7/11/2013

Review: 'Pacific Rim', Directed by Guillermo Del Toro


While it's preferable to leave aside the movie politics and the Internet hype that surrounds any film, it's tough to do that with a summer blockbuster the size of Guillermo Del Toro's Pacific Rim. To put it bluntly, a lot of people have saddled his sci-fi juggernaut with a ton of expectations, some good and some not so good, that are unfair in a number of different ways. Whether it's the negative and vastly out of whack notion that it's little more than a Transformers knock-off, or that it's the most important original property in ages and must be supported (lest it flop like analysts project), it's tough to not walk into the film without some opinion already formed about it.

                                
The simple truth of the matter is that Pacific Rim is way smarter than Transformers, and even though it's not the most original of concepts, through sheer size, scope, and audacity it stomps every other summer blockbuster flat. Nothing else compares to the gargantuan Colossus-inspired scale of giant monsters slugging it out with equally massive robots. It's truly impressive what Del Toro, who just a few years ago was the guy who made really cool creatures for Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, can do when his imagination is allowed to run unfettered. So even if the script co-written by Del Toro and Travis Beacham, riffs on many familiar war movie tropes and takes liberally from the likes of Top Gun, the line of American movies that look anything close to Pacific Rim is extremely short. Which is to say the line doesn't exist at all.

Drawing inspiration from the likes of Robotech, Gundam, Voltron, and other Japanese pop cultural phenomenon, Del Toro lovingly and enthusiastically lets his geek flag fly. What's more, this isn't just a blind clashing of clunky robots with all of the grace of a garbage compactor. Pacific Rim is gorgeous, glittery, and the over-sized battles choreographed with operatic precision. Under any other director's hands this could have been a logistical nightmare, at worse an ugly assault on the senses, but Del Toro is always in complete control.

Less promising is the storyline itself, and the lack of human characterization that gets lost while you're in awe watching a Jaeger wield a battleship like a katana. A brilliant intro clues us in to the fate befalling humanity in the near future, when towering creatures known as Kaiju began emerging from a rift in the ocean floor, destroying coastal cities and wiping out the population. To fight the threat, the world's governments put aside all of their petty differences and began the Jaeger program creating skyscraper-sized robotic warriors to combat the Kaiju. In full-on Maverick mode, Charlie Hunnam plays Raleigh Beckett, a hot shot Jaeger pilot whose reckless stunts got his brother killed, forcing him out of the program just when he's needed most. Six years later, the Kaiju are stronger than ever, and the governments have grown tired of funding the failing program. But that doesn't sit well with the awesomely-named General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who decides to round up his few remaining Jaegers and mount one final assault. To do it, he'll need Raleigh back, and he'll also need his old washed-up Jaeger to be brought back from the scrap heap.  Because every story like this needs them, there are a couple of goofball scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) to provide comic relief and explain things. There's also the General's troubled right-hand woman, Mako Mori (Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi), who shares a past with the General nobody knows about.

So you have all of the familiar archetypes in place, and it's impossible to escape the fact that some aspects of the film are riddled with clich├ęs. Raleigh needs to learn how to be a team player and put his ego aside, and as he does so he squabbles with a fellow pilot (Rob Kazinsky) who has a chip on his shoulder. Mako has vengeance on her mind but must overcome her fears to ever have a real chance at it. We've seen it all before, but there's nothing really wrong with that, and in some ways it’s comforting that the script bothers to make this a story about humans as much as it is about monster brawls. The simple story also leaves plenty of room for a few brilliant ideas to take root. The best by far involves the Jaeger pilots needing to form a neural bridge and meld minds to fight effectively. It involves the unrestrained sharing of memories, can make or break a partnership real fast. The Kaiju design, mostly taken from various forms of lizard and aquatic animal life, draws from the story's other surprising idea. It’s probably left unspoiled, but Del Toro and Beacham clearly put a lot of thought into why the Kaiju look the way they do. And of course, at times of tragedy there are always those seeking to make a dollar from it. Enter the gruff and eccentric Ron Perlman as a black market dealer and Kaiju aficionado. Most of the performances are functional at best, with Hunnam only coming to life when he's throwing punches. Elba is as cool and authoritative as ever, but his Braveheart-esque "we're canceling the apocalypse" speech feels forced and uninspired.

This is Del Toro's show, though, and he does a masterful job of creating a sense of awe around every single Kaiju encounter. They're so huge that we never see one in full, but we can see of them is spectacular. The mecha design is even better, with each Jaeger adopting traits specific for their locale. The American 'bot Gipsy Danger has an Art Deco model reminiscent of New York skyscrapers, while the Japanese one will have Robotech fans salivating. Most of the fights take place at night, but even with 3D it never gets murky or tough to follow. The amount of destruction would give Man of Steel a run for its money, but unlike Zack Snyder's film it never slips into repetition.


Clearly, Pacific Rim has a very specific target audience, and it mostly consists of folks who are packing their bags for Comic-Con right now.  But those who pass it by because they think it will be too geeky will be missing out on what is definitely the biggest movie of the summer. It may not be perfect in the way it handles characters, but Pacific Rim is fun, epic, exhilarating, and the reason why we get excited for this time of year.