Monday, July 15, 2013

Pacific Rim

By Guillermo del Toro

                “Terraforming” seems to be a common scientific mechanism running through this summer’s blockbusters.  This trope involves a foreign species altering a habitat (Earth) to make it suitable for colonization.  While it is always a ridiculous idea, the difference between its use in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel and Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is that the latter has a lot more fun with it, treating all of this sci-fi mumbo jumbo (and itself as a whole) as a bit of a joke.  This humor is why Pacific Rim ultimately succeeds where other big-budget action movies have fallen flat.  Director Guillermo del Toro knows that his movie’s premise is exceedingly silly, so amongst the wreckage and giant robots, I found myself smiling more often than not.
                The premise is that monsters from another universe are using a portal in the bottom of the ocean to come to Earth and attack its cities.  Humanity binds together to create giant robots to destroy these monsters and protect Earth.  As the monsters get bigger and stronger and smarter, the people behind the robots look for a way to stop the monsters from coming to Earth at all.  It’s ridiculous and is just an excuse to feature giant robots fighting terrifying giant monsters, but it generally worked for me.  The monsters and the robots were well rendered and many of the action sequences were impressive. The character development wasn’t anything that hasn’t been done a thousand times, but it was decent and featured mostly strong acting.  Del Toro builds suspense well, and being an old pro in creating frights, knows how to increase tension gradually and efficiently.  I enjoyed myself quite a bit, but who wouldn’t with the addition of a badass Hong Kong mob king played fabulously over-the-top by Ron Perlman?

Strong *** out of ****

Look, it's Stringer Bell!
                 For better or worse, this film plays like a mad scientist’s ungodly daikaiju hybrid of Top Gun, Transformers, and Independence Day.  As you would suspect, this brings some pretty interesting results, and guided by Guillermo del Toro’s assured visuals and distinctive quirk, many aspects of it work.  Unfortunately, these moments of enjoyment are fit periodically into a film that feels harried; like a condensed adaptation of a much larger and fully fleshed source work.
                The problem is not that the world of the film is uninteresting, but that it is far too fascinating to be handled as the footnote it is. The exposition the film provides, both with regard to character and historical context, is simply too rushed to support its narrative.  For example, the film’s premise includes the entire world’s governments working together to overcome an alien invasion, and it is shown that the United Nations was the vehicle for this collaboration. This intriguing reality is provided as a matter of fact; a mere obstacle in the path to giant robots fighting monsters.  While this may be enough rationale for many, it made the film feel slight, especially when films with comparable plots have been made to be both entertaining and insightful (Bong Joon-ho’s The Host and Niell Blomkamp’s District 9 come to mind).
                Yet, I can hear many responding with a simple, “But it has robots fighting monsters.”  To that I say, indeed it does, and these aspects were pretty great, but its other elements, from weakly developed characters to an artificially propelled plot, didn’t live up to a similar level of awesomeness.

Strong **1/2 out of ****

                I’m willing to forgive a little lacking in character development for the level of awesomeness this film
obtains.  I mean, you have to admit that Ron Perlman was absolutely fantastic, giving the right blend of creepy intensity and absurdity to be quite amusing.  Another awesome piece of the movie was the visual rendering of the monsters.  I loved that each of the monsters was unique, while still clearly being cut from the same cloth.  They moved absolutely beautifully in the fight sequences, creating fantastic visual spectacle every time they were onscreen.

I don't think it gets any more awesome.
                First off, I agree that Perlman pretty much steals the show.  His madcap black market boss is a fun addition to the story, even if it is mostly a needless digression.  I am glad Travis Beacham and del Toro’s script added this touch, because not only is Perlman’s character entertaining, but the context we meet him in is a rare look into the world of the film beyond the immediate conflict of military vs. aliens.  I wish there were more of these touches, for as I said before, this world is awfully fascinating.
                As far as the monsters go, I am right on the same page with you as well.  Their lizard-like design coupled with the complex mechanical movement of the “Jaegers” (the giant robots) made these scenes unique, and far more interesting than most other action sequences I have seen this summer.
                That being said, I still can’t get over the lack of character development.  The main problem with the film is that its protagonist is pretty bland – an archetypal hunk with a tragic past to overcome.  The film relies on this trope rather than making this character’s motivations believable, and the film suffers as a whole.

