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.

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