Review: Pacific Rim

PACIFIC RIM

There’s been something of a backlash as to the tone of the modern summer blockbuster as of late. Over the past several years, they have become too brooding, too grim, say those whose prefer old fashioned, air conditioned fun. Well, if nostalgia is what audiences crave, they need look no further than Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. Gargantuan in scale, its designed to be a mashup of all things geeks love: huge robots, giant monsters, and a strange but simple story. Pacific Rim may be burdened with beat for beat narrative cliches, but its breathless execution and earnest nature hearkens back to simple epics where the fate of humanity rested on one big rock ’em sock ’em brawl.

Pacific Rim is likely the least subtle film of the year, and frankly, there’s no problem with that. For its thunderous premise, it makes sense for a grandiose presentation. This is a straightforward fantasy and yet, the film’s opening prologue depicts the catalyst of the war against the kaiju (Japanese for monsters) in frighteningly realistic fashion. As we’re told that the first behemoth decimated San Fransisco, the film maps the timeline of the next several years: kaiju are gradually defeated by the new jaegers (giant mechanized robots piloted by two humans), but the attacks continue. Gradually, mankind’s cockiness over fighting the kaiju increases, and the culture of war permeates into the fabric of modern society. It’s a compelling thematic avenue to explore, but the film lamentably only hints at it.

Following a major accident upon facing a kaiju off the coast of Alaska, jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) goes on a five year hiatus, only to be rediscovered when the world needs him most. Yes, it’s that kind of subtle. Since the U.N. has effectively scrapped the jaeger program, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is now the leader of the resistance, and recruits Raleigh back into service. Headquartered in Hong Kong, the resistance comprises an international assembly of pilots and crews determined to save the human race in its eleventh hour. A plan is put into place to end the kaiju invasion permanently, but Raleigh’s need for a new copilot in Japanese researcher Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) may jeopardize the entire mission.

Though Pacific Rim is packed to the brim with technical jargon, the core narrative is fairly uncomplicated. This seems to be a divergent trend in science fiction / fantasy storytelling. Option A provides a familiar setting and then pursue an unusual story. Option B is the reverse: Provide an unusual setting and ground it with a familiar story. Pacific Rim opts for the latter, going beat for beat with a predictable, traditional structure. However, despite the few surprises, the core storyline works well and major moments feel earned. There are two subplots, however, which feel more tangential. The first involves the two rival scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, who argue over the purposes of the kaiju. Day’s Newton Geizsler is determined to get his hands on a kaiju brain, and seeks out Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), a black market dealer of kaiju organs. There are solid doses of offbeat humor in this subplot typical of Del Toro, but it largely feels like a fairly useless sideshow, intercut at strange moments, and only becomes a necessary plot device in the third act. Another subplot is a rivalry is between Raleigh and an Australian pilot, Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinksy). Hansen sees Raleigh as dead weight, and the two clash on and off throughout the film. The whole purpose of this fighting feels useless. When the film tells us that entire nations have set aside their difference to fight the kaiju war, why is there conflict between these two pilots? Furthermore, neither character particularly grows as a result of their conflict.

Despite the excess story baggage, the visual splendor of Pacific Rim is exceptional. The designs of the kaiju and jaegers are meticulously impressive, and each one is easily distinguishable. There’s no question that Del Toro’s undying love for the genre is present in every shot. Another strong idea from the film is the jaeger piloting system. Two pilots psychologically hook up together in what the film calls “drifiting.” While in “the drift,” both pilots are able to see into each other’s memories, and must allow them to flow without interruption, or they risk fighting out of sync. It’s a fascinating concept, even if the film only explores the consequences once, in what is easily it’s most terrifying and moving sequence. Of course, the battles in the film are justifiably epic, each with its own miniature structure and arc. The outcomes may not be entirely surprising, but what’s not to like with ILM working at the top of its game, and Ramin Djawadi’s ultra-heroic score propelling every punch?

In the end, Pacific Rim makes no bones about its purpose. It has no preconceptions about being anything other than a roller coaster ride of a film, and it undoubtedly passes with flying colors on those terms. The characters may be sidelined, but Del Toro doesn’t pretend that its their show, and his commitment to traditional structure may be predictable, but it keeps the film grounded. After all, the apocalypse is nigh, and he’s having the time of his life.

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~ by romancinema on July 16, 2013.

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