Rinko Kikuchi
                I agree that the main character was mostly there to look good and play the hero – he wasn’t particularly interesting or deep.  However, I thought some of the character work was decent, and the main character was not integral enough to throw the whole film off.  I did, for instance, particularly appreciate the terrifying back-story sequence for female pilot Mako Mori (played by the wonderful Rinko Kikuchi, Oscar-nominee for Babel).  I thought it was effectively scary, and tension was built expertly through increasingly striking images of disaster as well as a close encounter with one of the aforementioned fantastically rendered monsters.

Yep, probably terrifying for old Joe.
               I wish there were more ground-level sequences like that one in the film.  One thing I thought the film lacked was capturing the feeling of being someone who wasn’t piloting a Jaeger.  It certainly must be terrifying for the average Joe to face the fact that his home is under the threat of a giant monster (“Kaiju”), and the flashback you mention is one of the only scenes to relay this.  Most of the cutaways from fight sequences are not to endangered citizens, but to high-tech control rooms.
                Scenes like this are not anything new, and are not particularly interesting here, especially if you consider that there is far less for someone in a control room to relay to a Jaeger pilot than to a fighter pilot, as a Jaeger pilot is essentially engaging in hand to hand combat.  Once the fight begins, the control room can communicate vital information to the pilots, but other than that, they largely can only sit back and watch the fight.  (They are even less engaged than a boxing coach would be, neglecting to offer even a single “Keep your left up!”)

                There are a few cutaways from fight sequences to terrified citizens.  For example, I enjoyed an instance where one of the Kaiju scientists is trapped in a shelter in underground Hong Kong.  However, I agree that replacing some of the cutaways to the control room in favor of more scenes with the average Joe in various cities would have been a good use of time in the film.
Mad scientist Charlie Day
                Speaking of scientists, I quite liked the interplay of the two scientist characters in the film.  It is an old trope to have two people with extremely different ways of doing things working together, but it worked, again because of the “wink, wink” nature of the whole thing.  The actors both played their characters wildly over-the-top, and I thought this lack of seriousness in light to the ridiculous pseudoscience worked well.

                I thought the scientists provided some nice comic interplay to contrast the action, but this also presented some off-putting tonal dissonance for me.  There were many scenes that took themselves too seriously, and the film ultimately didn’t seem to settle on what it wanted to be.

                Any tonal dissonance you were distracted by, I didn’t notice, mostly because I was so caught up in its ridiculous joys.  While the film took seriously the plight of humanity – the threat would wipe out the population of Earth entirely – del Toro effectively created comic relief by drawing attention to the silly sci-fi tropes inherent to a premise like this one.   The introduction to the scientists was especially sharp – chalkboards filled with complex mathematical formulas that somehow predicted when and how monsters would be coming out of the bridge in a week’s time.  Love it!

                I loved those little pokes at the genre tropes as well, but its straight-faced reliance on other formula conventions that are just as ridiculous (the rival bully, ala “Iceman,” for example) made these comic asides seem like temporary diversions rather than essential parts of the film.  For me, it just didn’t come together as a whole as much as I wanted it to.  That being said, it does have an oddball Ron Perlman performance and giant robots fighting monsters, so even though it is disappointing in some ways, you could do a lot worse.
Then again, it does have these.

And this.

And this scary guy.

And this.

Well, and him.
Two-as-One Rating: **¾ out of ****  

Note: Be sure not to miss, as I (Chelsea) did, the short tag that follows the first part of the credits.  It sounded very funny.


  1. Oh man oh man I want to see this so bad. Interesting that you two kinda disagreed on a lot of the points in this one. :) Chelsea, I think I will probably end up siding with you ... -E

  2. Erica, did you see it yet? What didya think!?