PACIFIC RIM REVIEW
When it comes to movies I am a surprisingly simple, yet contradictory person. I love, even admire bad film (doom, rocky horror picture show) while frequently detesting great ones (pulp fiction, rocky). I love hyper violent shoot-em-up movies like the terminator and robocop. I love musicals both good and bad, like Chicago and Mamma Mia! Drama, horror, thrillers, science fiction, the same general rule applies. I am not too crazy about comedy, despite my love of comedic elements. I don’t consider myself particularly funny, and I typically don’t find contemporary humor all that amusing. So, what drives my “eclectic” cinematic tastes? First, ambition. A film has to dare the establishment to challenge how we see things. Film has to be unrelenting and visceral. To me, a film has to fundamentally do one of two things: either tell a story that hasn’t been told before. That, or tell one that has been told but in an absolutely mind blowing way. Some of my favorite films I films that were high in ambition yet low on achievement. I have no problem giving an A for effort. On of my favorite films is the utterly abhorrent film, “Final Fantasy: Spirits Within”.. Why would I embrace such rubbish? Because it was ambitious. It tried to do something that hadn’t been done. It wanted to tell a new kind of story in an unusual and thrilling way. I love it to this day. The second thing film must do is understand and embrace its place in the cinematic landscape. If I go see potential Oscar bait, I expect an Oscar worthy performance. If I go see a summer blockbuster, I expect mindless entertainment and gloriously pompous vulgarity. Honestly, I would rather watch the latter because movies, first and foremost, are entertainment; an escape to an alternate world where the real world isn’t so daunting, even if only for a few hours.
When it comes to creating a massive, ball-busting blockbuster, the whole thing typically has to be greater than the sum of its constituent parts. My favorite summer blockbuster ever is Independence Day. The dialogue is cheesy, characters wooden, and narrative wholly unoriginal, yet whole is one of the greatest cinematic spectacles in cinematic history. Ask any cynic if they weren’t impressed when the aliens blew up the White House. If they say no, congratulations, you know a bold-faced liar. Independence Day had grand ambition, yet was grounded enough to not take itself too seriously. Summer popcorn flix frequently become weighed down by their own pompous narrative. I remember seeing it in 1996 and can vividly recall the audience’s wonder and excitedment. To me, that excitement has been missing. It takes a keen mix of ambition and humility to make a great film. Yet, there is also one secret ingredient that is rarely used properly: size and scope. Independence Day is a film of incredible scale and scope, with characters spread all over the continent being hunted by 15-mile wide space ships that incinerate entire cities. The audience knew they were participating in a grand spectacle. All we had to so was sit back, enjoy the popcorn and cheer. Sadly, too many films have forgotten or dismissed this core ethos, leaving me perpetually disappointed. Then I saw Pacific Rim…
In full disclosure, I have been looking forward to this movie since the new year. I was utterly shocked and awed by the trailer and how unrelenting it was. Needless to say, I was fired up. However, this is bit the first movie I was hyped up for. Terminator Salvation. Watchmen. The Dark Knigt Rises. All were potentially grand cinematic revivals and all failed desperately short of expectations. Not to say there was anything wrong with these films, but there was something missing. Naturally, I feared the same inevitable fate for pacific rim. I was not convinced that Hollywood could do a gigantic robot (mecha) vs gigantic monster (kaiju) showdown without fucking it up. The trailer for pacific rim sold me from the outset: Gundams fighting against Godzilla narrated by Jax Teller from Sons of Anarchy, led by the Captain from Prometheus. FUCKING AWESOME! SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY! I was excited because Hollywood had finally decided to capture my youth on film. I had grown up watching gundam, robotech, voltron, and the originally kaiju baddie himself: Godzilla, mechagodzilla, mothra, and the rest of the bastards. Hell, even power rangers were influenced by these two genres (megazords much?). Okay, now to backtrack. Mecha is a style of anime/manga where humans pilot giant powered robotic suits generally designed to kick ass in some outlandish and extraordinary way. Kaiju are Japanese monsters whose sole purpose is to destroy cities (usually Tokyo) in some outlandish and extraordinary way. It is not difficult to understand the potential for awesome. What we have is the grandest cinematic version of unstoppable force meets immovable object. The gist of the plot is fairly simple, if not silly. An interdimensional portal has opened in the Pacific Ocean, unleashing these city-fucking murder lizards onto coastal cities like San Francisco, killing many millions, most of whom were probably squished while screaming, “GOJIRA!!!” Humanity unites, combining its collective resources to fight back against the kaiju menace. This solution is the Jaeger Program: a piloted “mobile suit” capable of knocking the kaiju back into their own dimension. The machine is controlled by two pilots who’s brains are linked together with the machine in “The Drift” a sort of Vulcan mind meld threesome between the two pilots and the machine. Sounds juicy. But would it work? My most crippling fear was that the grandiose concept just wouldn’t work with modern cinema audiences. For years, giant mobile suits have piloted the pages of countless manga and anime series, while kaiju were free to run rampant through camptastic B-movies. They worked in both mediums so well because the medium requires a suspension of disbelief. The audience knows its not real but revels in the fantasy anyways. Both niches were resigned to children or 30 year old misanthropes who live at home. Modern cinema audiences are much more skeptical and cynical. If I told them to watch a movie with giant machines punching Godzilla in the face, they would tell me to get lost, all while buying tickets to “Identity Thief”. The challenge is to make the audience believe that it is real and to buy in. Enter the brilliance of Guillermo Del Toro.
