Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pacific Rim: Should You See It?

It was a foregone conclusion that I was going to see Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro's summer blockbuster about giant robots fighting giant monsters.  I was never a huge fan of Japanese-style monster movies as a kid (although I saw more than a few during Saturday matinees at the Gaiety Theatre in Leduc), but fighting robots and mecha?  That takes me back; back past the Warhammer 40,000 dreadnoughts, past the Battletech miniatures, back even past the Star Wars AT/ATs and the powered armour of Starship Troopers.  I'm thinking it probably goes back to comics I read as a child, like Rom: Spaceknight, and the Shogun Warriors.

The worst thing I can say about Pacific Rim is that there are hardly any surprises.  The movie delivers on its simple premise, and does so in a spectacular fashion.  Visually, Del Toro is in a class all his own here, delivering not only brilliant action sequences, but also reminding you about the scales involved with a delightful playfulness, such as when a missed punch sends a metal fist deep into an office building and you see the effect it has on a single desktop item.  Be advised, though: in terms of surprises, few is still more than none.

Pacific Rim is also one of the few movies I am going to recommend you see in 3D if you go.  Most directors have a few gags with the effect and then seem to forget about it (as does the viewer, until reminded by the next gag), but Del Toro uses the additional depth of field in a way the few people outside James Cameron do, in order to immerse you in this insanely detailed world he has created, most effectively within the switches and panels and holographic heads-up displays of the jaeger cockpits, but also outside as snow falls around you in a suddenly too-quiet city street, or as the camera passes through the smoke rising from a stricken jaeger

In fact, so detailed and immersive is this world that he invites the viewer to join him in it, by giving us this excellent Jaeger Designer website to play with.  You have to love a man who not only plays with toys, but shares them with others.

Both the mecha designs (which brilliantly reflect their countries of origin both inside and out) and the creatures (designed by Wayne Barlowe, of Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials, a seminal book from my childhood) are bold and distinctive.  This is important, because without a driving aesthetic, you end up with a Go-Bot slugging it out with a rubber dinosaur, and then it doesn't matter if Anthony Hopkins and Meryl Streep are in the driver's harnesses; we just won't care enough to go.

A movie with such impressive visual and kinetic chops could try to find its way to success without an emotional core, but the growing sophistication of audiences and the high standards set by movies like The Dark Knight and The Avengers means we get to eat our cake and keep it too.  Certainly,  the washed up hero being given a second chance at a desperate hour is not the most original of arcs, but a little familiarity goes a long way to grounding a movie like this where the fantasy could overtake all the humanity, and since that is what the jaeger pilots are trying to save, well, it only makes sense.

All the characters behave in an appropriate and consistent fashion, even when making foolish (or foolish-looking) choices.  There are a few mysteries of the heart and mind to be sorted out before the climactic battle, but again, no drastic or game changing revelations at the eleventh hour.  Best of all, it is a plot that requires exactly zero stupid people to either advance or resolve itself, putting it leagues ahead of a lot of other monster movies.

Acting wise, the leads do a good enough job, and it always good to see Max Martini, who I think brings a brilliant blend of machismo and vulnerability to nearly every role he takes, even with an Australian accent.  The mad-science comic relief duo of Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are excellent, and Ron Perlman, unsurprisingly, owns every scene he is in as Hannibal Chau, a black marketer profiteering in kaiju organs and...stuff.

Apparently though, no one told Idris Elba he was in a retro-pastische, Saturday-matinee, burger-meal tie-in toy tentpole throwaway movie, because he brings the same intensity to his role as Marshall Stacker Pentecost I've seen him bring to The Wire.  You could lift him out of this film and drop him straight into Stratford and the people in tights would be all, 'what's next, sire?'  He brings a level of belief and conviction that dares the viewer to treat the imminent destruction of this cinematic world as anything less than the real thing, and draws us in in a manner that even Del Toro's masterful use of 3D can only scratch the surface of.

Like all great summer movies, Pacific Rim is very well paced: exposition comes to the characters in a fast but natural fashion, with no Star Wars briefing room to ease up the tension.  Character backstory is revealed as a part of the challenge in linking the minds of two pilots within a jaeger, and emotional resolution is achieved in a hurried fashion, in a grimy corridor prior to what may be a final farewell.

The title of this post suggests that I am going to tell you whether or not you should see Pacific Rim or not, but if you have read this far, you probably already know the answer.  Just in case though, let me be explicitly clear:

  • if you have an inner child, AND
  • if that inner child wants to see brave men and women defending the rest of us against horrible monsters, AND
  • if the idea of watching a 250 foot tall robot treading out into the surf to do battle gives you the least bit of a thrill, then,
YES, you should see this movie.  Hell, yes.  And soon.  And in 3D, if you can.

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