Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim

In 1975, Jaws became the first "summer blockbuster" - a high-concept film with numerous product tie-ins and promotions that made a fortune, breaking every box office record up to that point in time and remaining the seventh highest-grossing film adjusting for inflation. Like sharks drawn to blood in the water, studio execs began attempting to repeat the success of the summer blockbuster formula and we as a movie-going audience have come to expect as much ever since.

But the summer blockbuster has a bit of a black-eye for those who seek more substance in their entertainment, and with movies like the Transformers films (which were as monumentally profitable as they were critically panned) becoming standard procedure, it's easy to see how. If audiences just want to see a gigantic visual effects circus on screen for two hours, why agonize over the details of character development and engaging dialogue?

It was with these concerns floating around in my head that I sat down to enjoy Pacific Rim, the latest from Guillermo Del Toro. Pacific Rim has all the earmarks of a big, dumb summer blockbuster; it's effectively Godzilla vs. Transformers. But Del Toro has proven he has the directorial skill to make films that are both visually appealing, exciting, and still possessed of substance. If you've seen Pan's Labyrinth or the Hellboy movies you know what I'm talking about. So how does Pacific Rim fare?


I've mentioned before on this blog that we as an audience are pretty desensitized to visual effects by now. They've become so commonplace in our films that we don't experience the breathtaking moments of films like the original Jurassic Park with the same wide-eyed wonder any more. Del Toro knows this pretty well, and while the quality of the visual effects in Pacific Rim was very much par for the course - it's their presentation that marks them as stand-out. Again, the premise is simple: massive monsters (called kaiju, Japanese word for monster) erupt from a fissure deep at the bottom of the ocean to wreak havoc on the world above. In retaliation, the world creates the Jaeger Program - humanoid robots of equal size controlled by two pilots inside who fight the kaiju and protect humanity. Almost immediately after the movie starts we get a taste of the action as the protagonist (Charlie Hunnam) and his co-pilot battle a beast amidst the icy waves just off the coast of Antarctica. But instead of a camera that hustles in and out of the action, spinning madly around as CGI splashes chaotically everywhere - we get to actually see the fight between the two gargantuan foes. Shots are framed to convey the maximum amount of awesome and the near-complete absence of any "shaky-cam" effect was a welcome sight.

In films like Transformers and even this year's mildly underwhelming Man of Steel - the action is so frenetic and speedy that I often feel completely removed from it; I know that there's some fighting going on, but I can't tell who's winning or what's actually happening in the fight apart from the fact that an entire metropolitan area is being laid to waste. And don't get me wrong, Pacific Rim has real estate reduction to equal or rival those films. But the difference is that there's a definite coordination, a choreography even, to these sky-high slug-fests that makes them a genuine joy to watch. You can tell when one of the kaiju is overwhelming its opponent, and you cringe and curse as you watch it gain the upper hand. On the flipside, you can surmise when one of the jaegers is about to bring the pain with a massive finishing move, and your adrenaline rises just in time to see the heroes seize the moment with a perfect strike.

But all of that can easily be negated without at least a modicum of character development and involvement. Pacific Rim's writing and characters are not without flaw (I'll discuss that in the next section), but there's definitely enough here to latch onto. Being a summer blockbuster of this kind, the movie has a handful of "archetypes" it has to supply. For example, you need a wise and cautious leader who commands respect but isn't just another hard-ass. Idris Elba fills this role as Commanding Officer Pentecost, and while he never says these words, Elba pulls off the role with just enough "I'm-getting-too-old-for-this-sh*t" to make it work. At the lead of these kinds of movies, you often have a young and overly confident soldier. You know the type: the guy who flings the rule book out the window and takes the kinds of damn fool chances that will get us all killed. Charlie Hunnam's Raleigh Becket is that character, and while Hunnam's performance leaves a bit to be desired - the campy beats of his character are what really matter. Opposite him is Mako Mori  (Rinko Kikuchi), whose dream of being a jaeger pilot comes to fruition alongside some tastefully restrained sexual tension with Hunnam's character.

Naturally, you need the "scientist" character in a movie like this, and Pacific Rim has two! Charlie Day plays Dr. Newton Geizler, an expert on the kaiju and would-be hero. Geizler is more or less another one of Day's typical characters - a goofy and somewhat neurotic fellow who just barely straddles the line between "too much" and "just enough." Dr. Herman Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) is the more stereotypical "scientist" character of the two, and his thick English accent and pompous disdain for his colleague act as a perfect foil to Geizler's hare-brained notions. Gorman hams up his role perfectly, pretentiously walking on a cane and getting flustered by any challenges to his theories as the mismatch between these two characters provides the film with some appropriate comic relief.


As I mentioned before, I was pretty disappointed by Hunnam's performance. You can see him reaching for the stereotype; trying to be that campy action hero who always has the perfect quip and mouths off to his commanding officers. But Hunnam just doesn't seem to have the acting chops to pull it off  and much of the dialogue thrown his way is more or less wasted on him. It's not like he's surrounded by Oscar-winning performances or anything, but for my money Hunnam's misfires keep Pacific Rim from reaching the heights I think it otherwise could have.

Along the same lines, the script isn't terribly sterling either. While Hunnam's performance is still pretty bad, to his credit he doesn't have a whole lot to work with. Even many of the actors falter here or there with some of the lines that border on just too cheesy or overwrought. It's certainly not enough to bring the whole thing down, but a few stray snickers peppered the audience more often than I think Del Toro intended.


Considering the two flaws I mentioned above, Pacific Rim had a pretty tall order to fill. But for a movie whose protagonist I disliked so strongly, I found myself willing to overlook its flaws in favor of its other strengths. The big battles between the jaegers and kaiju are pitch perfect in that they start pretty big and get increasingly bigger without sacrificing any of the substance that makes us actually care about the outcome.

Pacific Rim is a movie that defies logic in favor of spectacle, as many blockbusters often do, so if you're one of those movie-goers that just wants to find plot holes you'll find plenty to keep you occupied here. But again, it's the presentation that really matters in a movie like this. For example, during one of the big fight scenes, one of the jaegers seems on the brink of annihilation. We know they're out of all the weapons we've seen them use so far - one of the pilots says something to the effect of "We're out of weapons!" To which the other pilot coolly replies "No, we have one more..." (or something like that, I'm paraphrasing here, you get the picture) and then deploys this massive sword that practically slices the kaiju in half. Well, c'mon guys, if that weapon is as effective as it seems, why not start with that and then break out the missiles or whatever later? Because then we don't get this great "AW YESSSSS!" moment at the eleventh hour when we think our heroes are sure to perish. And, again, the spectacle of these moments is what really sells them. So when that superblade unloads and locks into place Power Rangers-style and you see just how they're going to get out of this scrape, you practically want to leap out of your seat and cheer with excitement despite the obvious tactical oversight.

That's the true spirit of Pacific Rim; just enough substance to get away with being a style-over-substance movie.

And on top of that, said style is still accessible and enjoyable. If you don't find yourself getting pretty pumped at least a few times in this movie ("Is that...? Is that jaeger gonna beat that kaiju to death with a friggin' cargo ship...? AWESOME!"), then perhaps the cynicism induced by movies like Transformers has just gone untreated for too long. Pacific Rim proves that big, dumb blockbusters don't really have to be "big, dumb blockbusters." That certainly doesn't mean you'll be converted if you're not into these kinds of movies from the get-go. But if you're in the mood for good summer blockbuster type movie, Pacific Rim is one of the best we've had this year.