comment, Movies, Reviews, science fiction

A titanic defence of Pacific Rim

As Guillermo Del Toro fan’s anticipate the release of Crimson Peak with anticipation, the filmmaker is also priming the engine for the second of an intended trilogy of Pacific Rim films so this seems as good a time as ever to dust off a piece I wrote as the film opened back in the summer of 2013.

Much like the belief that only the even numbered Star Trek films are any good (something that falls over as early as Star Trek III: The Search for Spock) it is often held that Del Toro runs his career on a one for them, one for me, basis. It is certainly true that some of Del Toro’s films feel more personal in scale and scope than others, Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, and Pan’s Labyrinth have a distinctly more serious tone than the two Hellboy films. However while Mimic and Blade II were clearly cases of films where Del Toro was a director for hire (with mixed results), the idea that any filmmaker willingly spends years of their time developing projects they don’t care about, especially a director as distinctive as Del Toro, is one I find bizarre.

Which brings us to Pacific Rim, Del Toro’s biggest film to date. Marshalling a vast budget, Del Toro’s anime inflected science fantasy movie had somewhat of a rough landing with both critics and fans, and only achieved a middling $102 million US box office gross (which is of course, no mark of artistic success). However globally the story was a little different, with the film performing strongly in foreign markets particularly in South East Asia and raking in $408 million, enough to convince Warner Brothers to invest in a sequel.

Still the film has proved divisive, many firm Del Toro fans who found it disappointing, and to this day it seems to provoke near fury among some bloggers and film twitterati.

The film’s marketing campaign and release date late in 2013’s blockbuster season did it few favours in western markets. While early trailers won over the geeky bloggerati by emphasising the spectacle of 25 storey high mechs going head to head with Gojira-style sea monsters, who wouldn’t get excited about giant robots trading punches with giant monsters right? The film’s poor studio tracking and subsequent soft box office demonstrated the dangers of letting the geek market lead a campaign. In fact it seemed that an awful lot of people were in fact not that excited. Studio tracking is an arcane system by which Hollywood executives and pundits use market research to predict potential box office receipts. This  mainly seems to involve Johnny and Johnnette B. Obvious ticking boxes on a form in a Kansas shopping mall. Which could explain rather a lot about American mainstream cinema.

Del Toro is one of those rare filmmakers to actually earn that most overused of trailer voice-over adjectives ‘visionary’. However his cachet with general multiplex audiences is slender at best. The truth is that the mass audience that a near $200 million summer tentpole must attract is largely comprised of people who neither know nor care about the auteur theory. Conversely, those early trailers, which sold the film on the biff-bang-whallop of titanic-mechs vs. mega-gribblies, may have worried fans of Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, suggesting that Del Toro may have gone the way of many an interesting indie director sucked into the vast studio meat-grinder and has been processed into canned spam for easy E! Online coverage.

Of course bad buzz does not necessarily mean a bad film, nor does it necessarily mean a flop. 2013’s summer also saw World War Z erupt from a body bag marked ‘dead on arrival’ to swallow cash as enthusiastically as a zombie seeking brains. But WWZ had a big movie star front and centre. That film’s naysayers drastically underestimated the draw of Brad Pitt starring in a big summer movie (something he had never really done). Pacific Rim on the other hand was not only a film lacking recognisable marquee names, but one most people who the initial trailers may have been surprised to discover actually had people in it at all.

I like Michael Heneke as much as the next guy, but I also like spectacle, wonder and magic. I want to be surprised, wowed and charmed by pictures. I want a healthy balanced movie diet, and that means the occasional blow out turkey dinner with all the trimmings. However I don’t want it deep fried in a bucket and accompanied a tub of microwaved beans that come with a half life rather than an expiry date.

So this is a roundabout way of saying that I approached Pacific Rim with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Let me say right off the bat, the excitement was justified and the trepidation evaporated minutes into the movie. A big, bold, brash piece of entertainment that was about as subtle as a sledgehammer to the cranium but also a 100% full-fat Del Toro shake. 2,500 tonnes of fun.

The plot is pure Saturday morning cartoon comic book. In the near future a pan-dimensional rift opens a gateway deep in the pacific ocean from which spew a succession of Lovecraftian beasts dubbed Kaiju (a Japanese word that translates as ‘strange beast’ also used for the Japanese genre of monster pictures that began with Gojira/Godzilla in 1954). The Kaiju cause vast devastation and although the first wave is repelled, the cost in lives and hardware is immense. The world’s nations come together, pool resources and birth the Jaeger programme.