Del Toro is known as a visionary director who has an fondness for lavishly overindulging his audience’s eyeballs. Pan’s Labrynth was a stunning visual spectacle. Hellboy II, while grossly convoluted, was a shimmering joy to look at. I personally am a sucker for great visual and audio. Great cinematography, visual, and audio can cover even the most egregious film defects. One of my favorite films if Tron: Legacy, not because I am nostalgic or a simpleton, but because it simply the best looking and sounding film I had ever seen. Del Toro is known for his dramatic eye for detail, and the film is that much better for it. The film has a rather stark color palate of greys, whites, black, only to be offset briefly but sharply by the luminous hues of Hong Kongs neon signs, the Shatterdome control room, even the Jaegers themselves. The sound of this film is simply incredible. The diegetic sounds, from the Jaegers movements, to the sirens, even the bloodcurdling howl of the kaiju evoke strength, power, and a certain majesty. The soundtrack is perfect. As a (much more esteemed) colleague pointed out, Zimmer would have been too heavy for this kind of work. Ramin Djawadi’s score is triumphant and driving, with overdriven guitars crunching, and industrial/electronic notes coinciding with traditionally symphonic elements. The way a film looks and sounds, to me, plays a much larger role than the narrative. Anybody can tell the story of Star Wars but to watch the Death Star Trench Run is something else entirely. Great visual and sound transports you to a different world. Del Toro wanted to create a world a recognizable world, yet one that was seen as distant. You can see this in the environment, but more noticeably, in the look and design of the Jaegers. The main Jaeger is Gipsy Danger, piloted by Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kinkuchi). Gipsy Danger is a gargantuan and terrifying weapon of war, standing 260 feet tall and weighing a staggering 1980 tones. See what I mean by scale? The first thing you notice is the sheer size and, oddly, it’s bulk. Gipsy Danger, nor any of the other Jaegers, could be described as spry, nimble, or agile. Many past mobile suits were noted for their grace, agility, and smooth combat. Not the Jaegers. I think Del Toro did this on purpose, wanting to create a machine that could be viewed as a logical mechanical evolution. There is a belief that such a machine is possible to build, not just imagine. Gipsy Danger is heavy, cumbersome, does not move with any semblance of grace, and beats Kaiju to death with its fists. Watching a Jaeger-Kaiju fight is more similar to rock’em-sock’em robots than any gundam Godzilla battle. Well, duh! That would seem to be a logical combat evolution. If its clearly noted that guns, rockets, and bombs don’t work, why not face fuck the murderlizard to death with your rocket fist? The Jaegers are the star of this film, but I will touch on that later.
As I said earlier, great blockbusters require that the film be greater than the whole of its parts. Pacific Rim follows, even exceeds this standard. Many critics have picked apart Charlie Hunnam’s performance as Raleigh Becket, yet I found the characters depth and sincerity refreshing given recent brooding a melodrama. Rinko Kinkuchi’s portrayal as Mako Mori is brilliant, despite her appalling accent. Her character is obviously deeply traumatized and it clearly shows. She is meek, fragile, eager to please, yet silently capable. Raleigh and Mako are reticent heroes, yet unlike many other “heroes” who require vengeance as motive, they do not shy away from their duty. They fight because they have to, their duty serving as their release. Whereas Batman was Bruce Wayne’s drugs, Gipsy Danger is the pilots therapy; the perfect instrument to slay their demons. The main emotional character of the film comes from Idris Elbas’s towering performance as Marshall Stacker Pentacost. First of all, I hope half of this films gross goes to the person who named everything. Stacker Pentacost!! You couldn’t have a manlier name if you had named him Charles Van Thundercock! Elba gives the films it’s fortitude. His eyes and solemn face mirror the machines he command. In the beginning, he is enigmatic, almost insidious. Yet, as his motivations become clear, his stern demeanor becomes a column of strength. The three leads give tremendous emotional support, if not depth to film. Despite all outward appearances, this film is surprisingly human. Hell, the Jaegers only work when the pilots connect their brains together in the machine, sharing thoughts, memories, and fears. Many apocalyptic-fetish film attempts to detail the physical costs of eradication; Pacific Rim details the emotional loss. This film will never be confused with Schindler’s List in terms of emotional brevity, but look at the characters. Smiles and laughs are rare. You never see a Jaeger pilots boasting (mostly). It would seem the pilots know they are fighting a battle they have no chance of winning, yet continue anyway. All of the supporting characters add a touch of charm to an otherwise dour film. Ron Perlman is his typically slimy, charming self. Charlie Day is surprisingly eloquent and humorous. I enjoyed their perspectives in the film.
