Thursday, July 25, 2013

PACIFIC RIM Is a Pop-Art Passion Project


PACIFIC RIM Review:

- Us movie geeks love Guillermo Del Toro. The man is a hardcore nerd, a scholar of film, and comes off as both the nicest and the most hilariously vulgar man in Hollywood. He's also a hell of a director. He's one of the few genre directors who is as much about the *artistry* behind the images he puts onscreen as he is about pyrotechnics. His work overflows with love and passion for the material, whether it's adapted (Hellboy, Blade) or original (Pan's Labyrinth). There's an appreciation for the history of the material as well that most big-budget genre movies rarely display. In the Hellboy films, you could see Del Toro striving to honor the unique art style and atmosphere pioneered by franchise creator Mike Mignola. In Pan's Labyrinth, you could feel Del Toro both paying homage to the history of the horror and fantasy genres, but also imbuing the film with a sense of wonder and imagination that rarely, if ever, is seen in so many off-the-assembly-line genre flicks. So let me again sing the praises of Guillermo Del Toro, and stop any detractors in their tracks. This is the kind of director that we need more of - people who love movies, who fight tooth and nail to make movies that represent a specific vision and that come from a place of passion.

I could write a whole separate column about the relative box office disappointment of Pacific Rim in the US, and how it brings out the legions of haters who like to rag on talented filmmakers for the (out-of-their-hands) fact that their movie underperformed. Would I have liked Pacific Rim to be a giant mega-hit? Sure. But ultimately, I am happy that a movie like this was made to begin with.

"A movie like what?" you may ask. After all, part of the reason that Pacific Rim may not have struck box office gold is that, admittedly, to many it probably came off, from the ads, as simply some sort of Transformers rip-off. Sad. Aside from everything else, Pacific Rim owes less to Transformers and more to the classic Japanese "kaiju" movies of the famed Toho studios - Godzilla, Mothra, et al. Its influences include giant monster movies, giant robot movies, Japanese anime, and classic 50's sci-fi. But more so than that, those in-the-know, well, they knew that Guillermo brings something different to the table - that passion and vision that I talked about above, that level of artistry, that the likes of a Michael Bay could only dream of.

So what you need to know about PACIFIC RIM is that it's just plain chock-full of awesome. The inherent conceptual premise is that it takes the sense of wonder, fun, horror, and humor of those old kaiju movies and takes it all to the next level, thanks to the wonders of modern f/x technology. In some ways, I would almost compare Pacific Rim to other modern pop-art genre films like Speed Racer and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World. Because Pacific Rim essentially distills the aesthetics of old man-in-suit monster movies, anime, videogames, and other non-traditional movie trappings into a modern-day action blockbuster. To put it simply: Pacific Rim is the ultimate live-action Saturday morning cartoon. This is a movie best enjoyed high-on-sugar and best viewed by your inner kid. If you *are* a kid, hopped up on Fruit Loops, and watching Pacific Rim ... chances are it'll be your favorite movie ever.

Yes, Pacific Rim is pop-art bliss. A movie not afraid to - without any sense of irony - end a massive mech robot vs. monster fight in outer space, the two hulking behemoths punching it out, evenly matched ... until the mech activates a last resort super-attack, unleashing a giant sword worthy of Voltron, and carving the monster decisively for ultimate victory. If that image makes you even slightly giddy, well, you'd better go see the movie, asap.

Here's the thing though: Pacific Rim - despite what the marketing told you - is more than just giant robots vs. giant monsters. Yes, that's the premise. But this is a movie filled with great, larger-than-life characters and great character moments. Everyone and *everything* in the movie has personality to spare. The giant robots - the Jaegers, as they're called here - each is an extension of their pilots' persona. Furthermore, each Jaeger is controlled by a mental mindlink called "the drift." Because of the mental stamina needed to neurally control a Jaeger, each has at least two pilots. And those pilots are bound by a psychic bond, in which each is fully exposed to the other's thoughts and memories. This sets up some wonderful character dynamics, and it's a clever device that pays dividends in numerous ways.

