Friday, July 19, 2013

Love: Pacific Rim


My friend, perhaps you have noticed: it is hot. Terribly so. You must escape. Your outdoor lifestyle, the beach, the pool, these things are crowded and stifle your air.  You must go to the ice box of the theater, yes, and when you do, you must do yourself a favor: this time, bet against your summer action fatigue and go see Pacific Rim. Pay the 3D prices, consider springing for the IMAX upgrade.  I know, I know, you're one of those people who's been burned before. We've all been there, my friend. You used to like the idea of titans battling one another on city streets, of Godzilla-like mutated monsters emerging from the ocean, but the disasters just got too noisy, the plots too incomprehensible. Things have been bleak, haven't they? The Man of Steel pounds through skyscrapers and lets the innocent die, Transformers is just a long commercial for the American auto industry...you don't even know how to explain the events depicted in Battleship.  You're tired, my friend.  Weary. Jaded. Your entertainments do not entertain, but belittle and pummel, they drain you of your strength and kill brain cells in the hundreds. My friend, Pacific Rim is a treatment for this.  A salve, a balm, perhaps. Not a cure, no, but something to help partially restore your waning faith in the standalone summer blockbuster.  
At first glance, Pacific Rim seems to be adding to Hollywood's mega-blockbuster burnout without bringing anything new to the table. The cast is largely B and C-list (if at all identifiable), the director is a man who has attached his name to too many producing credits to seem publicly credible, giant robots fight giant monsters, and the idea seems recycled from past hits. It's not hard to imagine -if you're not in the know- a lazy screenwriter hitting a bong, watching Avatar and Transformers on TV, and idly typing on his macbook.  The honest critic, too, will note that none of this is exorbitantly far from the truth: in many ways, Pacific Rim is more of the same.  It's a noisy, CG-ridden extravaganza where the dialogue reads as a bit of an afterthought and the look is pure video game. The difference, though, between your Pacific Rim and your, say, Battleship is a matter not of some intangible feel-good element like 'heart'.  The difference is that this time someone actually thought it through.  Where so many alien/robot/monster vs. little guy/alien/superhero/etc movies have been unkempt messes of plot-holes, illogical world-building, and confused editing, Pacific Rim arrives dressed in a goddamn tuxedo.  It knows where it's going, it knows where it's been, it knows exactly what else has walked this path before.
While that may seem like common sense in an industry that cranks out a higher and higher number of full-throttle pics a year, we all know it's something pretty rare. The business model for film production when there's this much money on the line isn't about getting things right, but about getting it finished and decent enough to turn a profit.  So, those gaping plot holes aren't corrected, nobody expects an Oscar, and everyone forgets that there should be a flow and a fun to the film instead of just letting them ride.  Pacific Rim, by comparison, builds its world intelligently and completely, without blowing its pyrotechnic load in the opening sequence.  Guillermo del Toro is, of course, a genre-favoring director who nerds are actually proud to claim as one of their own. He gets what we want to see from our effects movies, what the legitimately 'awesome' bits may be, and he shreds the rest.

Pacific Rim plays with the operable cliches of its mutated sci-fi chromosomes and goes big on the battles, but for real reasons.  The premise is that Earth has long been trying to stave off an intruding race of alien beings who emerge -unexpectedly and with the force of natural disasters - from the ocean floor. The beings are massive, monstrous organic destroyers the humans have named "kaiju" (Japanese for Giant Beast), and though their exact point of entry has been identified, closing it has proved impossible.  The film offers up a well-executed, slick prologue explaining the state of the couple decades since the first attack.  We learn that the most successful military program (and the one safest for the continuation of human life) had been to build armored robot-like vehicles as large as the kaiju themselves. The machines are called Jaegers, and though they sell action figures, they are weaponized-vehicles first and not characters in the conventional sense of the term.  Jaeger pilots work in teams and are hooked into one another's neural paths to merge and control the devices more effectively, and as they save cities in the most bad ass way imaginable: they are pop cultural rock stars.  Our point of entry into the story is one such pilot, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a shaggy-haired good guy who cut his career short when he experienced his brother's death by Kaiju during a merged battle.  The stakes, though, are getting higher, the Kaiju are getting smarter, and the recently-retired Jaeger initiative needs its best and brightest back at the helm. Yes, there's something refreshing about being able to explain that without doubt.
Becket is exactly the type of hero Jake Sully is in Avatar, and little else, but he does the trick. You root for the guy, and you root for the characters he eventually becomes surrounded with if only because they're all that stands between destruction and survival. You get it, even if the script does a piss poor job of adding dimension to the characters. They're as empty as they come, though Del Toro deserves credit for populating a distraught Earth with an assortment of people more diverse than the average whitewashed fare. He packages a mini-globe of accents and ethnicities, and when Becket arrives back on the scene at the behest of head honcho Officer Pentecost (Idris Elba), the world he enters is a sort of cheesy Olympic village of heroes all working towards the same goal. It's a bit much, yes, but Pacific Rim's overt interest in human teamwork and achievement does manage to attempt a follow-thru on pushing its characters in directions that open movie cliches even as they abuse them.

 We've got our would-be GI Joe, check, but he's curiously selfless (and boring) instead of cocky.
Female lead Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) is also bland, but at least she's got brains, skill, and brawn without a gratuitous costume or a bunch of half-smiled come ons.  Military gentleman Pentecost (Elba) is an attentive, team-playing realist (and stand-in for the 'black president' trope?) who actually does listen to the little guy instead of ignoring all signs until the last go. And our neurotic scientist is a little less straight-laced, a little more spastic, tattooed, devil-may-care wiseass (yep, Charlie Day) who, interestingly, is rarely the smartest guy in the room.  They're all caricatures, yes, and the acting leaves much to be desired, but in a way that means Del Toro isn't bogging down the big story with the weak attempts at pathos so many throw down to redirect the plot. It's passable, and honestly, if you're going to this movie to care about the humans, you're in it for the wrong damn reason.  What you need to know: things come together, and all of it happens in an ascending, pleasing order.  Battles get progressively bigger, more is at stake, sometimes characters actually die. Let's not forget the best part...
This. Movie. Is. Beautiful. If you go to it and you appreciate nothing else, appreciate its raw aesthetic value. It is a comic book illustration brought vividly to life, a video game in crushingly lush colors, a film with a unique amount of attention placed on its palette and the design of its characters. Del Toro knows better than to have his battles waged on boring, brightly lit urban pavement. Instead, he gives us a vivid, anime-style tableaux of monsters, machines, and mayhem. The war between the Jaeger and Kaiju allows for another benefit as well: we can - at all times- tell who's doing what. No tangles of unrecognizable scrap-metal here.  You can actually follow the action, appreciate the ocean bubbles, the falling rain, and all the pretty neon lights and halos around them.  The action can't be captured in the promotional stills, and is barely caught in the snippets of the trailers. Pacific Rim is built for the big screen, immersive in its dynamic use of 3D, and surprisingly lovely to behold.  It's the icing, for sure: sugar-high worthy eye candy spread over a kinda dry cake, but one made with some amount of love.

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