Del Toros brilliance is not just his mastery of the lense (no shaky cam or lense flair here!) but his own understanding of his movie. It is perfectly obvious that he cared, and put a great deal of soul and passion into his film. Del Toro is an admitted fan of the Kaiju and Mecha subgenre and he wanted to show off for the audience. He understood that the audience did not pay $15 to see a bunch of brooding, passive aggressive heroes lashing out. The audience came to see a mecha-kaiju royal rumble! Knowing the star is critical for the success of any movie yet is frequently overlooked by directors. People didn’t see Transformers for Shia LeBeouf, they went for Optimus Prime. Yet, Michael Bay continued to shove his irritating protagonist down our throats to the breaking point of audience rebellion. I have given JJ Abrams praise for knowing the star of his film. Abrams knew the star of Star Trek wasn’t Chris Pine or Zachary Quinto. It was the USS Enterprise. Del Toro knows the Jaegers and the Kaiju are his stars. He embraces it and shows them in their full, terrifying form. There is no “Cloverfield moment” in Pacific Rim. Del Toro is a fan first and foremost. He pays homage to many mecha-kaiju influences. This is shown in its most awesome form via what i have termed as, “Hagerty’s First Law of Voltron”: never pull out your giant sword until you really, REALLY need it! See the movie to catch my point. Again, Del Toro is proud of his monsters and he wants to show them off. And boy are they impressive!! The scale of the Kaiju is mind boggling and terrifying. The scale is ludicrous! The thing that impressed me most about the Kaiju was their sheer power. If you go back and watch the film, the Jaegers get their asses kicked pretty frequently and thoroughly. Gipsy Danger gets mauled, not once, but twice! Crimson Typhoon is obliterated after a great deal of chest thumping, and Cherno Alpha (again, awesome name!) eventually succumbs to the Kaiju gangbang. Actually, the death of Cherno Alpha was my favorite scene in the film. In this scene, as the cockpit floods and the Kaiju rip open the Jaeger like a sardine can, you can feel the real, palpable fear of the pilots and the audience. I was not expecting such tension, and fear. I was terrified because, deep down, I felt there was no possible way that the Jaegers could win. I was not expecting such drama, but it goes to show the emotional investment the audience has with these tremendous war machines.
Back on track, Del Toro wants to show us these titanic forces duking it out. The battle of Hong Kong might be one of the greatest set pieces in this century. I’m talking Helms Deep levels of greatness. I was reminded of the famous “tiger scene” in Gladiator. Two combatants in an epic struggle that ultimately reaches a brutal and bloody conclusion. Del Toro knows this is what we want and gives us all we can handle. He is a willing dealer, and we are his willing junkie. The amazing thing about the action sequences are that, despite the cumbersome combatants, the combat shots are surprisingly smooth, fluid and natural. No shaky cam or ridiculous close up shots. Del Toro seemed to remember that a dolly shot is a good thing! He does not want to trick the audience with cheap visual tricks, instead, content to rely on the quality of his product.
Now, a few complaints. First off, I didn’t feel that 3D added anything particularly special. My problem with 3D is that in titanic fight scenes where everything moves quickly, too much detail can distort what you are intended to see. If there is a cloud of debris projected in 3D, naturally your eyes focus on it, instead of what’s happening behind. That’s just how the eye works. Maybe the screen I used was too small but I felt 3D was a nuisance. 3D tends to be most effective as a secondary element, highlighting the locations, setting, and features, rather than every moving part. Avatar and Tron: Legacy were brilliant using 3D because it made their worlds real. Pandora and The Grid were much more vibrant thanks to 3D. I remember seeing the last transformers movie in 3D and feeling hungover by the end of it. There was simply too much visual data for the brain to try and process. Many will disagree, but the next time I see the film, it will be in 2D. My secondary complaint is a little more troubling. The editor in certain segments should have been shot for the appalling editing during the middle act. During the Battle of Hong Kong, just as the Jaegers are getting ready to throw down, the scene inexplicably shifts to Charlie Day’s tangent! I remember exclaiming, “WHY!? WHY DID YOU DO THAT!! I WAS READY!!!” It felt like a false start, as well as unfulfilling foreplay. The pacing in general bordered on the schizophrenic side, which I have no problem with. However there was no logic to the pace, ranging from frenetic to cumbersome. There was no continuous buildup culminating in a final crescendo for me. I found that troubling, but thankfully, it didn’t spoil the experience.
