' ' Cinema Romantico: Pacific Rim

Monday, July 15, 2013

Pacific Rim

Near straight away in Guillermo del Toro's much-hyped robots vs. aliens thingamajig "Pacific Rim", one character says to another character: "Hey, kid, don't get cocky." That, of course, is Han Solo speaking to Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars: A New Hope", which has always been my favorite in the legendary saga. Technically it is sci-fi, sure, but what appeals to me most is its throwback nature to the golden era of film. It's inconceivable to think that Han and Luke could sit in WWII-era gunner turrets and blast away at TIE fighters hurting through space like they were Luftwaffe, but believability is not the issue. Camaraderie is, and that is what our space cadets achieve in that sequence.

And that is my favorite part about del Toro's $190 million opus - the camaraderie. The film focuses on fighting robots, but rather than focus on them overmuch del Toro has created an idea that makes human characters an integral part of the robots. So, when we receive our multitude of fancy pants CGI showdowns they are more than mere effects on a movie screen meant for our amusement.

Earth, as relayed in the somber but kinetic opening voiceover and montage, is in the midst of an epic battle with ginormous monsters - called the Kaiju - that have emerged from a nebulously identified portal in the depths of the Pacific Ocean. We initially see one, Godzilla-like, laying waste to the Golden Gate Bridge. And while the Golden Gate Bridge is my favorite manmade landmark in these here Fifty States, well, I smiled thinking of all the New Yorkers watching and saying: "Thank God they're not destroying OUR city for once."

To combat the Kaiju, America commissions a fleet of Jaegers, which are like mechanized Floyd Mayweathers, which is to say they are equally ginormous fist-swinging robots so complex they need to be piloted by a pair of humans. This is not merely a multiplayer Wii in armor, however, as these pilots are placed in "a neural drift" connecting them by brainwaves. Thus, it is imperative the two pilots share an intimate connection and implicit trust.

Our protagonist is Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), still grieving over the death of his brother, with whom he operated a Jaeger, in the opening scenes. He has become a wayfaring stranger, working on a "coastal wall" that the US government has chosen to construct to fend off the Kaiju as it becomes stronger and more prominent and, in turn, the Jaegers less effective. (The contrarian in me could not help but think this would have made for an interesting alternative film, following a coastal wall worker like a CGI docudrama, but never mind!)

Raleigh is recalled into service by his former commanding officer, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who ignores his orders to stand down and employs both the few remaining Jaegers and a nuclear warhead to end this fight once and for all. Raleigh teams with Mako, carrying necessary baggage of her own, sort of a more bookish Gogo Yubari, played by Rinko Kikuchi with blue streaks in her hair that have already staked claim to Best Cinematic Hair Highlights Of 2013.

They will team with a father/son (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky) duo that sort of fulfill the Iceman/Slider dynamic to Raleigh & Mako's Maverick/Goose to unleash the warhead. Also included in the plan are a Russian twosome (Heather Doerksen & Robert Maillet) that inexplicably get hardly any screen time.

Lurking on the fringes, meanwhile, as comic relief but also crucial propellents of the plot are a couple scientists, Dr. Newton Geizler (Charlie Day) and Dr. Herman Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), disagreeing at every turn, but eventually finding a way to drift neurally into the minds of the monsters.

A word here: I am admittedly someone who finds non-stop hilarity in Day's incessant screeching. You may very well be someone who does not and, as such, might find him to be the weak link.

Which brings me back to Hunnam. He is ripe for a cross between the existential brooding of Hugh Jackman's Wolverine and the circus stunts of Tom Cruise's Maverick, but often comes across like a placeholder for an actor with more personality. Elba, in fact, is the one actor who convinces entirely, always making us believe he really is at war with ginormous monsters and even fashioning a climactic oration that makes me suspect he was once a speech-writer for President Thomas Whitmore.

Of course, most people are coming to see robots and monsters throw down and they do to fine effect. The camera work is, as it always is anymore in these summertime spectacles, dizzying, but it's not too dizzying. It is also constantly nighttime and raining. If the late great Roger Ebert had seen this movie he would have commented on this, and so we will borrow from his "Godzilla" review and simply change the title. "It rains all through ("Pacific Rim") and it's usually night. Well, of course it is: That makes the special effects easier to obscure."

What impressed me most, though, was how the movie never stopped making sense. Oh, I'm sure there are plenty of plot holes, but what I mean is the narrative was consistently graspable even as it threatened to become unwieldy. That is craft, and it is welcome and I commend del Toro for it. And that craft is precisely why a two hour-plus movie never feels that long, an achievement all too rare these days in the blockbuster derby.

I confess there is not much in the way of true empathy for these characters, but, nevertheless, it spurs the big dumb monster movie spirit lurking within each one of us. Why you can practically imagine that in the fictional universe where "Pacific Rim" is set, this would have been a propaganda film released directly into the days of the Kaiju War to rally the cause.


Candice Frederick said...

well, this is comforting to know. it sounds like summer fun, despite the plot holes. :) also, i love Day's screeching voice too!

Rory Larry said...

Star Wars: A New Hope? how could you Nick. just Star Wars. none of this colon subtitle bs.

Nick Prigge said...

Candice: It is summer fun. Pure summer fun, nothing special, but just for what ails in the midst of heat and humidity. And Charlie Day screeching! Seriously, I could listen to him screech for hours. He cracks me up.

Rory: I swear, in the first draft of this review I just had it written as "Star Wars". Honest, I did. That's how I think of it! And then for some reason I decided I needed to include the "New Hope" part to......I don't know. Make it more apparent which one I was talking about? I have no excuses. I went against my principles.

Anonymous said...

LOVE your review Nick! You are the wordsmith, man. "...del Toro has created an idea that makes human characters an integral part of the robots" Indeed that's what makes me love this movie, which is a total surprise to me as the trailers didn't make it look like there's any substance at all.

Ahah, I like what you said about Hunnam, "a placeholder"... that's SO spot on! And yep, Idris is always excellent but he really is amazing here, so much gravitas (not to mention eye candy!). I also liken his speech w/ the Bill Pullman one from ID-4 :D

– ruth

Nick Prigge said...

Thanks, Ruth! You're very kind, as always.

I'm not really familiar with Hunnam at all, but yeah, he just didn't work for me. He wasn't bad necessarily he was just.......there. And I know the story and the special effects were the overriding point of the movie but still, it would have been nice for their leading man to exude some genuine charisma.

Shane Slater said...

Nicely written, Nick. Major "It's Always Sunny" fan here, so of course I agree that Charlie Day is "the bee's knees."

Nick Prigge said...

The bee's knees is really a phrase that needs to be employe more, isn't it? I love it. And Charlie Day is most definitely the bee's knees.