Friday, July 12, 2013

The Cinema File #216: "Pacific Rim" Review

A few days before attending an opening night showing of Pacific Rim, I was in a different room of the same theater at a weekly event I frequent, locked in intense trivia combat that on that night had been dedicated to classic Giant Monster movies to honor the upcoming film. Out of ten or so contestants asked to name as many examples of the genre as possible one after the other, eliminated upon drawing a blank or repeating an answer already said, I ended up in the final round against a more than worthy opponent. I ultimately lost, but only because in the heat of battle I forgot that the film Godzilla: All Monsters Attack had already been said under its alternate title Godzilla's Revenge (yes, that's how esoterically geeky this contest got). I bring all this up not just to brag, but to also point out that if anyone on the planet was in the target audience for Guillermo del Toro's latest exercise in high concept nerd-stroking, it would be me, and yet the farther I come away from it, the more the whole thing leaves me cold.

Whether its Giant Monsters fighting each other, Giant Robots fighting each other, or Giant Robots fighting Giant Monsters, the premise of a movie like Pacific Rim should be inherently awesome, no matter how hard Michael Bay has tried to make you think otherwise. Even if your not accustomed to the hokey charms of Godzilla and Gamera, there's just a visceral impact to the actual impact of metal on monster that appeals to the sugar-fueled ten year old inside all of us, and in a cinema landscape always looking for the next big geek niche to exploit, it was only a matter of time before someone tried to tackle this one. That it would be made by such a talented director with as great an eye for science fiction and fantasy and as much authentic love for the tropes of Giant Monster movies as del Toro should almost guarantee success. It almost does, but in the end, there's just something, well, off about the whole thing.

It's not even that Pacific Rim is a bad movie. It's immensely entertaining, and as a popcorn summer action flick its probably the most fun you'll have this year. Like most del Toro films, this movie drops the audience right into the middle of a vast and detailed world that begs for more time and attention than any movie is capable of giving, and does so with a sense of style and a respect for what makes these kinds of movies so beloved by fans like me. Ultimately, I'd say this is probably the best execution of this concept that could have possibly been done under the circumstances. The issue is, there are some inherent problems presenting a story like this today with the level of technology we have and the expectations of modern cinema that even the immeasurable talent and vision of its writer/director could not overcome.

The classic Godzilla movies I grew up on were fun not in spite of their cheesiness, but because of it. This is not to be confused with some sort of MST3K style ironic affection, but rather a genuine appreciation for a very specific kind of unreality that is all but impossible to capture in an age where plausibility and even hyper realism are the requirements of even genre films. We now live in a time where our superheroes must exist in a context just this side of normal to be taken seriously, and so too our giant robots and monsters apparently. Now, naturally I recognize that the cheap rubber suits and cardboard buildings aren't going to fly, but that doesn't mean something as unabashedly fun as a mech battle in the middle of Tokyo has to be so literally and figuratively gritty and dark all the time.

How about a little color? Or for that matter, how about a fight that takes place in the day time when its not raining so hard that half the action is obscured? Even in light of del Toro's usual penchant for practical effects and the emotional detachment I feel from so much CGI on CGI action, even I have to admit that the majority of the visuals are stunning to watch, but at every turn the film seems content to hide its clever effects work behind bad weather, poor lighting, claustrophobic environments, and a chaotic grappling style of fighting that almost puts Transformers to shame in terms of how easy it is to lose track of who is who (or what is what as the case may be). The result is not nearly as boring (the greatest possible sin a movie about giant robots can commit), but it does lead to the extended battle sequences becoming more and more tedious as the film wears on.

A lot of this owes to the surprising lack of variety in robot and monster designs. They all look good, which is to say they all look like what they are and have one or two interesting bits to define them and set them apart from each other, but they could have done a lot more. The film seems to try to use its monsters to evoke classic examples from the kaiju cannon, most notably Anguirus, Rodan, Manda, and even a bulky gorilla-like beast reminiscent of King Kong (though unfortunately nothing like King Ghidorah, my personal favorite of Godzilla's rogue's gallery), but beyond wings or a snake like body or some other gimmick, they all look mostly the same. I can't help but hold this to the del Toro standard established in Hellboy II: The Golden Army, where one scene in a supernatural marketplace displayed more creativity and ingenuity than this entire movie. Then again, had the character models been as colorful and dynamic as I would have wanted, it wouldn't have felt Christopher Nolan-y enough, so the average movie-goer wouldn't accept it.

As much as I can gleefully reference Godzilla movies, they aren't the only predominantly Japanese medium Pacific Rim churns into its weird pop culture blend, and whether you like it or not, you have to admire the guts it takes to produce the closest thing to a big budget live action anime ever made for a mainstream American audience. Elements like The Drift, a psychic link between two pilots and their shared machine, come right out of Ghost In The Shell, and the main team comes across like an older, more psychologically well adjusted version of the core group from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Even the side characters, in particular a pair of wacky scientists and a brutish kaiju parts dealer, are classic examples of anime comic relief, atonally cartoonish while still being endearing rather than annoying. For my tastes they don't do enough of this sort of thing, but then I understand completely why they reign it in as much as they do.

In the wake of Man of Steel, which approached the notion of mass urban carnage at the hands of god-like entities with a shocking callousness towards human life, Pacific Rim should be commended for actually dealing with the consequences of its premise with some depth and maturity. Yes at the end of the day this is all in good fun and the spectacle is the point, but the film never forgets to point out just what this kind of world constantly under threat from previously unimaginable terror would actually be like for those living in it. But then, therein lies another problem. Grappling with the very real psychological ramifications of regular giant monster strikes on a global scale sounds ingenious on paper, but remember, this is a movie designed to appeal to the child inside you, and when the child inside you has to stop and think about how much a monster's rampage is eerily similar to 9/11, whatever emotional resonance that might otherwise have is somewhat counter intuitive in practice.

From Roland Emmerich's abysmal Godzilla remake (known as Zilla in Japan, because it took the God out of Godzilla) to J.J. Abrams' underwhelming Cloverfield, the recent past is littered with failed attempts at doing right by this genre domestically. The closest any recent movie has come has been The Host, a South Korean import, and arguably the low budget Monsters, coincidentally directed by Gareth Edwards, who is currently developing the next stab at a U.S. Godzilla reboot. Pacific Rim falls just short of these last two examples, but even with all of my quibbles and qualifications, I can't not recommend it. The film failed to live up to my expectations, but then perhaps my expectations were too high given my faith in the director and his passion, thinking that even he could surmount what now appears to be the impossible task of making the perfect modern day giant monster joint. But then I'm a purist, and for most people, this will be nothing but a thoroughly entertaining affair, and if only for its ability to take so many nerdy concepts and put them all together into something so relatable and enjoyable, Pacific Rim can only be considered a success.

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