Monday, 5 August 2013

Pacific Rim (2013) - Dir. Guillermo del Toro

It's Monsters vs Machines in Guillermo del Toro's delightful big screen spectacle

We're over half way through the relentless onslaught of the summer blockbuster season. So far, Hollywood's multi-billion dollar bag o' tricks has produced one worthy conqueror (Iron Man 3), one crushing disappointment (Star Trek Into Darkness) and a mix of the usual mediocre franchises that are populating cinema screens year after year. The cinema screens need a saviour, someone or something to remind us how the term "blockbuster" was created. Wholeheartedly embracing that challenge are Guillermo del Toro and the giant humanoid machines of Pacific Rim.

Planet Earth is being terrorized by extra-dimensional monsters known as Kaiju who emerge from a portal at the bottom of the ocean. Faced with this unfathomable threat, humans build hulking humanoid machines known as Jaegers to battle the Kaiju. When it appears that the Kaiju have been temporarily defeated, the Jaeger program is abandonned in favour of constructing a giant wall to keep the Kaiju at bay. However when the Kaiju return stronger and bigger, and demolish the protecting wall, the world turns to the ageing Jaeger program to defeat the Kaiju once and for all.

Whilst that may sound like a lot to take in, del Toro deals with this background information in a swift opening sequence which neatly establishes Pacific Rim's own vision of the future. A more traditional route would start the film with the first Kaiju invasion and follow on from there. Pacific Rim isn't interested in beginnings; it politely doffs its cap to the necessary setup as it marches straight towards the last stand, the final boss level. Pacific Rim knows exactly what it has to deliver (giant monsters and machines knocking seven bells out of each other) and Guillermo del Toro delivers this in spades whilst also managing to introduce and give satisfying story arcs to the characters on screen.

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How is Pacific Rim different to any other giant robot franchise I hear you ask? The Jaegers are controlled by two human pilots who sync their memories and thought streams via a neural bridge known as "The Drift". The pilots are not several miles away in a safe bunker, they are inside the Jaeger. If the machine is destroyed, they too will perish. This immediately gives the fights greater tension and resonance which doesn't exist when watching the likes of Thor and Superman battle their respective enemies. 

The main pilots of the film are Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a veteran who retired when he lost his co-pilot (and brother) during a Kaiju attack, and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a talented youngster who has her own reasons for wanting to do battle with the Kaiju. The Jaeger program is run by the formidable (and brilliantly named) Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) who's battles with the Kaiju have left him scarred and more determined than anyone else.

This eclectic cast is rounded off by the likes of Clifton Collins Jr, Charlie Day, Robert Kazinsky, Burn Gorman, Max Martini and del Toro regular Ron Perlman. It's a bold move to not enlist any bankable Hollywood A-List stars into a multi-million dollar blockbuster, but it's ultimately the right one. Obviously there are lead roles and supporting roles, but it never feels like one actor is hogging the limelight. Pacific Rim is not about one person or one country saving the day, it is all of humanity battling the monsters from the deep.

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The film has great confidence in it's characters and spends more time with them than initially expected. After the initial fight involving Raleigh and his brother, it's a long time before another Kaiju attack happens. During this time, motives are explored and relationships are established. The characters aren't groundbreaking in any way, but their development is not abandonned for the sake of another fight. Pacific Rim gets its pacing pretty much spot on which is not always the case in many modern blockbusters. The fights are well staged and the steady camera movement ensures that the punches and blows are easy to follow.

One of the film's major set pieces briefly takes the action into the edges of space. Our heroes are doing battle with a particularly large Kaiju and are rapidly losing the fight. At this point, the pilots unleash a giant sword to give them the upper hand against the monster. This moment immediately brought a smile to my face as it reminded me of the joyous times I had watching The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers as a child. In that show, the fights would always start with hand-to-hand martial arts. Then the Power Rangers would jump into their Zords (assault vehicles) and fight off some more enemies. Finally, the Rangers would combine their Zords into a giant Megazord in order to finish off their foe. Why didn't they just form the Megazord to begin with? Why didn't the pilots unleash the Jaeger sword at the start of the fight? Simple. It's nowhere near as entertaining to watch.

Guillermo del Toro fills the screen with as much passion and warmth that he brings to all of his films. The complete lack of cynicism is the ultimate key to Pacific Rim's success. He has openly said that he set out to make a movie that his twelve year old self wanted to see and his adoration for the monster genre is transferred to the screen.

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The unparalleled rise of Christopher Nolan and his more serious form of blockbuster has sucked some of the fun out of the cinema. The problem doesn't lie entirely with Nolan himself, but rather with the studios' desire to apply his style to the rest of the blockbuster season in an attempt to emulate the successes of The Dark Knight and InceptionI like Christopher Nolan's films, but I'm growing increasingly frustrated with the diluted copycats which implement the more serious tone, but forget to bring the ambition that Nolan has. 

A few years back I watched the disaster film to end all disaster films, otherwise known as 2012. In 2012, lots of CGI things collapse whilst a bunch of humans attempt to navigate their way to safety. It's largely uninteresting stuff from disaster master Roland Emmerich who has been delivering derivative versions of his big hit Independence Day for a decade or more. In one scene, John Cusack has fallen down a chasm in the ground in an attempt to rescue a really, really important piece of paper. There's not doubt he's going to make it as he's the lead and the film has another 7 hours to go (or something like that). Despite my reservations about the rest of the film, I'll admit that I shouted (in my head) "YES JOHN CUSACK!" when Mr Cusack emerged from the chasm. For a brief moment, I did care about his fate because of the character development from earlier in the film. It was bog standard character development, but it was honest character development.

On the Nolan-Emmerich sliding scale of blockbuster cinema, Pacific Rim sits proudly towards the Emmerich end. There's nothing overly ambitious about the plot or characters, but it always feels honest. It isn't holding back for the next installment of a franchise (though a sequel would be welcomed), it doesn't gloss over it's underdeveloped main characters by killing them off and it doesn't kill lead characters, ask you to care about the death and then bring them back to life minutes later because a sequel is already being planned. Characters I cared about did die, the story has a satisfactory beginning, middle and end, and the final moments of triumph felt wholly earned.

In a less crowded marketplace, Pacific Rim could have been the Star Wars of this generation. It shares the same sense of wonder and awe (particularly in IMAX 3D) of George Lucas' space saga. Unfortunately, as Pacific Rim had no established fan base or intellectual property to fall back on, it hasn't found the audience it deserves and will struggle to shake off the "flop" label that it's been given. It deserves a larger audience and I hope that a greater appreciation for the film will develop in years to come.

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