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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Review: Pacific Rim (A Case Against)



Pacific Rim starts off promisingly; we’re introduced to a startlingly built mythology and lots of grand scale. There are more ideas presented in it's first 10 minutes than films like World War Z have in their entire running times. In this world, the alien creatures that attack Earth, known as Kaiju, become cultural icons and are simultaneously deadly menaces as well as toys and action figures, for example. When we’re first introduced to the Jaegers, pairs of pilots determined to stop the Kaiju by mentally link up via a bit of hand-wavey neuroscience called “The Drift”, we see that pilots are able to share each other’s memories. This is a very clever idea and something that was completely hidden from all marketing in the film. But much like the very inventive backstory, all of the promising developments that could be pushed to the fore via this narrative device are slapped aside, like a Jaeger hitting a Kaiju with a boat.
Pacific Rim’s sole focus is action, and lots of it. This isn’t inherently a bad thing, but as a viewer, you need to be able to connect to the characters so that there are some levels of stakes that you can invest in. The players in Pacific Rim aren’t really characters so much as broad archetypes; you have the handsome loner with a scarred past, his angry rival, the big boss that barks orders but really has a heart of gold, the potential love interest who is a hero in her own right, and the wacky scientists. Certainly this is the kind of film that may appeal to a kid-focused audience (and those that are able to check their brain at the door), but it’s hard not to be disappointed with just how conventional a director of Del Toro’s stature actually went with the material. It’s a story where I knew each of its beats the moment every character was introduced. Each player is imbued with so little personality beyond some on-the-surface purposing that its impossible to create any emotional investment. The only time the film came to life at all is via a surprise Ron Perlman appearance as a shady dealer in Kaiju parts, a character that lives and breathes in a way that none of the others really do. In the end, I had no reason to care about anything going on because the script focused on the least interesting element of the world as presented.
There is one scene that, under normal circumstances, would be a respite from the onslaught of contrivance, and that is the scene where Mako is lost in her own mind via The Drift. Visually, it reminded me of the type of child-imagination fueled horror from Del Toro’s triumph Pan’s Labyrinth. Young Mako is convincing and, as has been pointed out to me, it does indeed create a sense of menace around the Kaiju. But the film that surrounds it is disparate from the sense of imagination that makes up that scene, that on first glance comes across as time marking rather character building. It’s an evidence of the structural and tonal problems that are rife within Pacific Rim. It wants to be a big exciting action movie, and give you some crumbs of character development to keep you going. Unfortunately, the latter is so inept, one wouldn’t be too far off the mark by asking, “why did they even bother?”
Visually, there’s a lot of gorgeous design work, and the team clearly put a good deal of thought into how each of the Jaegers work, as well as the background on each of the Kaiju. I imagine there’s a massive tome of with background information on each iteration of the Kaiju and what makes up a Category 3 vs a Category 5, etc…the problem is, when the Jaegers and Kaiju get to fighting, it’s nearly impossible to tell what is going on as everything is shot at night and in the rain. Instead of the immaculately constructed creations, it just looks like a CGI thing is throwing itself at another CGI thing and it becomes one big gloopy mess. As this sort of action makes up about 2/3rds of the movie, I found myself becoming desensitized to what amounted to me watching a couple of people playing a very elaborate video game. When the final boss battle came around, I just stopped caring altogether.
Performance-wise, Pacific Rim is a bit of a mixed bag, Idris Elba does his yeoman’s best with the wafer-thin character he’s given and brings a lot of gravitas to a thankless role. Riko Kikuchi is the other player of note, beyond Elba and the aforementioned Perlman, who at least asserts herself well despite being terribly underwritten and having unearned “chemistry” with the film's lead. Speaking of which, Charlie Hunnam is terrible. When I say terrible, I mean Sam Worthington in Avatar-level bad. Hunnam gives the worst performance in a blockbuster I’ve seen in years, making up what he lacks in charisma with his ability to show his abs a lot. They are good abs to be fair. This may be the first time in history I was longing for Channing Tatum to be the lead in a movie. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the scientists that propose a possible solution are a distraction. Despite their important role, I found myself pulled out constantly by Day basically playing his character from “Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and Gorman just being a cartoon.
There’s a bit of dialogue towards the latter half of Pacific Rim, where its pointed out that there are people that worship the remains of the Kaiju, another fascinating idea; but much like the after-effects of “The Drift”, and any of the other more clever conceits, it all gets shuffled into the background for a dark, murky mess. I find myself disappointed by the tantalizing glimpse at something greater that was yanked away in an almost teasing fashion for the whiz bang action that the movie mostly delivers. The kids are sure to love it as its basically an anime come to life, but anyone looking for anything beyond the surface should prepare for disappointment. In a way, it reminds of another high concept let-down in Avatar, a film that clearly had alot on its mind in pre-production, but opts for ordinary strum and drang rather than the kind of grander storytelling that better science fiction offers.
I give it a C+
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1 comment:

  1. You bring up some good points, things I hadn't considered, I think because I've always loved giant robots.

    I believe that the biggest problem with the movie was that they rushed the story along too quickly. I would of loved to see a whole film dedicated to the 6 day battle with the first kaiju. And a post credit scene of the first Jaeger being built. Second film about the struggle to pilot and sync and then the film we have now.

    I think this was a missed oportunity but still enjoyed the film.

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