Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Travis Beacham & Guillermo del Toro (story by Travis Beacham)
Stars: Charlie Hunnam (Raleigh Becket), Idris Elba (Stacker Pentecost), Rinko Kikuchi (Mako Mori), Charlie Day (Dr. Newton Geiszler), Rob Kazinsky (Chuck Hansen), Max Martini (Herc Hansen), Ron Perlman (Hannibal Chau), Clifton Collins Jr. (Ops Tendo Choi), Burn Gorman (Gottlieb)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Year of Release: 2013
Country: U.S.Pacific Rim
Pacific RimEverything about Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim is massive. Not just huge, but genuinely massive, gargantuan, towering. The entirety of the film, in which humanity battles against enormous alien creatures from another dimension known as kaiju by designing and building colossal robot fighters known as jaegers, seems to have been designed to make us feel small and vulnerable—puny victims of a bigger and more brutal universe. Lots of recent movies have traded in epic destruction as popcorn entertainment, but Pacific Rim, taking its cues from Hollywood’s schlocky Godzilla-inspired monster movies of the Eisenhower era, has the audacity to make enormity and the destruction that comes with its raison d’être.

It would be too easy to write Pacific Rim off as a bad mash-up of the worst components of Roland Emmerich’s alien-invasion extravaganza Independence Day (1996) and Michael Bay’s insufferable Transformer movies had it been directed by someone other than del Toro, the Mexican-born fantasy-horror auteur whose sharply pronounced visual acumen and obsession with everything weird, surreal, and uncanny has made him one of the most fascinating filmmakers of the past decade. In short, del Toro is simply too smart, too articulate, and too cultured to make something that base, and he turns Pacific Rim into more than it seems. Those looking for a big dumb monster movie will certainly find that, as will those looking for a mega-budget experiment in pushing the limits of CGI effects. No doubt about it, Pacific Rim looks fantastic, even if the brilliance of the visuals is sometimes subsumed by the sheer magnitude of the film’s violence, which returns again and again to building-sized monsters and robots battling it out, usually in the middle of the ocean.

Working with cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, with whom he has collaborated on every film since his feature debut, 1992’s modern-day vampire fable Cronos, del Toro turns Pacific Rim into a visual feast of movement, color, and impact. We’ve seen destruction on this scale time and time again, but del Toro makes it exhilarating by keeping the action visually coherent (a virtue that Bay and his numerous copy-cat followers still fail to grasp) and visually striking. Despite the enormity of what is happening and the fact that it doesn’t always fit entirely in the frame (sometimes we only glimpse giant talons and teeth ripping through glass and concrete or startlingly detailed close-ups of the jaeger’s machinery), we are always oriented and aware of spatial relations and what is at stake, a crucial element of emotional involvement that is all too frequently lacking in today’s hyper-edited, hyper-extended action behemoths. Del Toro always pays close attention to the potential for visual beauty, so that scenes like two jaegers battling a kaiju in the harbor outside of Hong Kong is both a visceral action setpiece and a beautiful display of contrast and lighting, as the action is bathed in the neon radiance emanating from Hong Kong’s skyscrapers.

The film’s visual acuity helps to make up for its relatively rote narrative, which centers primarily around Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a jaeger pilot who loses his brother during a battle with a kaiju. Because the jaeger’s intense piloting system requires two pilots who are literally mind-melded via a process known as “drifting,” Becket literally felt—that is, experienced—his brother’s death, which was more than he could handle. However, five years later he is brought back into service by Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the no-nonsense military commander who oversees the jaeger program. Becket is partnered with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Pentecost’s adopted daughter who lost her family in a kaiju attack on Tokyo and is now intent on vengeance (the flashback sequence in which we see Mako’s nightmarish childhood experience is a surprisingly lyrical, beautiful passage). The screenplay, credited to Travis Beacham (Clash of the Titans) and del Toro, doesn’t offer much in the way of narrative depth, although the characters are sketched out with enough detail and nuance that they grow on you over time.

While the main characters certainly fill their roles and move the story along, it is in the secondary characters that we feel del Toro’s presence most clearly. This is particularly true of a comical, oddball pair of scientists, Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), who is obsessed with studying the physical aspects of the kaiju, and Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), a mathematician who is devoted to predicting their attacks. Geiszler’s fascination with the kaiju’s physicality gives del Toro license to dive headfirst into the delightful ickiness of internal organs the size of cars and buses, which contrasts nicely with the film’s otherwise heavy emphasis on machinery and hardware. Grotesquerie is del Toro’s specialty, and he uses it here as comic relief, a way of defusing the film’s sometimes heavy-handed end-of-the-world pretense.

The prominent role of kaiju guts also brings us to the film’s most compelling character, Hannibal Chau (regular del Toro collaborator Ron Perlman), a flashy, ostentatious, and extremely dangerous black marketer who trades in kaiju organs. While Perlman chews every inch of scenery he’s in, his character’s role reminds us how little we pay attention to questions like, what would we do with the carcass of an alien creature the size of a 30-story building? In del Toro’s world, it becomes fodder for profit, which gives the film an intriguing subtext about how greed and manipulation persist even when the whole world is supposedly working together to battle a common enemy. Thus, when Pentecost delivers a prefab speech just before the final battle, it works as a conventionally rousing bit of “Go humanity!” uplift while also being undercut by the underworld we’ve seen profiting from what may very well be Armageddon. It’s that kind of attention to social detail, as well as the film’s visual punch, that makes Pacific Rim more than a monsters-on-the-rampage movie—although it is certainly that, as well.

Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick

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Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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