Monday, July 15, 2013

Review - Pacific Rim

In yet another summer bursting at the seams with sequels and franchise tentpoles, some of us can be forgiven for chomping at the bit for any blockbuster that wasn't made simply to sell tickets to an established fanbase of some proven brand. We get it this year in the form of Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro's sloppy kiss to the subgenre of “kaiju eiga”; the Japanese monster movie. It's debatable whether or not Pacific Rim is the best of this year's big, loud, spectacular summer blockbusters, but it cannot be denied that the movie is big, that it is loud, and that it is spectacular.
The original premise behind Pacific Rim – “original” insomuch that it was not directly adapted from preexisting source material, although decades of kaiju eiga and anime/manga, from Godzilla to Neon Genesis Evangelion and more, serve as its inspiration – was initially concocted by screenwriter Travis Beacham. In his story, we are plunged into a world that has been at war with malicious alien life for some years now. A brief expository prologue sets the stage: from a space-time rift between two tectonic plates on the floor of the Pacific, skyscraping monstrosities (the kaiju) emerge and lay waste to coastal cities.

To defend the world, the humans have engineered equally gargantuan mech-suits (the Jaegers) armed with plasma canons, missiles, swords, and fists the size of industrial freight crates. Since the neurological strain to operate these massive machines is too great for any one person, the Jaegers are piloted by at least two people who psychically link up in a process termed “the Drift”, sharing each others consciousness, memories, and emotions.

One such pilot is our handsome hero Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), whose copilot and brother was killed in action by a crafty kaiju, making Raleigh reluctant to ever step back into a Jaeger. Flash forward five years, and things aren't looking too promising for the human race. With government funding now diverted to a foolhardy wall prjoect, the Jaeger program is almost extinct. Only a handful of the rock'em sock'em robots remain, which badass military leader Stacker Pentacost (Idris Elba) has compiled in Hong Kong in a last ditch effort to stop the implacable behemoths. Recruiting Raleigh and finding a new copilot with whom he can compatibly Drift is a challenge, but an unlikely candidate emerges in Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a prodigious trainee who has both skill, and traumatic backstory, to match Raleigh's.
With a small but distinctive cache of both mainstream and arthouse genre films to his credit, del Toro has developed a reputation as a modern master of the creature feature. It's natural to assume that watching the gleefully imaginative filmmaker run amok on a giant monsters vs. robots movie must be akin to watching a kid run amok in a toy store. But perhaps a more accurate way to put it is that it's akin to watching a kid actually design his own impossibly awesome toys, will them into being, and then play with them as recklessly and unabashedly as only a giddy child can.

Not that Pacific Rim can or should be pithily summed up as a movie only for twelve year olds, but if you want to feel like a twelve year old again for a couple of hours, this is a movie that can do it. Your inner child doesn't need to see even character development or dense thematic undertones in order to enjoy enormous leviathans doing battle with enormous mech-suits, and that really was all that the film promised to deliver. And it does deliver. The fight sequences dazzle despite their length or the fact that they all take place in the rain. Nitpickers might bemoan how the fisticuffs drown out the story and characters, but what's there to drown out?

Any sort or character engagement that del Toro and Beacham cobble together, whether successful or not, should be regarded simply as bonus material on top of the main attraction. True, only skimming the surface of the dramatic potential of the Drift is a bit of a tease, especially since it's such an interesting way to foster intimacy without romance. It would have been satisfying to see some of the relationships more fleshed out, but let's not forget why we're here: to have fun. Pacific Rim is a movie that's all too happy to take the piss out of itself, be it in the form of the cheesy sight gags that pop up amidst the heavy action, or comic relief from bickering scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gormman) and a black market kaiju organ dealer with an attitude (Ron Perlman).
Besides, it's the world of Pacific Rim, rather than the people inhabiting it, that awes and mesmerizes. Del Toro's intense design process, which involves him and a handpicked team of concept artists laboriously creating thousands of drawings and only harvesting the very best ones, is one which yields awe-inspiring results. Every kaiju and Jaeger has distinctive traits and visual personality. By having the story set several years into the beasts' destructive campaign, productions designers Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier are able to create a tangibly lived-in environment, wherein the grime and decay is just as important to convincing us of this world as the futuristic tech. Bringing the designs to life are Academy Award winners John Knoll and Hal T. Hickell of Industrial Light and Magic, who will likely find themselves in the running for another Visual Effects Oscar come next February.

The film gains little from its 3D post-conversion, but gains much from an immense IMAX screen and sound system, which is the best way to appreciate the scale of the visuals and the intensity of the sound design. See it in IMAX if you can.

*** out of ****

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