Last of the Monster Kids

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Director Report Card: Guillermo del Toro (2013)

8. Pacific Rim

Guillermo del Toro has a unique position as a filmmaker who is beloved by fan boys all over the world but also critically respected by the mainstream film press. He can make an Oscar-nominated masterpiece like “Pan’s Labyrinth” and then turn around and crank out a light-weight, action-heavy comic book flick like “Hellboy II” with ease. After years of pre-production work on “The Hobbit,” truthfully always a rough fit for del Toro’s style, amounted to nothing, the filmmaker immediately went to work on his most fan boy friendly project yet. “Pacific Rim” is a big budget Hollywood popcorn muncher that smashes together two of Japan’s most endearing contributions to pop culture: Giant monsters and big ass fighting robots.

Perhaps the director’s most important skill is his ability to construct believable, fully-formed worlds on-screen. “Pacific Rim” successfully creates a world as detailed as anything out of Tolken within its opening montage. Giant monsters from another dimension have invaded Earth, uprooting society as we know it. In response, the nations of the world band together to build giant piloted robots, called jaegers, to fight back the invasion. That would be enough for most films but “Pacific Rim” is just getting started. The first several creatures are beaten back, the world adapting, changing. We see jaeger pilots become celebrities, the kaijus transformed into children show mascots, both slapped on shoe commercials. Life continues, even when in peril. The world of “Pacific Rim” is a lived-in one. Slums are built out of the bones of the giants, their huge open skulls becoming doorways. All the metals have a rusted, aged quality to them. While this world is recognizable as our own, it is entirely its own beast. Long-running cinematic universes have been built on less then this.

No aspect of “Pacific Rim” is more brilliantly thought-out then its central components, the monsters and the robots. I’ve been a fan of kaiju, the genre and the creatures, my entire life. “Pacific Rim” contributes some truly memorable addition to the kaiju canon. Within minutes, the film establishes the pure scale of these monsters in a way rarely recognized. Fighter jets slink between the massive arms, people dwarfed under foot. I love suitmation but it doesn’t exactly allow for the detail and sense of size seen here. Despite being created with CGI, the creatures have a weight and personality to them.

Which kaiju is my favorite? It’s hard to choose. Each one is brilliantly designed. Knifehead is patterned after the goblin shark, one of nature’s strangest creatures. His ferocity is vividly displayed with snatching jaws and massive claws. There are other notable creatures: the ape-like Leatherback with his organic EMP, the alien-alligator combo Raiju, the final boss Slattern, a mash-up of a hammerhead shark, an octopus, and a dinosaur. However, one inches above the rest. Otachi moves like a sea dragon, her tail whipping around, a snapping claw on the end. She sprays acid, her tongue splitting open at the end. Of the several “holy shit!” moments throughout “Pacific Rim,” none impressed me more then when the fearsome female monster took flight. I didn’t see that one coming. My only complaints about the creature design is the overlaying grayness of each monster. Otherwise, these kaiju can stand among Toho or Daiei’s best.

Of course, the kaiju is only one half of the film’s clash. Standing up for humanity are the jaegers, the humongous fighting robots created to battle the creatures. Naturally, the machines aren’t as cool as the monsters. However, their designs are as well thought-out and detailed. Each jaeger is massively different from one another. Cherno Alpha’s giant nuclear silo gives it a blocky, heavy appearance. Crimson Typhoon is aerodynamic, its hands topped with giant saw blades, its body rotating on a pivot. Everything about it is modern and smooth. Each robot represents its country in a strange way too. Cherno recalling the solid, strong Russian mountains, Typhoon resembling a swift, striking dragon. Striker Eureka’s sails and blades seem to be modeled after the world famous curves of the Sydney Opera House. And who stands in for America but the big blue Gipsy Danger. It’s the jaeger with the most standard body type, reliable and uniform. The dome-like head and sloping shoulders remind me of a football quarterback. The jaegers might be smooth and shiny on the outside but, inside, they are pure del Toro creations. The director’s love of clockwork gears and intricate, folding devices is most obvious in the meticulously detailed cockpits of the machines. 

The creativity displayed in the film’s creature and mech design also applies to its approach to action. There are only, truly, three battle sequences in the film. The first is intimate and intense, designed to put the audience in the pilot’s place, at the mercy of a giant monster’s roaring jaws. The centerpiece of the film, the three-way fight in Hong Kong, is “Pacific Rim” at its best. Here, del Toro adopts an animated, frenetic style, much of the action composed like moving comic book panels. A second kaiju leaping from the waters gets a great reaction from an audience. Gipsy is tossed across the city in full-view, coming to its feet in mid-roll. The sense of fun and excitement is most obvious in a tiny moment when the robot’s fist tears through an office building, stopping just in front of a desk nik-nak. The reveal of the sword is another nerd-boner inducing moment, coming when the excitement is at peak level. The creativity is displayed at the end as well, when a kaiju is split straight down the middle. Throughout it all, del Toro never looses track of its character inside the chaos. Even with all the incredible action, the most thrilling moment might be a flashback to the beginning of the war, a monster reaching for a helpless little girl in a tight, cramped alleyway.

One of “Pacific Rim’s” biggest issues is that it’s actually too awesome too soon. The film peaks early at the end of the second act. After the incredible airborne battle through Hong Kong, the grounded, deep sea finale can’t help but disappoint. The final minutes of the film engages in some cheap third act dramatic ramp-ups. Characters’ lives are put in peril, the hero intentionally waiting far too long to save himself. The plan is overturn at the last second, the characters forced to improvise a way to save the world. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with ancient screenplay tricks like this. “Pacific Rim” partakes in time-tested clich├ęs throughout. The story ultimately boils down to two mismatched partners coming to appreciate each other, the buddy cop scenario writ large. A respectable authority sacrifices himself, but not before giving a rousing speech, straight out of “Independence Day.” I’m not complaining, just noting that after such an exciting first 110 minutes, those final twenty come off as slightly underwhelming.

