Thursday, August 8, 2013

Visceral Impact of Monster vs. Robot Battles Make 'Pacific Rim' A Worthwhile Ride

Can you guess which two are actually in Pacific Rim?
Give you a hint: the upper right one is from Cloverfield
Walking out of Pacific Rim, my friend Sean indicated he’d finally gotten the Cloverfield sequel he’d been waiting for. It was a joke of course, but other than the fact that the aliens came out of a different ocean in the 2008 film, it actually would be pretty easy to view Guillermo Del Toro’s latest spectacle as an unofficial sequel of sorts.

Similar content aside, the main reason for that is that Pacific Rim plays like the final film in a trilogy, dispatching much of what would make up films one and two via an epilogue, exposition and flashbacks. One can imagine a first film in which alien monsters known as Kaiju rise from the Ocean and begin attacking Earth’s inhabitants (ala Cloverfield) and a second film in which humanity begins to fight back via the creation of massive robots known as Jaegers.

But Del Toro bypasses all of that to focus on humanity’s last stand, holding nothing back for a potential sequel. In an era of moviemaking in which presumed tentpoles have largely ceased being self-contained films and instead become franchise-building first acts (i.e. I Am Number Four and The Golden Compass), that in itself is refreshing.

On the plus side, this approach results in a tightly paced film that, with so much to do, doesn’t have a lot of time to spin its wheels. That means we get a boatload of pay off moments and throw down battle scenes without having to sit through an abundance of coy foreshadowing, learning-the-ropes training sequences and lame filler.
Two damaged souls with tragic histories related to the Kaiju wind
up being humanity's last hope. Go figure.
However, with so much content to cover, Pacific Rim is ultimately forced to rely on a slew of narrative shortcuts and clichés in the hopes that the audience will fill in the gaps. Generally, we get exactly what we need to make sense of everything, and nothing more.* That’s not a crippling problem – the film is too visceral an experience and put together with too much care for that – but it unfortunately forces the film to focus on plot machinations in favor of organic developments and the far more novel ideas sketched in the margins.

*Apparently, co-screenwriter Travis Beachem wrote Pacific Rim: Tales From Year Zero, a graphic novel that more fully details the initial Kaiju assault, the creation of the Jaeger program, and the back stories of many of the characters.

Chief among these ideas is the intriguing notion that the mental strain of operating a Jaeger is so intense, that it requires two pilots. However, these pilots can’t just be any two schmoes; since they will share a neural connection, they must be “drift compatible.” Although there’s enough explanation to make sense of the concept of “drifting” and the intense connection it begets, it is not explored in the way it might have been if given more time to breathe in an earlier film (I imagine Tales from Year Zero does the concept justice).

The second most interesting element of the story –the way in which society has developed around the reality of the Kaiju – is intriguingly hinted at, but mostly left to the side. The quick depictions of how society begins to idolize Jaegers and look at Kaiju as a terrifying but regular threats (as we do with real-life terrorists), as well as the sojourn into the black-market dealings surrounding Kaiju remains, work to add detail and flavor to the world Del Toro is creating. But more of these elements would’ve been welcome.

Just Awesome.
Ultimately, complaining about such things seems pointless, because the film delivers on the promise of gigantic robots taking on humongous monsters. Pacific Rim has all the spectacle of a Transformers film, but also contains a decent amount of heart and manages to avoid insulting its audience. It sort of plays like the movie version of a Final Fantasy-type RPG, something that's even more solidified by bad-ass character names like Stacker Pentecoast, Mako Mori and Dr. Newton Geiszler (and that doesn't even include Jaeger names Gipsy Danger and Striker Eureka). The 12-year-old Frank buried within really can't hate on something like that.

Would I have liked to be more invested in the relationship between Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh and Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako? Sure.

And would I prefer to have some of the broader elements toned down (Mako’s initial over-the-top reactions to the flirtatious Raleigh, Burn Gorman’s entire performance as Gottlieb) or eliminated all together (the Newton’s cradle gag, Ron Pearlman’s survival)? Absolutely.

But will I gladly take enthralling monster melees in a compellingly dense universe? You bet. B-