography, most of those fears fly out the window. The use of props, outfits and sets is pleasantly abundant, albeit less so than in Pan's Labyrinth, and the sheer sense of scale, scope, and weight to everything shown on screen is tangible. I haven't seen things that are meant to be big look this properly BIG before, and I can't imagine much comes close. The excessive use of CGI quickly becomes justified as the true scale of the film opens up - a sprawling, realistically weighted, and sometimes uncanny hugeness that is absolutely one of the film's finest achievements. And that's all without mentioning the Jaeger and Kaiju designs themselves, all of which are deliciously simple and effective in a way that raises quite a large middle finger to the likes of the busy, over-complicated designs of Michael Bay's Transformers.

Specifically regarding the cinematography, it reminds me rather a lot of Skyfall in its artistry - everything is framed like a goddamn painting, with utter importance placed on scale, colour, lighting, and perspective. There is some egregious use of "shakey cam," but 99% of the film is shot flat. In particular, the establishing shots used to demonstrate the height of the Jaegars, or the inside of facilities, or just the empty city streets before a Kaiju hits, are flawless and beautiful. It is a damn good looking film, and it's cut together expertly by people who seemingly give a shit. That's really comforting to know, that there are films like this still being made. There are scenes in particular - and I shan't ruin them - that are jaw-dropping in their haunting beauty, and they prove that del Toro understands this medium visually unlike any other director in Hollywood.

Strangely enough, after all of that, I think the worst thing about the film is... well... the fights.

And boy is that an odd thing to have said.

The film's script is fast-paced and quick-witted. The art design, sound design, music, score, costumes, props, CG art, animation... pretty much everything is perfect, and it all suits the tone absolutely to a tee. Everything folds into Pacific Rim in a way that absolutely achieves more or less everything the film sets out to do - an exciting, cheeky, imaginative robot on monster epic. And yet, when the robots finally get onto the monsters... the imagination seems to drain out.

Now, it is fairly exciting. They're still as well paced as any other element of the movie, the fight scenes. But they are far less imaginative and compelling than I would have liked. I mean, I wasn't expecting Godzilla vs Hedorah kind of stuff, but for a film that has robots with dual sawblades, swords, and plasma cannons sticking out of them - and monsters with horns, wings, six arms, giant claws, and what have you - there's an inane amount of the fighting that boils down to "robot and monster collide with each other and maybe kind of grab each other or punch each other at the same time".

There are key moments in which the set pieces seem to have set pieces of their own - and those are phenomenal. Scenes set in the upper stratosphere, scenes where tanker boats collide with faces... scenes where swords gut Kaiju like fish... it's all here, and it's all incredible. But around it there is a resigned, mundane nature to how it all goes down. For a film so utterly excited about showing off robots, about showing off monsters, and all the people involved at their feet... it has very little truly creative to show off when they finally go head-to-head.

At any rate, there comes a point where it really doesn't matter. I didn't realize, but it was true, that I had a smile on my face the whole time when watching Pacific Rim. It's a really quite charming example of a director making a film he wants to make, and - as I've mentioned - everything in the production design and writing is excited. It's juvenile concept collides with unmatched craftsmanship and attention to detail, creating a spectacle of a motion picture experience that is never once not passionate about so much as merely existing. It is a shame, I suppose, that at some point the film supposedly gets more excited about setting up fights than actually doing them.

With the impeccable sense of weight and scale, I can't imagine anyone invested in the kaiju genre would walk away disappointed. I also would feel that fans of goofy science-fiction will walk away absolutely satisfied - there's some truly intriguing concepts explored in this film, a cast of characters that are truly fun to be around, and a lot of cool gadgets and techno-babble nonsense to sink your teeth into. Del Toro's respect, admiration, and inspiration for the genre is liberal and welcome - a truly "in the know" film that pays both homage and respect to its roots, to the point that, that the film is dedicated to "monster masters" Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda, is absolute no surprise.

 For the most part, though, the meat of the film - set-piece man vs monster brawls - are predictable and uninspired, saved only by occasional glimpses of utter creative genius... a creative genius that is shamefully not running throughout the entirety of those scenes. So, yeah, Pacific Rim... it's good. I wholeheartedly recommend it. Just not for what I thought I'd end up recommending it for.


  1. Not the best blockbuster of the summer, but still a whole bucket of fun. Good review Andy.