One common conception about Pacific Rim is that it is purely style over substance and this is a good thing. While I agree with the core sentiment, I think the film is much more clever than that. All great science fiction poses some moral or ethical questions regarding technology. For terminator, it was the threat of computer intelligence. For blade runner, it was what defines something as human. To me, pacific rim asks similar questions, but it in an overbearing way. One line continuously heard throughout the films build up was, “to fight monsters, we created monsters”. This line is no mere throwaway! I think the film asks a very serious question about how far man is willing to defend its survival. To use Independence Day as an example, right after the initial alien attack, the survivors deliberate the use of nuclear weapons to potentially turn the tide. Pacific rim asks the same question, albeit not as a direct key to the narrative. If you think about it, the Jaeger Program is a terrifying thing! A mechanical monstrosity that is just as capable of razing a city as it is of defending one. The Jaegers of Pacific Rim are the worlds nuclear deterrent. I couldn’t help but twing with a sense of irony that the rift is closed by a nuclear explosion. In Japanese culture, the original Godzilla was an allegory for Japan’s fear of nuclear weapons and the fears of many Japanese after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Hell, King-Kaiju himself is the product of nuclear testing! How appropriate them, that our new favorite movie monsters e vanquishes the very thing that spawned their existence in the first place. Pacific Rim also touché on the ever-blurring line of difference between man and machine. Science fiction has frequently thrived on transhumanism, either positively or negatively. The theme is not subtle, nor is it particularly daunting. There is no doubting its presence. I found it interesting when Clifton Collins Jr (who I thought I was brilliant by the way) notes how many Diesel engines are in each muscle fiber of the Jaegers. Machines duplicating human structures and systems. The most glaring transhumanistic quality is the neural bridge between pilots and machine. As formidable as each Jaeger is, they are useless without their pilots. Man and machine must be joined in order to combat the kaiju threat. Compared with most science fiction, mecha is quite unique regarding the role of human interface. Cyborgs, androids, replicants, and artificial life all seek to mimic human appearance and behavior while remaining mechanical underneath. Mecha is just the opposite. The machines require the input of their pilots and frequently embodies their personality. We see it in Pacific Rim. Cherno Alpha is definitely Russian! Crimson Typhoon is perfectly suited to the triplets who pilot it. Gipsy Danger is perfect for Becket and Mori, given its damage and drive to keep fighting. Oddly enough, while I love the concept of the Drift and neural bridge, I felt at times that it was used as a panacea for underdeveloped exposition and character development. Becket and Mori have known each other for barely 20 minutes, yet in an instant, they automatically know everything about each other. Is it just me, or is this lazy screenwriting? I would think instantly knowing everything their was to know about someone would create some serious tension. Just because you are drift compatible does not mean you are automatically going to get along. That being said, I am so glad that Del Toro and Beachem kept Raleigh and Mori’s relationship strictly plutonic. Too many screen pairings are ruined thanks to unnecessary romance. Sure, the two should care about each other, but they don’t have to sleep together to prove their sincerity. I am curious to see how this relationship can grow in the future.
In conclusion, Guillermo Del Toro and Travis Beachem managed to do what I feared impossible. They took a niche genre, confined to cartoons and comics, and gave it life. In a bland, derivative cinematic world, they dared to create something daring, challenging, refreshing,and new. They encouraged use to watch ans simply enjoy it, maybe ask a few questions, but never browbeat us. There is a part of me that is still twelve years old, a twelve year old with models of Wing Zero, Heavyarms, RGM-79, and G-Gundam in my shelf. I never thought I would see them in real life. Pacific rim made that possible. Great films do not merely entertain us, make us laugh, think and cry. Great films transport us into the future and into ours pasts. To be able to revisit the majesty of being a young boy, excited about the wonder of film. Exhilarated by Star Wars, terrified by the terminator, awed by Jurassic Park, and thrilled by Independence Day. Sitting in the theatre today took me back in time to a special place I has left but never forgotten. That is something special, something that cannot be replicated. Pacific rim made it okay to enjoy a movie simply for the joy it brings you. A wise man once said, “any great fool can make something more complicated. It takes a stroke of genius to create something simple”. Simple. Pure. Elegant. The twelve year old in me is smiling.