Friday, August 16, 2013

Reflections on Pacific Rim

I rarely want to revisit or detail at length my thoughts about a movie after a review, even if I have more things to say.  But nearly two weeks  and two more viewings later,  I’m still buzzing about Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim. I’m as surprised about it myself.   Why does Del Tero’s ode to the kaiju and mecha films of his childhood have such a hold on me? Part of it is probably because I grew up on the same diet, though, a slightly newer incarnations of the same material – like Choudenshi Bioman , Ultraman, Voltron, Transformers, and Macross/Robotech.    The other part is because I think there’s really something there that many professional critics who gave backhanded compliments to the film as being a ‘fun’ summer blockbuster missed.   Pacific Rim is a very human story.  Very simple perhaps, but it was by design.  Del Toro had mildly criticized, though not by name, the  Christopher Nolan blockbusters that has seemingly dominated cinemas of late, as being "existential", "dystopian", "incredibly complex"  and one would assume, not fun (to watch).

And he is right. While I had a buzz for weeks after seeing Inception and enjoyed the movie quite a lot, the movie appealed to the engineering and logical centers of my brain. I was more interested in the intricate layers of Nolan’s dream world and how everything connected and how it all made sense than I was about the characters.  Debating the ending aside, I didn’t really care about Cobb, nor did I want to explore Inception’s world beyond what is there on screen. Pacific Rim appeals to me on a deeper more emotional level.

What’s interesting to me about the film is how it has affected other people.  There is a whole community of fans, on twitter, tumblr and elsewhere blogging about a movie that is sort of considered a flop domestically.  There are hundreds of fan fics, fan art with ‘pairings’ of Newt and Herman, the two comedic relief, and just about ever character,  including and especially the Russian crew of Cherno Alpha who has a few lines and even fewer scenes on screen. This is also why the graphic novel explaining the backstory ‘Tales from Year 0’ is doing surprisingly wellPacific Rim has reached the cult fandom that your typical summer blockbuster do not.  I do not see the same enthusiasm for Man of Steel as I do for Pacific Rim, even though the former outperformed the latter at the box office.

Pacific Rim is also the reason why I sorely miss Roger Ebert's insights at the movies.  Ebert respects films for what they are, judging each by their merits and comparing them within the context of their creation.  Just as every film cannot be a Battleship Potempkin or a Godfather, he does not try to compare them as such.

He rarely condescends and in his reviews he gets to the heart of the movies. With his recent passing, a voice that echoes the passion for film has been removed from the broader conversation.   Instead, we have salaried critics vying for the trailer quote or writing lazy haphazard reviews to cram into a 500 word summary at the edge of a newspaper column.  If Roger Ebert was alive, I think he really would have liked the film.

I think Ebert would point out that Pacific Rim ultimately makes the audience care about the characters.  There’s a lot in this film that’s non-Hollywood by design.  It isn't jingoistic, there's no shoehorned in army scene with troops running around city streets to appeal to the Call of Duty crowd.  It's just a fun movie about robots vs. aliens where characters are relatable on a very simple level.  While the characters generally fall into genre stereotypes as a shorthand for explaining where they come from, motivations and so on,  Del Toro has crated a universe that people want to explore.  Like the characters in a good anime, the characters of Mako Mori, Raleigh Becket, Stacker Pentecost have a certain earnestness and humanity about them. Their interactions within the film's universe creates a certain narrative inertia that makes people care.  Just like any good anime, the audience keeps coming back for more and wants to know what happens to them.   That is why I think Pacific Rim is greater than the sum of its parts and it is also why I very much want a sequel. One that either tells the backstory or the story of the kaijus return.

If I learned anything from my childhood.  The monsters always find a way back.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Pacific Rim

Once in a while a movie like Pacific Rim flies under the radar and almost slips away from a first viewing on the big screen. I am very glad I didn’t let it slip away.   I had started out highly anticipating the film given the film’s pedigree (helmed by Guillermo del Toro) and the premise (mechas).  But as release neared, the marketing which tried to evoke a Bill Pullman moment in ID4 with Idris Elba’s ‘Cancelling the apocalypse’ speech backfired for being too over the top and hokey.  It didn’t spike my interest.  As I had vowed to keep myself spoiler free, the negative comments and weak box office numbers seem to have confirmed what I feared. It was a bomb. It didn’t connect with the nerds and anime-fans who should love this.

I’m glad I reconsidered.  Going to see the film on a whim, I was hooked from beginning to end.  I knew immediately I was going to like the within the first 15 minutes, before we even see the opening title which did not appear until after an extended prologue.  And here’s the thing. There’s nothing cerebral about Pacific Rim.  Del Toro made no bones hiding his inspiration was the giant monster (Kaiju) films of his childhood.  This is essentially a big budget version of those films, aimed at children inspired by a  staple of Japanese and Asian pop entertainment.  However, unlike Michael Bay’s Transformers and a bevy of blockbusters with flashy effects, Pacific Rim respects the source material and treats the audience with respect.  The end result is a great movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters with a distinctly non -Hollywood sensibility.

