July 15, 2013

Guillermo Del Toro Puts On A Show In Pacific Rim

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Pacific Rim reminds us that special effects, high-concept plots and international audience optimization — in a word: money — are not inherently bad things. This aliens-versus-robots monster movie shares a similar log line and $200 million budget with Michael Bay’s Transformers films, which deserve their reputations as the go-to punching bags for blockbuster tonelessness. But where all of Bay’s characters seem to have or appeal to a spoiled 15-year-old boy’s brain — hypersexual, needlessly loud, casually racist — director Guillermo Del Toro affords us a little decency with a likable, comfortably diverse cast that holds family, chivalry and teamwork above, let’s say, more gratuitous pleasures. Del Toro manages to do this while assembling some of the most colossal fight scenes ever put to film, like one where a giant robot (called a “Jaeger”) drags a cargo ship through the streets of Hong Kong before cracking it over a Kaiju’s (Japanese for “giant beast”) whale-sized skull. If there is one movie this year that deserves the most overused of words, “awesome,” it is Pacific Rim.

Cinema needs extravaganzas like Pacific Rim every so often. For one, the scale of the Jaeger-on-Kaiju action requires nothing less than a 20, 40, if not 70-foot (IMAX size) screen for full impact. Aside from mile-back extreme long shots, a single frame can hardly contain these beasts, and Del Toro wisely employs a lot of close-ups (which are still around 50-feet across, to scale) to capture the scaly aliens and unpolished mechs in all their gnarly glory. The editors, Peter Amundson and John Gilroy, cut the action into remarkably fluid montages that move briskly but not as to slay the epileptics in the crowd. Each pair of Jaeger pilots must sync with one another’s brain in what the movie refers to as a “neural handshake” — there’s a subplot regarding the invasion of memory and fantasy into the present (a la Inception), but this Eastern-influenced touch lends a nice, deliberate strategy to what could’ve just been Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots chaos (a la Transformers). And make no mistake: Some of the action looks beautiful, particularly when the creatures leave the ocean and duke it out in the city. From the front rows, the blur of metropolitan neon and intermingling of organic and inorganic forms resembles the kaleidoscopic symphony of a Stan Brakhage film (a pretentious reference I make only partly in jest). It all looks very cool, and very expensive, and there’s no way your home theater or your iPad could do it justice.

The size of these battles does, however, rob the film of its human element, which is what, in the end, cinema is all about. Del Toro foresaw this issue and takes a cue from Jurassic Park, throwing in a baby Kaiju (just smaller than a T-Rex) to terrorize a few dozen people instead of multiple millions. That scene is a one-off, though, and the non-action stretches often do exactly that: stretch. You may be forgiven for finding the robots and supposedly minor characters more interesting than the lofty lead three. The main player, Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy), fills a Channing Tatum-type role with about the same gravity Tatum would bring: not much, but he’s charming. Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) plays a highly skilled but inexperienced pilot under Officer Pentecost’s (Idris Elba, unremittingly badass) tight leash. The inevitable chemistry between Hunnam and Kikuchi plays it too safe, though we should all take notice at the presence of an Asian woman in a high-profile American production such as this (Freida Pinto in 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the last, I recall). The wildcard role goes to It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day, who steals his every scene as a scientist with a more-than-healthy interest in Kaijus. His high-pitched, fast-talking, smart aleck riffs are equal parts Paul Giamatti and Groucho Marx, and Del Toro knows he’s the real heart of the film, allotting him nearly equal screen time to the protagonists. His partner (Burn Gorman) shamelessly entertains as a genteel, twitchy British scientist, and then there’s a cameo by a Del Toro favorite. I’ll refrain from naming the latter actor, but he makes a grand entrance, holding Day’s nostril hostage with the tip of a butterfly knife in what must be a shout-out to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Del Toro lets the humor and delirium of his supporting cast rule for a surprising wealth of time, which almost makes you forget that the main story of Hunnam, Kikuchi and Elba leaves you cold.

If the numerous references above haven’t already made it clear, this is not exactly an original production: The climax rips off Independence Day, the flashback structure borrows from Inception, the robot design nods to Japanese anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Iron Man, King Kong, Godzilla and, of course, Transformers deserve mention. But Del Toro, as great a director as he is, has never been a brain-bending innovator like, say, Charlie Kaufman or the Coen Brothers. In his best film, Pan’s Labyrinth, he took a simple fairy tale, draped it in politically charged gothic horror and emerged with a work that few will take to task its merits as serious cinema. While Pacific Rim lacks the humanity of that film and Hellboy, there’s a bit more to it than robots kicking ass. Not a lot, maybe, but Del Toro injects a rare zen and beauty into this often stale genre. He may be playing with toys instead of redressing his nightmares, but it’s not like he forgot how to put on a show.

Original Author: Zachary Zahos