Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Kent's Damned Movie Reviews: Pacific Rim

I'm just going to go ahead and say it; I loved Pacific Rim. I loved it unabashedly and without the dried-up cynicism that invades even my own thoughts from time to time. I haven't had as much fun watching a movie in the theater since The Avengers. Apparently this is not universal. I see people complaining about it being too dark. I see people complaining about it not being dark enough. Well, I guess they made this one just for me, because it hit my sweet spot with the gooey, chewy chocolate center. I found myself grinning over the course of nearly the entirety of Guillermo del Toro's big knock-down drag-out.

It seems like del Toro, though having common flourishes in his work, has two modes of film-making. There's the Pan's Labrynth-style horror fantasies that seem to delight the arthouse community and then there's his Hellboy mode in which he goes for the big, fun action film. Both are exciting to see for different reasons and both are usually high quality in their respective genres. This is squarely in the second column. A tale of human-piloted robots (aka "Jeagers") versus alien monsters which are attempting to wipe out said humanity (kaiju, literally the Japanese word for giant monster), it also manages to have a human core that elevates the material while never bringing the film to a skidding halt.

One of the clever things del Toro does is plug the characters' motivations and personalities directly into the plot. Somewhat literally. Early on it is explained that the strain of piloting a Jeager is simply too much for one person to handle, so a link is made between two pilots. They share their memories, fears and feelings with each other, which of course leads to all sorts of complications and makes it tricky for just anyone to be a pilot. We see father-son teams. Brothers. Husband and wife. I actually found myself hungry for more information about these people. The intimacy described is never fully explored for, one would guess, several reasons. Of course there's a possibility of getting down and dirtier into the concept if there are more films, but while there is enough story here to fill a franchise, it seems satisfied to simply tell a streamlined yarn. Could they be brought about easily? Well sure. But there's nothing here, even in a post-credits sequence, that feels like it's specifically being seeded for the purpose of setting up a franchise, which is kind of refreshing, honestly.

It's an odd assemblage of a cast, cheerfully devoid of any traditional star power, and it works. Idris Elba continues to be awesome in everything he does except The Office. (Never quite understood that one considering he's got some good comedic timing.) Rinko Kikuchi's Mako, a rookie pilot in the Jeager program, manages to be effective even with her broken English. Charlie Day is fantastically funny as a kaiju expert and he has fantastic chemistry with the entire cast, but most notably del Toro favorite Ron Pearlman, who plays a black market dealer in kaiju parts. The only weak spot is, surprisingly, Charlie Hunnam. His performance seems oddly stilted against the others, though I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because he's concentrating on his American accent.

As I was leaving the theater, one of the staff was asking people what we thought of the film. Getting positive feedback, he replied, "So it's not just a live-action Gundam Wing?" I responded, "It's more like Neon Genesis Evangelion with Star Wars overtones." "Touche," he said. Not sure what he meant by that, but I decided to move on.

And while it's become cliche to describe a film as being the next Star Wars, Pacific Rim does share many characteristics. The fantastic setting doesn't transfer over, of course. Pacific Rim is decidedly Earthbound. But just as George Lucas took the cheesy Flash Gordon serials he had seen as a youth and tweaked them into something new, so Guillermo del Toro took the at times sublime, but often goofy, giant monster films he saw as a kid, combined them with famous anime concepts and tweaked them into something familiar but put together in a fresh way. Both used an advance in budget and special effects to update childhood loves that often look ridiculous by today's standards. Both do a great job of world building, giving us glimpses of things that would be fascinating to learn more about. Both star a wooden-acting, younger blonde alongside a veteran Brit. Both have a kick-ass lady that manages to exude attractiveness without being overtly sexual. I doubt the blue streaks of Kikuchi's Mako will end up being as iconic as Princess Leia's ear-buns, but still. Without recapping the plot, they also both share story characteristics as del Toro deftly maneuvers the Jeager program to be, like a certain group of rebels, outsiders and underdogs attempting to go up against incredible odds.

There's never going to be another Star Wars. There's just never going to be that kind of a universally beloved original film which comes out of nowhere, surprising everyone. So comparisons notwithstanding, I'm not going to sit here and declare it the next anything. I'm not even going to call it the next Godzilla. (I actually found more in common with the 90s trilogy of Gamera films, anyway.) While I noticed a subtle nod here and there, mostly the overt pastiche is kept to a minimum so rather than play "Spot the Reference," I was able to simply enjoy it as the first Pacific Rim and leave it at that. Frankly I'm appreciating it for being just about the only 'blockbuster' this summer that isn't a sequel, remake or an adaptation. (Even if I've enjoyed several of them.) This is Del Toro's love letter to the science fiction he grew up with and it is joy-filled movie making on a grand scale.

(Five damns given out of five)
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