Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Biggest Screen Possible

That's what you'll need if you ever want to get the most enjoyment out of Guillermo del Toro's , the "giant robots vs. giant monsters" inspired less by Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and more on Japanese monster films like Godzilla and the popular anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. del Toro's stock might have taken a hit in recent years (he hasn't directed a film since 2008's well-reviewed but financially-disappointing Hellboy II: The Golden Army, and his production efforts have drawn little in the way of audiences), but this is still the same man who wowed us with bizarre and imaginative visuals in Pan's Labyrinth and the original Hellboy. He's gained a following as an artist who thrives on creativity and original ideas, and like a more talented Tim Burton he loves to drench his movies in his signature level of darkness and dark humor. This makes his movies instantly worth watching, as you never get the feeling that you're seeing the same old story just one more time.That said, "giant robots vs. giant monsters" isn't exactly going to appeal to anything outside a niche audience, and even with the full backing of Warner Bros. Pictures, it seems like an incredible risky project to make. So it's up to one director and his barely-famous cast to make the whole thing work.

Yeah, it was a bad day to live on the coast.

At the beginning of Pacific Rim, we're told the history of the unexpected Kaiju (translated: giant monster) attacks on major cities around the globe. A portal between dimensions has been opened deep beneath the Pacific Ocean, and it keeps spewing forth these destructive Kaiju with no end in sight. When our militaries can only do so much, countries around the world fund the Jaeger program; giant robots designed to go toe-to-toe with their gargantuan enemy, in which two pilots share the mental strain of melding their brains to a machine of war for greater effect. At first, they are successful, until more monstrous creatures begin to cross the breach. Now the Jaegers are all but decimated, the program shut down not only by lost comrades but by the dwindling hopes and funds of shell-shocked nations. With only a few of the colossi left, and one piloted by a washed-up operator (Charlie Hunnam) and an inexperienced rookie (Rinko Kinkuchi), the remnants of the force must pull together and finish the job before the Kaiju succeed and completely exterminate the planet.

Wait 'til you see them dance the Robot.

Let me reiterate: if you're going to see Pacific Rim (and putting aside genre bias, there's no reason you shouldn't), do yourself a favor and watch it on the BIGGEST SCREEN AVAILABLE. This isn't just a special effects bonanza; it's the KING of special effects bonanzas. Thanks to major studios shelling out big bucks for CGI, there have been some exceptionally beautiful movies this year, sporting names like , and . But Pacific Rim puts them all to shame with wholly immersing environmental effects, a 3D system that actually draws you into the action (remember when that was supposed to be a thing?), and computer generated creatures that actual feel seamless with the real world to which we are presented. del Toro has an amazing creative eye, and it comes out in every conceivable facet, from the vastly differing designs of the Jaegers to the varied monstrosities apparent in the Kaiju. He truly makes his little universe alive, and the battle scenes especially feel epic in scope; though they take up perhaps far too much of the movie as they should, they're never over-long or boring, as we've seen in many a summer blockbuster. Overall, it makes for a unique visual feat that filmmakers will be trying to emulate for decades.

I have GOT to get my beer goggles tuned...

But while the opulent visual artistry is there for all to see, it's a shame that the rest of Pacific Rim feels so... pedestrian. A distinct lack of character development is a major factor, a shame especially considering the talent involved. Charlie Hunnam might not have much leading man experience beyond his Sons of Anarchy role, but he proves to at least be serviceable here. Though his character is obviously a cheap knock-off of the best of John Wayne or Clint Eastwood, he at least puts everything he has intoRaleigh Beckett's typical American cowboy. Rinko Kikuchi, who was nominated for an Oscar back in 2006 for her deaf, traumatized teenager in Babel, is the same, playing the kind of self-deprecating, timid sort we're used to seeing Asians play in cinema. You can tell that she has talent; she's just never given a chance to really stand out. Rounding out the the trio of stars is Luther and The Wire star Idris Elba as the tough-as-nails chief of the Jaeger program, who really gets to have fun with the Bull-Pullman-esque speech to set up Rim's final act.

That's right: Elba stands above you because he's better.

Like the lazily-designed characters, there's no trope from del Toro's "Jaeger vs. Kaiju" story that discerning fans haven't seen dozens if not hundreds of times before. Leading characters with a tragic past? Triple check. Requisite comedic relief in the form of two scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman), not to mention a particularly flamboyant black market dealer (Ron Perlman)? Check. Field technician in a bow tie (Clifton Collins, Jr)? Rival Jaeger operators (Max Martini and Rob Kazinsky) with no real basis behind their beef? Scientists missing crucial details on subjects they're supposed to be experts on (and that the audience already understands to be truth)? Confusing, slightly lackluster ending? Really, let's just mark all of those down right now. As original as it might feel to an audience with no prior knowledge of the genre, there's way too much reliance on what came before and not enough unique aspects that have been a staple of the director's work. That's what's truly disappointing about Pacific Rim: for all the creator's supposed chutzpah, this is at its core standard action fare with few frills.

Yeah, this big ol' crowd walk has never been done before.

But as "standard" as it is, del Toro still manages to present to his audience a gorgeous, amazingly fun popcorn film that perfectly balances the over-the-top action with a sense of humor and heart that most career action directors are still trying to master. Is it perfect? Heck no, or at least in the case of a paint-by-numbers action flick cannot truly be perfected. It's still a direct product of its genre, and that's just not going to appeal to a large selection of theater-goers out there. To those people I would normally recommend a rental, but in this case I cannot. Pacific Rim is easily approachable and can be enjoyed by anyone, and its groundbreaking visual effects simply cannot be appreciated on anything smaller than a standard theatrical screen. I even recommend 3D, and anybody who knows me understands my general distaste for that particular overused technology. The fact is that this is an event movie, suitable for geeks and non-geeks alike, and deserves your patronage while it's still in the theaters. It's not one of Guillermo del Toro's best... but it sure is one of his most fun.
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