BLOGS

Pacific Rim: Go Big or Go Home

by Ethan Alter July 12, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Pacific Rim</i>: Go Big or Go Home

It's a shame that Roland Emmerich's botched Godzilla remake already bogarted the tagline "Size Does Matter," because that phrase handily sums up the experience of watching Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim. In a summer that's been dominated by spectacles that feel small and self-contained despite the enormous wads of cash thrown at the screen, this is the first movie to come along that thinks big. Actually, "big" doesn't quite cut it. Try "giant," "gargantuan" or just plain "ginormous." And I'm not just talking about the size of the Kaiju (monsters) and Jaegers (human-powered robots) that are locked in near-constant battle amidst the windy, stormy Pacific seas. Unlike most America-centric Hollywood super-productions, Pacific Rim takes place on a grand, global stage, sporting an internationally diverse cast and a watery battlefield located far from the shores of the U.S. of A. Handed the opportunity to make the biggest movie of his career, del Toro meets the challenge head-on and delivers the one blockbuster so far this year that actually deserves -- nay, demands -- to be seen on an IMAX screen, extra ticket price bump be damned.

From the opening frames, the scale of Pacific Rim is fairly breathtaking and the director and his top-notch production crew pay close and careful attention to maintaining the size of the spectacle throughout. That's a harder task than it might sound like; for example, the Transformers movies (the franchise Pacific Rim has been most often compared to in the run-up to its release) have a bad habit of losing track of just how large those robots in disguise are supposed to be in relation to the humans they're meant to be protecting and/or killing. In contrast, the Kaiju and the Jaegers consistently tower over the flesh-and-blood performers in Pacific Rim, not just in the wild, but also in enclosed spaces. The factories where the Jaegers are assembled extend seemingly miles up into the sky and employ a workforce that has to number in the hundreds of thousands to keep the 'bots in fighting shape. Likewise, the "souvenirs" harvested from the corpses of the defeated Kaiju -- you know, brains, hearts, attendant parasites -- are correctly plus-sized. And when these mechas and monsters do battle, look out: a single punch has the reverb of maybe five earthquakes, cargo ships are picked up and wielded like baseball bats and whole city blocks become rubble when one of them finally falls.

Those Jaeger-on-Kaiju action sequences have been front and center in the movie's marketing campaign for months now, but believe me when I say that the best beats and blows haven't been spoiled ahead of time. What makes these set-pieces so much fun to watch unfold is that del Toro has designed them as actual one-on-one (and sometimes two and three-on-one) duels, rather than throwing entire armies against each other in the misguided notion that "more" automatically equals "better." There's genuine strength, strategy and sometimes good old-fashioned luck on display in each bout, which more closely resemble Rocky-like boxing matches (albeit with weapons that go beyond the fighters' fists) than the chaotic free-for-all scrums in Transformers. A nut for detail, del Toro makes sure the audience can see and appreciate the choreography that goes into staging the movie's CGI-intensive fights, allowing for breathing room between punches and special moves (like a Jaeger suddenly pulling out a sword to get out of a particularly tough situation -- a development that had me applauding like a maniac) and holding shots just long enough to keep the viewer oriented. In contrast to so many of this summer's blockbusters, Del Toro is actually directing the action as opposed to directing traffic.

The director's sense of detail extends to every design element present in this near-future as well. Far from being generic giant robots, each Jaeger posseses its own distinct look and set of combat maneuvers, while the lizard-like Kaiju visibly evolve as they grow in lethalness from Category 2 to Category 5. Both adversaries have obvious roots in anime -- although, personally, the Jaeger design is more reminiscent of the Azbat outfit from the Batman comics' mid-'90s Knightquest story arc -- but del Toro tricks them out with his own distinctive embellishments, including odd placement of the eyes on the creatures and the steampunkish internal machinery in the 'bots. The sets, meanwhile, are bathed in the rich glowing colors (with a particular emphasis on lush gold and vivid blue) that he and his regular director of photography, Guillermo Navarro --who deservedly won the Cinematography Oscar for Pan's Labyrinth -- favor and the backgrounds of the frame are frequently filled with specimens-in-vats that are a regular part of del Toro's mise-en-scène. In that respect, the sequences that feel the most traditionally Guillermo are those that unfold in the Kaiju souvenir shop owned and operated by the superbly-named Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), which resembles nothing short of an annex to the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense from the Hellboy films.

You'll probably notice that in all my gushing over del Toro's accomplishments with Pacific Rim, I haven't said much about the movie's plot, which proves to be the least interesting element in an otherwise rich film. As conceived by Travis Beacham, who originated the story and co-wrote the script with del Toro, the central storyline is essentially a monster movie variation on Top Gun with Charlie Hunnam playing the Maverick role as hotshot Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket, who loses his mojo after a personal tragedy (the death of his brother), but is eventually coaxed back into uniform by his stern commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) just in time for the biggest battle of his career. (Further keeping with Top Gun tradition, Raleigh squabbles with his very own Iceman, Robert Kazinsky's Chuck Hansen, and woos his very own Charlie, Rinko Kikuchi's Mako Mori.) It's boilerplate stuff and the movie mostly dramatizes it that way, offering a narrative that's serviceable without being especially compelling. That description could extend to the performances of the cast (minus the always zany Perlman, of course), most of whom demonstrate solid screen presences, but not much in the way of personality. Even Idris Elba -- one of the most charismatic actors around -- can't locate that extra dimension to Pentecost that would make him more than just an echo of past sci-fi warrior mentors, from Obi-Wan Kenobi to Morpheus.

In Beacham and del Toro's defense for a moment, I have to say that after such messily-told summer blockbuster as Man of Steel and Star Trek Into Darkness, Pacific Rim stands as a model of sound story structure, putting the narrative through its paces cleanly and without too many dead spots or dead ends. At the same time, however, you can't help but hold del Toro to a higher standard, given the way he's imbued so many of his past films -- both small, personal projects like The Devil's Backbone as well as bigger productions like Hellboy II -- with surprising and emotionally resonant stories that are strongly rooted in rich characterizations. That sense of intimacy is, perhaps by necessity, sacrificed to preserve the scale of Pacific Rim, a trade-off that results in plenty of immediate joys, but dents the movie's lasting impact.

Also sorely missing from the film is the empathy that del Toro so often shows for his creepy-crawly creatures, even when they're serving as the ostensible villains of the movie. (That's also a monster movie tradition dating back to King Kong and the original Godzilla, where the titular "monsters" were more likeable and sympathetic than anyone else onscreen.) For much of Pacific Rim, the Kaiju are little more than punching bags, their single hive-mind focused solely on world domination. What makes this particularly frustrating is that del Toro and Beacham have literally written themselves a way into the creatures' heads -- via the "Drift" technology that allows each pair of Jaeger pilots to meld their minds and control the giant robots, two human soldiers functioning as one machine brain -- but then fail to exploit it as anything beyond mere plot device. These shortcomings are by no means dealbreakers in a film that otherwise offers such super-sized entertainment, but while Pacific Rim is unquestionably awesome, it's lacking that extra layer that would inspire lasting awe.

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