Del Toro had a movie he could have made that he didn’t and it was for the better.  The film’s first 15 minutes summarizes a series of events spanning years.  Describing the first attack of the Kaijus, the devastation the wrecked, and the triumph of humanity over these monsters with the first Jaegers (hunter  mechas) developed to stop them.  This would have sufficed for a Hollywood sci-fi movie.  Cities destroyed, millions dead, and a rousing ending.

But instead of making that movie, Del Toro made the sequel.  His story is about the peace that did not
happen after the victory. The film opens at a high point.  Kaijus have apparently been dealt with, Jaeger pilots have become more than heroes, they are rock-stars and the mechas they pilot have entered as pop-culture merchandising machines.  Humanity has grown comfortable with their own power and supremacy.  At this point the audience knows something else is about to happen. It is only the beginning of the movie. The question becomes how the story would wind its way into the eventual monster-mecha brawlfests we’ve seen in the trailers and ads.  The journey there forms the core of Pacific Rim, and in doing so, Del Toro allows for the characters, who we barely yet know, the ability to show emotion, weakness when they are in positions where we expect them to be triumphant and confident.

While it is not unusual for a summer popcorn flick to show a flawed hero with emotions, we expect those to happen in canned family scenes where innocent civilians and family members are killed by the wanton actions of the villain, we expect the hero to collect his emotions and go out and kick ass in a rousing epic battle.  The narrative arc of the typical Hollywood blockbuster almost wills it.   But not in Pacific Rim.  We see tragedy after tragedy befall the Jaeger corps.  at the height of the protagonists power.  Doing this, Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham frames the character in a way that makes it easy for the audience to identify with their emotions and motivations.  There’s no need to spend screen time emoting  badly written lines about duty, honor and vengeance.  We simply know by observing the tragedies.  In Pacific Rim, I really cared.

While not without its hokey, clichéd moments and anime staples, Del Toro manages to make it work.  The film doesn’t feel like a cheapened by them.  Clichés like the rivalry and redemption between Jaeger pilots whose resolution we could see coming a mile away merely acknowledges that these kind of tropes exists in the genre and is a narrative staple in the genre.  As someone who grew up watching Evangelion, Macross, and countless other Japanese mecha anime, I appreciated the anime inspired tropes.  Watching them done in live action by a director who is respectful of the source material is refreshing.   The anime inspired hero poses and one-liners (in Japanese) comes to mind.

Even more impressive are the fight scenes. These turn into all-out-brawls, with some pretty brutal  moments. When I felt distress as a Jaeger is crippled and its pilots slowly killed  blow by blow by a Kaiju, I knew Del Toro has got it right.  He wasn’t just cutting together pieces of CG action sequences commissioned from ILM, he was telling a story with the brawl sequences.  Like a boxer being knocked  around,  the audience is right there rooting for the Jaegers to win as the living hell is beat out of them.

On the same token, Ramin Djawadi’s (Game of Thrones) provides an unobtrusive and excellent mix of electronic and choral score.  I’v e spent the past several summers having my ear drums blasted by Hans Zimmer’s sometimes overbearing scores that Djawadi’s guitar riffs seems decidedly understated.  In hindsight, that is Del Toro’s style. The music shepherds you from one scene to another and it wasn’t  until the visuals had faded away and the story ended that the score’s quality comes to the fore. As I walked out the theatre with the credits rolling, the guitar riffs from the main theme struck me as being catchy.  I had been hearing riffs of the main theme through the entire movie, but didn’t realize how good it was until then.
Rinko Kikuchi as Mako Mori

Having said all that, the inner geek in me was disappointed by a number of things.  The relative short screen time of the Chinese and Russian Jaeger and what is essentially a cameo from the Japanese Jaeger Coyote Tango.   While I don’t fault the Beacham and Del Toro for focusing on the American Jaeger,  the high profile of the Australian Jaeger was surprising.  I feel its role could have been shared by the machines from the several other participating nations.  

I want to close by noting that Rinko Kikuchi’s and Idris Elba’s performance were superb.  The poorly cut ‘cancelling the apocalypse’ speech shown out of context in the trailers may have given a lot of people the wrong impression.  In-context, the speech works.  Elba’s  role  as Stacker Pentecost is the glue that holds the film's narrative together.  While he is seen shouting in the trailers, most of his screen-time is understated acting more as the narrative anchor of the entire film, or as his character puts it, he is the ‘immovable point’ on the screen.   Kikuchi’s Mako Mori is surprisingly good, channelling the anime mecha pilot personality to a tee.  There are fleeting resemblances to many anime characters in her role, but I felt like she’s closest to Evangelion’s Rei Ayanami.  A  wounded soul.  Vulnerable,  but incredibly lethal in combat.  It is worth noting that one of her final lines was left untranslated to the English speaking audience.  A little bit of searching on Google should yield its meaning, normal spoiler warnings apply.  The line is a poignant and fitting touch by Del Toro and Beacham as it fits the Japanese inspiration perfectly and would be the kind of thing you wouldn't expect in a Hollywood blockbuster but it is something someone in an anime would say in the end, at the climax, when decisions are made.   It wasn’t lost on me that at that moment, when she said those words that I realized what I had just seen.  Pacific Rim is the live-action mecha  movie I had always wanted to see and make myself.