But let's back up for a second and talk plot. The background here (set up wonderfully in a mind-melting prologue montage) is that, years ago, a dimensional rift opened up deep beneath the Pacific Ocean. From it, one by one, emerged giant monsters - "kaiju" - hellbent on destruction. To combat the monsters, nations and armies banded together to construct the towering Jaegers. For a while, it appeared that humanity had turned the tide. Kaiju were dispatched of relatively easily, and there was talk of disbanding the Jaeger program. But now, suddenly, the frequency of kaiju attacks has increased. The remnants of the Jaeger program aren't enough to fight back. And so, a last ditch plan is formulated to attack the dimensional rift itself, and end the kaiju threat once and for all.

To carry out the plan, program leader Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) - a retired pilot himself - recruits the man who was once one half of the Jaeger battalion's most celebrated team: Raleigh Becket. For years, Raleigh and his brother co-piloted the Jaeger known as Gipsy Danger - until a fateful day when Raleigh's brother was killed in action. Now a drifter, Raleigh is convinced by a desperate Stacker to come back to the squad. There, he is joined by all manner of colorful characters: the unpredictable team of Australian pilots comprised of Hercules Hansen and his temperamental son Chuck, the Japanese trio the Wei Tang Triplets, and the imposing Russian husband-and-wife team, the Kaidanofskys. There's also Mako Mori - Stacker's right-hand-woman, who herself dreams of piloting a Jaeger. As the movie progresses, we find out the reasons why, and see how her unique relationship with Stacker came to be. We also see how, in Raleigh, she finds an ally and friend - and possibly a love interest.

Outside of the main team of Jaeger pilots, we've also got a pair of slightly mad scientists tasked with studying the kaiju. There's also Ron Pearlman as Hannibal Chou, a big deal man-with-a-plan who's cornered the black market on all things kaiju-related and kaiju-derived.

I love the characters in this film. They're all big, bold, painted in broad strokes, and immensely larger-than-life. I came away from Pacific Rim wanting a Gipsy Danger T-shirt, a Hannibal Chou action figure, and a Wei Tang Triplets spin-off movie.

In terms of performances, the standouts here are many. Idris Elba as Stacker is one of those roles that again shows why Idris Elba is the man. Effortlessly badass and charismatic, this is the character who gives the big speeches and rallying cries that give you goosebumps. Rinko Kickuchi is fantastic as Mako - a great female character. She's a tempestuous mix of fear and rage. She's a do-gooder scarred by childhood trauma. And she kicks ass. One of the best scenes in the movie - one that should have been in the trailers to help sell the great character moments - involves Mako being pitted against Raleigh in hand-to-hand combat, as a means of testing their potential as warriors and possibly as partners. In Kickuchi's face we see Mako's story - a woman who's been underestimated and sheltered by her overprotective caretakers, but who is ready to show the world that she can hold her own. Meanwhile, Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are a great comedic duo as Geizler and Gottlieb - the group's two off-kilter scientists whose professional rivalry sometimes gets the best of them. Day in particular brings a manic energy to the movie - gelling perfectly with the movie's anything-goes tone. Clifton Collins Jr. brings Elvis-esque swagger to the role of Ops Tendo Choi. And of course, Ron Pearlman is fantastic as Hannibal Chou. He's one of those actors who (literally, this happened in our theater) elicits applause just by appearing on-screen. You can always count on Pearlman to entertain, and here, he doesn't disappoint - decked in crazy-ass outfits like a character imagined from some anime-induced fever-dream.

From reading the character names alone, you can probably get a sense for the sheer sense of fun in this movie. There's no pretense here of being gritty, realistic, or dark. This is pure pop, and Gulliermo and co. unabashedly go big in all areas of the film.

