Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Pacific Rim (2013) – Review

Review: Pacific Rim is big, entertaining fun, which also has enough character moments to elevate it above the typical noisy mess that clutters summer movie season. The film is about the battle for Earth. When monstrous aliens known as Kaijus arise from a portal between dimensions deep within the Pacific Ocean, mankind must create Jaegers (massive fighting robots) to protect its coastal cities from attack (and utter ruin).

With Pacific Rim, writer-director Guillermo del Toro has basically created a film that directly derives from his own obsessions within fandom. He loves to design and collect monsters and creatures, and is heavily influenced by manga. This film brings all that together. It is a Godzilla movie. It is a Voltron movie. It is everything fans could want, as it is very concerned with the specific details of each creature and robotic fighting machine. They all have names, personalities, and attributes. In many ways, this film is a visual extension of a fantasy RPG-like action video game (fantasy being used to express an ideal for fans) – a game that del Toro (as well as many others) would surely be thrilled to play. For fans, the film is just two hours and twelve minutes of awesome.

But what about everyone else? Well, del Toro does not mess about with his narrative. Utilizing voiceover narration to fill the audience in on all that has happened leading up to the events of the film, he jumps right into the action with a great prologue, consisting of a battle between a Kaiju and a Jaeger to wet the audience’s appetite for more (and not waste time in giving them what they came for). The prologue both sets the stage and introduces the audience to our protagonist (Raleigh Becket), while also relaying character information. Thus, right from the beginning, del Toro entertains his audience and more or less engages them on an emotional level (through Raleigh’s pain and narration the audience is pulled in by the narrative and character).

Del Toro keeps the pacing swift, as he jumps ahead from the good times (which are far less interesting dramatically) straight into the last ditch effort to save mankind. He keeps tensions high by continually raising the stakes, but still allows the audience moments to breath with some well-placed brevity (thanks to the very fun characters Dr. Newton Geiszler and Gottlieb, two scientists with competing theories). However, he also remembers why the audience is in the theater for Pacific Rim – they want to see robots fighting monsters, and there is plenty of that. However, unlike with Transformers, which is a loud, visually noisy, mess that ultimately just plays as a blur of inconsequential and incoherent babbling clamor, del Toro infuses the fights with human moments and real pain so that the audience actually has a stake and emotional touchstone in the fights and is not participating purely on a spectacle level.

Yet, Pacific Rim is chiefly interested in being a fun experience for the audience. Del Toro does do dramatic and emotional character work, but it is somewhat restrained and toned down in favor of keeping things fairly light overall tonally. He does not want the audience to be bogged down with weighty moments; rather, he just wants them to be entertained. But, it is a double-edged sword in some ways. Yes, the film is very entertaining, stemming from its quick pacing, bombastic action, and good character moments, and yet the audience never really completely feels connected to these characters because the emotions are held a bit at arm’s length in favor of a lighter tone. Del Toro wants his audience to be in the story with the characters, but he also wants them to enjoy the film as a spectacle of impressive action. For the most part he does find a nice balance, but overall the film tends to error on the side of spectacle, keeping it from really being great.

The writing is also somewhat questionable, and seems to serve more as an outline moving the characters from point to point and the audience from action scene to action scene than a more in depth dramatic piece (which is fine, and honestly suits this type of film better for the most part). The dialogue does not really pop, rather it exists to move the story forward (like everything else). And again, the emotional moments are somewhat restrained, relying more on genre troupes and stereotypes. However, thankfully the film is filled with actors rising to the challenge and bringing life to the characters (that are all pretty much underwritten).

Another aspect of the film that seems on the outside to make little sense is the Jaeger needing two mind-linked pilots to operate it, and not only that but the pilots must physically move and punch within the Jaeger, it mirroring their actions. This seems nonsensical. But del Toro understands that cinema is a visual medium, and that having pilots stationary, sitting in the robots or (even worse) off site, fastened to scene after scene of over the radio dialogue while the robots battle would have been boring. Having the pilots physically engage in combat allows del Toro to keep his visuals kinetic and the characters involved dramatically (instead of static shots of them controlling a joystick). While logically it makes no sense (much like the overall notion that the resources needed to build and operate these Jaegers could not be better utilized on some other weapon – but robots fighting monsters is the whole point), cinematically it is genius. The idea behind two mind-melded pilots also gives del Toro the ability to explore the emotions and backgrounds of the characters to a deeper extent, which only pulls the audience in more and raises the stakes (both things you very much want as a director). The connection also creates a strong relationship between the pilots in a very economical storytelling manner, again allowing del Toro to keep the pacing quick and the action coming. Thus, these choices both make a lot of sense from a visual storytelling standpoint and really the film ultimately benefits greatly from them.

Altogether, Pacific Rim accomplishes exactly what it sets out to be and do. It is a fantastic summer movie, with massive action that is actually engaging, when audiences have come to expect boring blusterous nonsense from these sort of films (thanks to films like Transformers and Battleship – and really all big action films now, while good overall Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel also both have such moments of sheer wanton destruction seeming only for the sake of having it there as visual spectacle). What sets this film apart is that it embraces its genre clichés and presents them in a fun refreshing manner. The spectacle serves the characters and vice versa.

Technical, aesthetic, and acting achievements: Guillermo del Toro lives to create monsters and design great worlds for them to inhabit. It is this love and joy that brings Pacific Rim to life and the audience can feel del Toro’s affection in every aspect of the film. It is his best Hollywood film to date.

The tone of the film is one of entertainment first, and composer Ramin Djawadi’s score brings that mandate to the forefront. His music reinforces the feeling that Pacific Rim is a big action film in which massive robots fight gargantuan monsters with its booming drums and thundering heavy-metal pieces (here is an example). Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography and Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier’s production design also sets the tone well visually. The film has a very gloomy look with lots of rainy night scenes, amidst a crumbling world, playing into the main drama of the film – that these few remaining Jaegers are humanity’s last best hope. The Hong Kong sets also play into the strong Asian stylistic influence on del Toro. I love the incorporation of Kaiju skulls (and other bones) into the city designs. The robots, monsters, and special effects all look great and seamless.

As stated in the review, the characters are more or less underwritten place-holders in the narrative. However, the cast does do a great job bringing life to them and making them more than what was on the page. Ron Perlman, who appears in almost all of del Toro’s films, shows up with some good stuff, but is there mostly as a novelty. Max Martini does a good job as the salty veteran, while Robert Kazinsky basically does his impression of The Iceman from Top Gun giving Raleigh Becket a human rival (but he mostly just plays as a genre cliché). Burn Gorman and Charlie Day are both great as Gottlieb and Geiszler, the kooky scientists. They provide much needed moments of humor. Rinko Kikuchi and Idris Elba emerge as really the stars of the film in their principal supporting roles. Kikuchi almost steels the film, as she is a far more interesting character than Raleigh (but sadly is under developed) and gives a much more compelling performance. Elba is great as the Jaeger commander Stacker Pentecost. When he speaks, everyone (audience included) pays attention. Charlie Hunnam is adequate as Raleigh, but does not seem to quite understand how to play his character. He is basically a cocky reckless rebel (a Maverick) who is burnt out after the loss of his brother but agrees to return to the Jaeger program reluctantly, only to become a love-sick, easygoing, and more heroic once he sees Kikuchi’s Mako Mori.

Summary & score: Yes, in many ways Pacific Rim is just another big, loud action film in a continuous stream of big, loud action films to come this summer, but it is also maybe the most fun. 7/10

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