There’s giant black hole in the middle of “Pacific Rim” preventing it from attaining true classic status and I’m not talking about the giant interdimensional rift. Charlie Hunnan plays Raleigh Becket, the film’s protagonist. Raleigh has no defined character arc of his own. The film begins with him loosing his brother, a massive emotional lost. The story leaps ahead five years later. Becket, at first, seems to have become a bitter, disillusioned man in the wake of his grief. You’d expect him to learn to love again through his partnership, right? Nope. Instead, Raleigh turns a page almost immediately, instantly deciding to take Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako under his wing. All of Becket’s character development seems to happen off-screen. Who’s to blame, screenplay or performer? I’m inclined to lay the blame at the feet of Hunnan. His performance is flat and uninspired, Hunnan carrying little emotion in his voice. His attempts at macho tough-guy posturing are tiresome and unconvincing. It’s a good thing the rest of the film is so captivating and exciting because its lead hero is a total bore.

Perhaps to make-up for its hunk of wood hero, the film’s supporting cast is packed with colorful, memorable actors. Kikuchi winds up carrying the story’s emotional wake. Her quest of revenge giving way to acceptance and love proves far more interesting then Hunna’s non-entity. Idris Elba has the rather thankless task of speaking the script’s cheesiest dialogue. He pulls it off with ease. Charlie Day brings the manic comic energy he regularly displays on “It’s Always Sunny” to his role, standing in for every hardcore nerd in the audience. He has great chemistry with Burn Gorman, playing the kind of part that would have ideally been filled by a twenty-years-younger Jeffrey Combs. Finally, del Toro stalwart Ron Perlman brings his effortless attitude to a hilarious supporting role, a minor mob kingpin who seems to have step right out of a Takahiro Omori anime.

Though obviously pitched at mainstream audiences, “Pacific Rim” is definitely a fan boy film. The various homages and callbacks to its influences will be lost on most viewers but are deeply appreciated by folks like me. The kaiju are clearly inspired by earlier giant monsters. Knifehead recalls Guiron, one of Gamera’s most memorable enemies. The briefly glimpsed Onibaba is souped up version of Ebirah, the giant lobster that vexed Godzilla once. Otachi’s movement and design was obviously influenced by Cloverfield, Rodan, Gyaos, and the Xenomorph. Raiju also owes something to Giger’s signature creation, with his double jaw. Finally, Leatherback might be the film’s most subtle homage. He is a literal Godzilla. For those unaware, Godzilla’s Japanese name, Gojira, is a combination of Japanese phrases for gorilla and whale. “Pacific Rim” presents us with a literal aquatic gorilla. I might be reaching on that one but I imagine it was intentional. The references even extend to the score, as a very familiar sounding series of musical notes play right before the final kaiju’s introduction.

The jaegers recall giant robot anime of different types. Each design is a variation on a basic build, bringing to mind the Gundam universe. Gipsy’s hand-canon is the type of finishing move used by any number of robotic heroes. Most obviously, Gipsy, like Mazinger before it, has a rocket punch. (Or should that be a ROCKETO PUNCHI?!) Yet, the biggest influence has to be “Neon Genesis Evangelion.” The premises, giant robots build to fight giant invading monsters, are comparable. Instead of synching with the souls inside of the robots, the pilots have to synch with each other. Instead of the suits and scientist hanging out in the GeoFront, they hang out in the Shatterdome. Mako’s page-boy haircut, streaks of blue included, slyly mirror Rei Ayanami’s. Hell, the movie even throws in a giant robot in a crucifixion pose. Considering an American-made, live action “Evangelion” movie was considered at one point, I’d say this is a best case scenario. An “Eva” movie would have boosted everyone’s age and dropped the weird religious and Freudian aspects anyway. Here, we get to enjoy all the awesome stuff guilt-free, without sacrificing what made that series special.

“Pacific Rim’s” box office performance was heavily discussed upon release. The internet was hugely excited for this film, aware of its director pedigree and story influences. Yet the general public shrugged it off as a “Transformers” rip-off. While this would deter American movie-goers, who pluck down billions of dollars for the next “Transformers” piece of shit, I do not know. Despite cheer-leading from critics and fans, the movie bombed domestically. (And in Japan too, because that country has lost its way and no longer cares about giant monsters.) Surprisingly huge business in China has created some talk of a sequel but I doubt it’ll see the light of day, due to del Toro’s increasingly busy schedule and apathetic studio brass. Most Americans might not crave something equally original and beholden to classic sci-fi but I do. “Pacific Rim” isn’t del Toro’s deepest film but it is one of his most buoyantly entertaining. [Grade: A-]

Thus ends Catch-Up Week, which actually stretched out for 17 days. What better why to end this little excursion then with an excessively detailed, three-page long review of a movie everyone else stopped talking about four months ago? (I might have went a little overboard with the links...) Even if it went wildly off-schedule, as all things do here at Film Thoughts, I consider Catch-Up Week to a be a success. Looking over at the Director Report Card side-bar there and realizing it's truly complete and hole free satisfies my obsessive-compulsive tendencies nicely. At least until the next time I fall behind and have to do this sort of thing again.

Anyway, I'll be back soon with some seasonal updates. Hopefully.

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