Jaegers are huge human piloted mech warriors capable of going fist to claw with the invading behemoths. The stress of neurally controlling the titans is immense and requires two pilots able to link their consciousnesses in a kind of mind-meld called ‘the Drift’. Soon the tide of the war changes and the humans start to win, Jaeger Jockeys become the new rock stars. Of course this is the set-up for a fall, and soon larger, more ferocious Kaiju appear. The fight is on!

The bulk of the film takes place on a devastated world in which humanity is on the brink of extinction. The global government disillusioned with the failure of the Jaegers, cut funding to divert the Earth’s remaining resources and faith into the construction of a giant wall. The last battle-scarred Jaegers are to protect the construction before being decommissioned.

This isn’t going to fly with the Jaeger programme’s determined Robo-commander, the magnificently monikered Stacker Pentecost (Elba). Pentecost decides the programme will go it alone, transforming from an officially sanctioned military into a resistance. Y’see, he has a plan to end the conflict once and for all. To execute this, he needs to re-enlist a washed out pilot Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) whom he needs for his experience to co-pilot an early model Jaeger.

There is actually a bit more plot, Becket is assessed by Rinko Kikuchi (Mori) a young woman raised by Pentecost. Kikuchi proves herself to be the best choice for co-pilot, but the Commander’s protectiveness creates friction. Also in the mix are a pair of bickering scientists Drs Geiszler and Gottlieb (played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman in a manner strangely reminiscent of Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode). Geiszler is a Kaiju expert who believes the animal’s behaviour holds the key to victory, Gottlieb is ‘a numbers man’ who believes the Math is everything.

Pacific Rim is an oxymoronic film. Its plot and structure are highly derivative. Its influences obvious and copious. However its visual style and the way Del Toro compiles apparently familiar elements has a strange originality. Epic in scope, huge in action, and deafeningly loud, but its characters and their relationships made it oddly intimate. Like the Jaeger’s themselves, a hard carapace of iron and steel hides fragile human heart(s).

The film it most resembles is Roland Emmerich’s 1996 smash Independence Day. Their stories are quite similar, both concern aggressive alien invasions and a plucky band of humans who stand against the end of the world. Both have rousing speeches at exactly the same critical end of the second act juncture. Independence Day had Bill Pullman’s President lose the intellectual but win the popular vote with ‘now we celebrate our Independence Day’. Pacific Rim has Elba bellowing ‘today, we are CANCELLING THE APOCALYPSE’. Like ID4, Rim is not a star vehicle but an ensemble piece (ID4 made Will Smith a mega star, he wasn’t one going in). Pacific Rim even has a dog in it!

The references don’t stop there, obviously the film owes debts to Japanese monster films, King Kong, The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, Blade Runner, a multitude of mecha animes, and many, many more.

The film’s visual style was one of its greatest strengths. Del Toro eschewed the 2.35 : 1 scope aspect ratio for a 1.85 : 1 ratio that works better for the (post production) stereoscopy (please take note filmmakers). Most of the film takes place either in rain, fog, or underwater in environments where he uses volumetric particles to fill the screen creating space and depth. If viewed in 3D it will no doubt set off alarm bells to hear the film favours nighttime for its scenes of bombastic mega-biffing, but light loss is not a problem (it is less so in home 3D in any case). Del Toro’s has taken his colours from Haribo, the Kaiju bleed phosphorescent blood, and have neon varicose veins. A major battle takes place in a Hong Kong that is lit up like a Christmas tree. Light glints of the Jaeger’s hard metal bods (more on hard bods in a minute) then refracts in the shattering glass of toppling skyscrapers. It is retina searing stuff and brilliantly realised.

Luminously photographed by Del Toro’s regular Guillermo Navarro (who has recently turned to directing himself with several episodes of the TV series Hannibal) the live action visuals are as impressive as the CGI effects. Unlike many a sci-fi epic, the human figures are placed in what look like massive sets rather floating in front of a green screen waiting for the world to be dropped in afterwards. The Jaeger cockpit’s are particularly impressive, a combination of tank and elliptical training machine that looks like an industrial BDSM dungeon. These sets were built on massive gimbals so that every punch thrown and received throws the actors around like rag dolls. Production design is outstanding, the work of Carol Spier who is known for her longstanding collaboration with David Cronenberg. Of course this is marshalled by Del Toro in a concerted effort to build a fully realised world.