As for Charlie Hunnam's lead role as Raleigh -- I liked him. He's got the screen presence to make for an excellent central hero. Ultimately, does he come off as slightly bland when paired with the more colorful characters who surround him? Perhaps a bit. Does Hunnam have what it takes to make Raleigh into the an iconic sci-fi hero on par with Luke Sywalker or Ellen Ripley? Perhaps not. Hunnam is good, but some combination of his acting and the script perhaps leads to a lead character just a bit less memorable than he might have been.

On a related note, the characters are so brimming with potential that I left wanting more. In some ways, that's a sign of great characters. But I would have liked just a bit more exploration of their backstories, and at least a couple more moments where the cool side characters get a chance to shine. If there's one flaw with Pacific Rim, it's probably just that the script, at times, feels a little flimsy. I suspect that some of the meatier character stuff was left on the cutting room floor (or reserved for the prequel comic book), in favor of more action. But ultimately, it's forgivable, because it fits with the hyperactive Saturday morning aesthetic of the film.

Visually, PACIFIC RIM is a marvel. Elaborate CGI creatures and f/x are so commonplace these days, that the creatures in and of themselves aren't as impressive as they might have been a decade or two ago. But what separates this film from others is the sheer artistry of it all. There's a sense of imagination and design here that most films lack. Like I said, the mechs are filled with personality and character. The creatures, similarly, are gloriously realized monstrosities that combine the cheesy splendor of the old Toho beasts with modern touches and details. Guillermo Del Toro is perhaps the best in the business at creating a mind-blowing setting and filling it with so much imaginative detail that you just want to freeze frame in order to take it all in. One of Del Toro's trademarks is crafting such scenes as if they were elaborate illustrations, drawing you in and immersing you in this exquisitely crafted world. Some of the movie's best scenes, for example, involve kaiju-ravaged Hong Kong. It's like Blade Runner meets Land of the Lost, with the neon-lit city re-built around the ruins and skeletons of vanquished kaiju. Later, inside the hidden HQ of Hannibal Chou, we see eye-melting scenes of Chou's collection of kaiju spare parts, like some weird monster museum. Scenes like these are realized so vividly that it feels like we're watching not just a movie, but a direct line into Guillermo Del Toro's dreams.

The action scenes are similarly vivid. We don't just get robots clanging up against monsters. We get gorgeously-rendered scenes of giant mechs towering over neon-lit cities. Ominous depictions of monsters rising out of the sea, waves crashing as they roar with evil intent. Epic clashes of science vs. nature - with claws and tendrils challenged by rocket-powered missiles and pro-wrestling style power-slams. This isn't just sound and fury, it's the stuff that childhood (and adult) dreams are made of.

My only complaint about the action is that the plot dictates that so much of it take place in stormy seas, sometimes in the ocean's deepest and darkest depths. This means that the action occasionally feels slightly obscured, and, once in a while, a bit hard to follow.

Overall though, there is so much visual punch in Pacific Rim that the effect is that of the best kind of sensory overload. The characters, the battles, the primal conflict of man vs. beast are depicted with so much epicness that you may find yourself sitting and doodling scenes from the film when it's over. There's just a palpable and contagious sense of creativity on display here, making it easy to overlook the occasional cheesy line of dialogue or what have you.

Guillermo Del Toro dedicates Pacific Rim to Ray Harryhausen (recently passed away, a man whose legacy looms large over this and all other blockbuster genre films) and IshirĊ Honda (the legendary director of Godzilla and its spin-off films). And more than anything, Pacific Rim is a tribute to and an extension of those great movies of old - and to the f/x wizards who made the impossible seem real. The movie's overarching theme is that mankind can do the impossible if we set our minds to it. And in their own way, Harryhausen and his peers did just that. That's why I'll always root for and support the Guillermo Del Toros of the world. Their movies may not be perfect, but there is that sense of wonder in their DNA that makes us remember why we love these movies in the first place. If you need to be inspired, awed, or reminded of that creative spark that tends to dull over time - go see Pacific Rim. It's proof that even in an age where we take the impossible for granted, old-school movie magic yet lives.

My Grade: A-

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