Saturday, July 13, 2013

PACIFIC RIM Cancels the Apocalypse

I LOVE this movie.

. . . What, that's not enough? *Sigh* Fine. . .

Guillermo Del Toro, a genre auteur who has had the absolute worst luck getting enough people to see the string of amazing movies he's made over the past decade, got a ridiculous amount of money to make his giant robots vs. giant monsters epic. And he used this money to make a film that's entirely about relationships.

On balance, this shouldn't be terribly surprising, given that this has been a primary focus in pretty much all of Del Toro's work, especially his previous mass-market genre movies HELLBOY and HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY as well as his seminal masterpiece, PAN'S LABYRINTH. However, it's an especially brilliant movie to make considering the mechanics of PACIFIC RIM's world. After being overrun by skyscraper-sized monsters, the people of the world create giant mechs called Jaegers to stand their ground where conventional weapons cannot. The problem is that the strain of piloting a 30-story robot is too much for a single person, and so two pilots work in unison to drive the Jaegers, melding minds and memories with each other through the "Drift."

So not only does this element add an interesting wrinkle to a familiar formula, it also allows character interaction and development to be woven directly into the action scenes themselves. For example, our hero Raleigh Beckett - a former Jaeger pilot who walked away after losing his last partner - is paired with gifted rookie Mako Mori (who has her own share of emotional baggage from the Kaiju war), and the two must work through their respective issues in order to effectively beat the crap out of giant monsters. A while ago I outlined a few important Rules for Action Films and PACIFIC RIM is a brilliant example not only of keeping the action fresh (which is impressive given the premise), but of developing characters, moving story forward, and providing catharsis (all at the same time) through the action. All in a movie about robots punching monsters.

Even with that, there's no genre deconstruction and not a lot of dense allegory going on here. The premise is admittedly almost ludicrously simple, but between the accomplished world building that PACIFIC RIM packs into its world (mostly through visual cues and asides that it trust the audience to pick up) and the compelling (as well as amusing) supporting cast who all have their own twists to add to the narrative, the film follows in the footsteps of movies like DIE HARD and THE AVENGERS in the "simple premise, layered execution" approach. Because of this, there's always something new and interesting being introduced aside from the next show-stopping monster fight.

Of course, when it DOES come time for a show-stopping monster fight, this movie pulls out all the stops. The scale that Del Toro is playing with here is just mind-boggling, with creatures and machines that can use tanker ships as clubs, who can plow through buildings like tissue paper (though they ironically wreck things less than the human-sized combatants in MAN OF STEEL). And the movie really feels massive when these titans go at it, a thunderous sense of weight and power behind each step and strike, and sound design that really rattles the rafters when the kaiju roar. And just when you think you've seen everything these giants have to offer, Del Toro and the other creative wizards behind this movie throw in a new monster or a new weapon or a new setting that drops your jaw all over again.

That's part of what makes this film a bit hard to judge fairly. There's a boundless joy to the imagery and spectacle rather than the oppressive grittiness or borderline-tasteless 9/11 symbolism that's become so prevalent in films of this sort. There's an equal sense of optimism on display, as not only is a huge element of the film concerned with all of humanity putting aside their crap to deal with something that threatens us all, but the film casts the kaiju themselves as analogs to natural disasters (they're even categorized like hurricanes) that humanity can overcome. But the movie never tries to reinvent or transcend its genre and only fleshes out about a half-dozen or so of its characters with anything more than broad strokes and visual cues (the anime influence is worn proudly on the sleeve).

For all that, the movie succeeds brilliantly on its aims in a way that few movies have recently. Much like INDEPENDENCE DAY, it's all about taking a genre/premise that has previously been the domain of older low-budget or technologically-constrained films (that can usually be described as "charmingly hokey" at best), and blowing it up (ha ha) with modern technology and sensibilities to positively wallow in their full potential. And while it's a better movie than ID4, that's really the closest analog I can think of in terms of the film's overall success in its aims as well as what it has to say about humanity - i.e. we're pretty awesome when given the right kick in the ass to straighten out our priorities.

So yes, I love this movie. I love the designs of the monsters and the mechanical giants that were created to fight them, I love the lived-in, dirty (but still colorful and visually exciting) world that this movie creates, I love the way the actors just throw themselves into their archetypes and help flesh them out (Idris Elba's Marshal Stacker Pentacost is phenomenal - it's so nice of Elba to let other actors share his movie with him), and I really really REALLY love that Del Toro got this sort of support and funding for an original project. As much as I love that Hollywood has been bending over backward to cater to long-time nerds like me, the current trend of adaptation/remake/reboot is pointing toward a distressing cycle in Hollywood. I really want PACIFIC RIM to be a big hit because it's a good movie, an original property, and - like the original STAR WARS - is a movie aimed more at exciting the child inside every viewer than mining the nostalgia of the geek generations.

Go see this movie. Support wildly creative entertainers like Guillermo Del Toro, support studios taking massive financial gambles on something other than a remake or a comic book character or the young-adult-novel-of-the-minute, and dammit, support giant robots punching giant monsters in the face.

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