Sunday, July 21, 2013

Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro, 2013)

Pacific Rim

Quick Take:

Everything you love about the Michael Bay Transformers movies... plus some of the things you hate. Still, the most awesome summer blockbuster of 2013. A giant robot/giant monster fan's dream. Highly recommended.

SPOILERY Thoughts:

Pacific Rim is a mecha and kaiju otaku's dreams come to life. This is not to suggest that the computer-generated imagery of Pacific Rim is more "alive" than the practical effects work of Japanese kaiju films or even the hand-drawn animation of mecha anime. But, like the Michael Bay Transformers movies, it takes the wild ideas of earlier artists' imaginations and newly realizes them through stunning visual effects to show how these colossi might truly look if they came crashing out of imagination and into our world.

It's a cartoonish take on our world, admittedly, still requiring a willing suspension of disbelief as the story suspends logic and the laws of physics and biology. And there are moments when the giant monsters deliberately evoke the lumbering "man in a rubber suit" movement of classic kaiju films. Meanwhile, the giant robot Jaegers, which technically are supposed to have humans inside, move like clunky machines, none of the grace of the Transformers, who, in Michael Bay's films, practice some form of high-flying robot martial art. Of course, it's all purely CG, but the wondrous thrill of Pacific Rim is in how the refreshed visuals of its titanic battles can inspire in today's viewers not only unabashed glee but also the same level of credulity with which audiences once viewed Godzilla, Ultraman, or Mazinger Z when those things were new (or new to us, whatever our generation, when we saw them as children with less critical eyes).

Like Godzilla, the biologically impossible kaiju of Pacific Rim are designed with surprisingly expressive faces that convey more personality than the average sci-fi monster, which makes them all the more menacing, when the carnage they wreak is accompanied by what appear to be contemptuous grins. But the real crowd-pleaser is star mecha Gipsy Danger. As the hero Jaeger races to the city's rescue and pounds away at kaiju adversaries, there is a weight to its every movement that is utterly convincing. Of course, my calling it "convincing" is as much informed by decades of watching cartoons as by actual understanding of physics. A bipedal humanoid giant robot suit, whose combat capability consists primarily of punching, is absurdly impractical as humankind's ultimate defense, but Pacific Rim is, if not sensible, then nevertheless faithful to some classical principles of heroic giant robot design. These steel behemoths, each with a one-of-a-kind make, possess as much character as their pilots, yet their mechanical movements ultimately remain endearingly robotic, as they strain against gravity and their own massiveness just to put one foot in front of the other. As the final mission commenced, simply watching two Jaegers march, one labored step at a time, miles toward their underwater destination was almost an applause-worthy moment for me, because it just looked so "right."

To say that Pacific Rim is influenced by past kaiju and mecha works would be an understatement. There is not a single scene or plot element in the movie that is not taken from somewhere else. A criticism that could be leveled against the film is that, in crafting this adoring pastiche, director Guillermo del Toro misses an opportunity to elevate the genre out of the otaku ghetto. Contrast this with Japanese anime studio Gainax, responsible for Gunbuster (1988) and Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995)—two works that Pacific Rim, intentionally or not, definitely borrows from—which, on the surface, began as fanservice-filled mecha anime but then stealthily emerged as some of the most artistically ambitious, even subversive works that the historically commercially driven genre had ever seen. Pacific Rim is more content to settle for reliving past glories of the genre, and anybody who grew up loving the works it channels is likely to embrace its many nods and references. It rehashes every cliche in the book, some of which cannot be excused on the grounds of homage—the scrub pilots that are much hyped yet get taken down in seconds, the rival ace with a chip on his shoulder—because they are not cliches specific to the genre but are rather the calling cards of uninspired or unmotivated writing. And, even while acknowledging Pacific Rim's conscious intent to honor past works, one must admit that many of its adherences to genre convention yield substandard results. For example, the two young white male Jaeger pilots in this movie are weaker characters than those roles really require. Charlie Hunnam, as pilot Raleigh Becket, is a serviceable-at-best leading man, while his even less charismatic rival is one of the more useless rivals in cinema history.

Pacific Rim's biggest problems by far, however, are the comic relief characters, who are no less obnoxious than those in Transformers, and in much the same vein—loud, abrasive, one-note. Earnestness is the right tone for a movie with such an unavoidably cheesy foundation as this. You don't want to risk venturing into caricature with a few winks too many, further alienating anyone who isn't already a fan, while pandering to anyone who is.

Pacific Rim has its faults. Its story is not the most profound or narratively ambitious. Nevertheless, taken on its own terms, it is the most successful special effects picture of the 2013 summer blockbuster season. At its heart a kids' movie, though it is more likely to appeal to "big kids" (read: adult geeks), it is a film that shares the fans' deep affection for the kaiju and mecha classics of our childhoods, and then actually delivers by living up to our rose-colored images of those works not as they are now—crudely constructed and poorly aged—but as we would care to remember them—pure magnificent fun.

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