Friday, July 19, 2013

Pacific Rim (**)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro


Pacific Rim is about as good as I'd figured it would be (not very) and as dumb as I'd hoped it would be (epically). It's completely aware of what it has to do as a movie, totally knowledgable of the films of yonder that paved the way, and executes its plan while making its ancestors proud. It's a physical light show, devoid of meaning but overflowing in testosterone. It is also completely empty, armed with characters slightly less flimsy than cardboard and a screenplay that actually makes you think: "Yeah, that was alright but they way they did it in Independence Day was better". It's a movie for America, and its also a movie for the world, shamelessly pumped with global iconography hoping to snag as many international moviegoers as possible, but enough arrogance to realize that it is absolutely a Hollywood movie.

The film takes place in a near future, where the world has become under attack by freakishly large, incredibly bloodthirsty "kaijus", or giant grotesque monsters that look like a cross between prehistoric dinosaurs and a creation by H.R. Giger. These kaijus are the size of skyscrapers and wreck havoc at random times laying waste to entire metropolitan cities in a very short amount of time. To protect themselves and prevent extinction, humans create giant militarized robots called "jaegers" that can stand just as tall as the kaijus, and use a combination of hand-to-hand combat and a number of Power Rangers-like weapons to take out these monsters. And these jaegers are grossly successful, able to stop these kaijus before casualties reach high levels and destruction reaches major cities.

These jaegers need to be piloted by two people, with the mental load of running these machines too much for one brain to take. The pilots' brains and thoughts need to be fused in a process called "drifting" in which they use a neural handshake to place the two pilots in each other's minds - which means that the two pilots need to have a strong compatibility to be successful. Which is why a lot of piloting combos are usually related, including Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) and his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff). The Becketts are the best jaeger pilots in the world, which makes them rock stars, but when a new, more sophisticated kaiju arrives to fight, the Becketts not only fail, but Yancy is killed in the process. The kaijus only get stronger and stronger, and show up more regularly. Suddenly the jaegers don't seem like the best bet to stop them.

Five years after the death of Yancy, Raleigh is called upon by the leader of the jaeger program, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) to come back and try to be a pilot. Initially skeptical, Raleigh finally relents and joins back up. There, he meets Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), Stacker's mousy assistant who may have a hidden talent for jaeger piloting. Popular opinion of the jaegers has dipped considerably, so they know that total success is the only thing that will keep their government support. Brought into help are a couple of scientists, one a statistician named Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) who predicts kaiju doom in the very near future, and a kaiju specialist named Newton (Charlie Day) who wants desperately to drift with a kaiju brain to find further insight into defeating them. As Raleigh gets back into the flow, he becomes convinced that he and Mako have perfect compatibility, but Mako has a tormented past, and can Stacker really put the future of the jaeger program in the hands of a has-been and a rookie?

Pacific Rim is cheesy, but it's cheesy in the way that it kinda has to be to reach its destiny: standing next to Armageddon and Con Air on the Sunday afternoon action movie marathon on basic cable. It reaches that level of austerity, but there's still a lot missing here. Even Independence Day had compelling characters with charismatic performances from Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith, but Pacific Rim is left with a lot of actors sulking and being glum, being forced to prop up characters that have absolutely no surprising elements. The shamelessly global aspects of the casting (this is a movie that makes it painfully obvious how much it wants to not only please audiences overseas, but perhaps any possible audiences in the seas as well) is made more palatable when you look at the talent of the cast. Elba and Hunnam have done good-to-great work on television and Kikuchi is a former Oscar nominee, but what do they have to work with here?

Not to mention the irony of giving Charlie Day a part in a Hollywood blockbuster and not letting him be funny. Day and Gottlieb's mad scientists are meant to be the C-3PO and R2-D2 of this caper, but they're drowned out in so much exposition and plot that there is barely any room for comic relief. But I don't want to sound totally humorless here, since we all know that dialogue and characterization were never meant to be the strong points of this film. There is only one aspect that needed to be successful and it's the kaiju/jaeger fights, and those scenes are executed with stunning alacrity. Which makes you wonder why we're bothered with so much plot to begin with. The kaijus are appropriately disgusting, with neon saliva dripping everywhere and a tongue that seems to keep opening up and revealing new tongues (seriously, tongues in tongues in tongues). The jaegers are mechanical and rusty, a less polished transformer.

Guillermo del Toro is a stunning visual filmmaker who's made at least one masterpiece (Pan's Labrynth) and several other movies that look really cool but are essentially more sophisticated gross-out pictures. He goes a little bit further than most contemporary filmmakers probably would have gone with the violence in this movie, pushing it as far as it can go and still staying under the umbrella of a nice PG-13 rating. He's also boned up on his history, paying appropriate homage to the various people and films that inspired the visuals in Pacific Rim. Whether it be anime or the recently deceased visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen, del Toro knows who and what paved the way for this story. To add to the list of things within Pacific Rim that are completely unsurprising, most of its action takes place in Hong Kong - but its nice that the filmmakers know who will appreciate this kind of storytelling the most.

It makes me a bit sad that Hollywood has decided that it rather pool its resources into two megamovies like Pacific Rim than ten more compelling, less broadly told stories like This is the End or Mud, but this is the way the movie business works now. The screenplay for this movie (by del Toro and Travis Beacham) is utter stupidity. It has characters named Hannibal Chau and Hercules Hansen, and introduces them without an ounce of irony. It never comments on how, even when the jaegers win against the kaijus, the cities they're in are almost always destroyed anyway (it's a miracle that Hong Kong lasted so long). But it is what is and its proud of it. As a six-year-old I loved Independence Day and carried that love into adulthood. I can imagine a small child today carrying that same love for this movie. It's entertaining enough. And it's dumb enough.

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