Amidst all this spectacle it would be easy for the humans to become mere specks. However Pacific Rim’s ensemble cast is up to the challenge. Hunnam brings the soulful depth that has made his Sons of Anarchy character Jax Teller so compelling on the small screen. Rinko Kikuchi (best known and Oscar nominated for Babel) has an instant chemistry with Hunnam and gets to play a genuinely interesting female character in what is otherwise a very masculine world. They join a character triangle with Elba’s stern father figure. Elba owns the film, stealing every scene he is in with brooding charisma. The actor makes Pentecost a credible military leader, capable of inspiring the devotion of an army whilst having the steel to send them to their deaths if necessary. I’ve already mention Day and Gorman who handle much of the comedy, but they also humanise the necessary chunks of pseudo scientific exposition. Day gets his own subplot which brings in a larger than life cameo from Del Toro regular and Hunnam’s SoA co-star Ron Pearlman. Also notable are Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky as an Aussie father and son Jaeger team. It is very noticeable that this is a film built on a series of relationships, and not on solo heroism. This exposes the film’s key message, the indomitability of the human spirit when we collectively pull together in the face of near certain extinction. It’s the blitz spirit writ large and in multicoloured crayon.

Most big effects spectaculars of recent years have favoured darkness and solemnity. Despite its apocalyptic scenario Travis Beacham’s story and his and Del Toro’s screenplay (with an uncredited polish from Iron Man 3 scribe Drew Pearce) are a welcome break from this. There’s plenty of humour, but also (again like Independence Day) an unashamed glee and revelling in destruction. Which isn’t to say that the film gives up tension and suspense. There is genuine threat and danger. Significant characters are sacrificed, the stakes are high.

If all of this sounds like a glowing unconditional rave, but there are also some serious issues that cannot be ignored. Kikuchi’s character is the only female of any note in the entire film. It has already been noted by several commentators that the movie fails the Bechtel Test spectacularly badly. Designed as a tool to point out the general institutionalised sexism of Hollywood, the test sets a simple challenge does a film feature two or more female characters, and if so do they talk to each other at any point about something other than a man? Pacific Rim does not even get as far as two female characters making eye contact. However this may be somewhat mitigated by the fact that they are probably too busy looking at the absurdly ripped torso of Hunnam which is shown repeatedly for your viewing pleasure. Still this is a genuine failing, and disappointing from Del Toro who has been much better than this in the past.

There is also a perfunctoriness in the exploration of the reason behind the Kaiju attacks. Much is made of Day’s character trying to enter a ‘drift’ with a recovered monster brain. Hints about a greater purpose to the creatures attacks are dropped throughout the film. Sadly when the secret is revealed it is boringly generic and feels like an afterthought. Maybe they were holding back for the sequel.

Most damagingly, the film has a very weak third act that fails to top what proceeds it. Del Toro borrows the convention so popular in many Hollywood blockbusters of apparently killing off a major character and quickly resurrecting them. This has become an incredibly boring plot device and one that is no so familiar it has lost its power.

Also, and this is not a criticism, the film skewed surprisingly young. It really feels that Del Toro made a film his thirteen year old self always wanted to see. It may be that Pacific Rim found itself semi-beached on the shores of the Western box office because it was just too zeroed in on the adolescent monster-loving giant robot obsessed demographic to break out to a general audience (I am fully aware there is a sizeable number of thirteen year old girls who would also rather play with Godzilla toys than My Little Pony).

Pacific Rim was a really interesting film masquerading as a very stupid one, but there is genuine depth to it. While there are clear narrative failings, on a level of cinema (which is a visual medium after all) it is often astonishing. Usually I can conceded that ‘it all opinion’ but this is a case were I genuinely fail to understand the vitriol directed at what is in my (haha) opinion, a terrific film.

A version of this article was previously published on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk

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2 thoughts on “A titanic defence of Pacific Rim

  1. I liked it. Perhaps more than I should’ve. It hit the Macross notes perfectly – big monsters with enough human relationship-y stuff to justify its presence on the big screen. Even if it was relatively poorly done at times (sadly, usually times where it was trying to really force you to care about the characters).

    Although I’ll admit it was hard to look past the terrible Australian accents. Tip for Del Toro: for the sequel, hire actual Australians.

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  2. I came around after watching Pacific Rim the second time. That said, I thought beyond Pearlman, Day and Gorman, the humans were awful. That pains me to say, because Idris Elba might be one of my favorite actors. But it’s almost as if the robots animated by the humans were more developed characters than the humans themselves. Still, set that aside, and PR is a ball. I’m looking forward to seeing where del Toro takes this story.

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