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Non-Review Review: Pacific Rim

The generic way of describing Pacific Rim seems to be Transformers vs. Godzilla, which really says more about how hard it is to sell an original blockbuster these days than it does about the quality of the film itself. There are obvious and superficial similarities between Pacific Rim and the two film series cited – giant robots and monsters from the ocean – but that cynical synopsis doesn’t do justice to director Guillermo Del Toro’s bold vision.

Pacific Rim is a punchy old-school summer blockbuster, one which remembers that characters are the foundation of drama, and which imbues its flesh-and-blood cast with as much personality as the flesh-and-blood spectacle unfolding overhead.

Here there be monsters...

Here there be monsters…

Pacific Rim is, at its heart, an affectionate tribute to old-school monster movies. Reduced down to its simplest essence, it’s a B-movie produced to grade-A standard. It is one of the best-looking monster movies ever constructed, and Del Toro’s affection for his inspiration is practically infectious. Despite the state-of-the-art technology put into constructing the film and realising Del Toro’s vision, it’s a decidedly old-fashioned blockbuster. It feels like a riff on those classic Japanese monster movies, albeit updated for modern sensibilities with the greatest amount of care.

To be fair, there is a reason that social media has reduced Pacific Rim to some sort of mathematical shorthand, simplifying the film to a formula. The film does feature giant robots rampaging through urban environments. It is effects-heavy. It is a movie about how the fate of the world rests on these larger-than-life constructs. However, while labelling Pacific Rim by reference to Michael Bay’s Transformers film might be convenient, it’s also grossly misguided.

Suit up!

Suit up!

Del Toro’s Pacific Rim is better crafted in just about every sense. The most obvious difference is the fact that Pacific Rim never loses sight of the characters inhabiting the world. Del Toro has drawn a truly international cast to bring his vision to life, and the film’s expansive cast feels more real and more developed than any of the ensemble players in the Transformer series.

Due to the size of the cast, not every character is stretched out to three dimensions. Certain recognisable actors only get to inhabit their roles for only two or three scenes amid the epic scale of the drama. However, every character has a clear motivation and personality. Those roles in the hands of stronger character performers – like Idris Elba, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman or Burn Gorman – feel much more real an substantial than the superficial eye candy which inhabit so many summer spectacles.

I wonder what this does to property prices...

I wonder what this does to property prices…

Del Toro has a gift for defining his expansive ensemble with efficiency, and even little touches add up to give us an insight into each member of the cast. Background players with no real lines still stand out from the crowd. Indeed, Del Toro has a wonderful eye for detail. He ensures that the world he constructs is visually clear and easy to process. For example, only two of the four jaeger teams receive any substantive development. However, the other two are clearly defined and have their own identities beyond “supporting cast.”

This is the key to why Del Toro works so well, and what distinguishes his work here from that of Bay. He has a very clear visual style, and one that extends beyond explosions and attempts to pound the audience into submission. One set piece in Pacific Rim features a rampage through Hong Kong. The city feels more real and substantive than any of the locations featured in the Transformers series. The city is convenient evacuated to keep the audience from worrying too much about Man of Steel style collateral damage, but it feels real.

Armed and dangerous...

Armed and dangerous…

This is more than just a convenient location for a disaster set piece. Del Toro sets the scene at night, and makes sure that it’s raining. The city’s lighting isn’t designed to showcase destruction or disaster. The neon glow lends it an artistic air. And yet, despite these additional elements, Del Toro stages his action sequences with a wonderful skill. Thee aren’t just polygons smashing into one another, cut together in a jumble of explosions.

In each sequence, we are aware of who the players are and where they are relative to one another. More than that, Del Toro is occasionally able to skilfully make us aware of their absence as a way of building tension. At one point, we’re informed that there is more than one creature loose. However, only one appears during the fight sequence – with Del Toro framing the confrontation in such a way that we’re conspicuously aware of the other creature’s absence. As such, its eventual appearance feels like an organic development rather than a contrived attempt to raise stakes.

It's a dirty job...

It’s a dirty job…

Pacific Rim looks and sounds beautiful, and that’s reason enough to consider it more finely-tuned than the films cited in discussions about it. However, it also feels more tangible and real than any of Michael Bay’s work. Again, there’s a limit to how much can be developed and explored in the space of two hours, but Del Toro does a wonderful job developing a world that has been influenced by the existence of these sorts of monsters. These giant creatures have permeated the culture of world we’re seeing here, and – once again – it’s Del Toro’s visual style that really fleshes the idea out.

We’re told that there’s a black market in the harvested remains of these exotic animals, and it’s even explained that certain religious movements have emerged in their wake. We’re told that – like the bones of many rare species – apparently the monster’s remains can increase male potency. I suspect that Charlie Sheen is enjoying kaiju blood somewhere in this alternate world.

Dealing with this man-to-monster...

Dealing with this man-to-monster…

Occasionally the film hints at so much it’s difficult to take in. It’s suggested (but never developed) that the monster remains might contaminate the local environment and that there’s more to the aftermath of an attack than clearing up the carcus, but film simply doesn’t have the time or the space to delve into these sorts of ideas. It suggests a fully-formed world, even if it’s a lot to process in a single viewing.

That said, it’s the sight of shanty towns built over the carcases of fallen monsters (“bone town”) and the short glimpses around the world (including covers of Wired influenced by the movie’s sci-fi tech) which make Pacific Rim seem a bit more anchored than most special-effects driven spectacles. The production design on Pacific Rim is absolutely stunning, from the CGI models to the set design to the use of colour. It’s just beautifully put together.

The robot who fell to Earth...

The robot who fell to Earth…

There is a catch, though. The biggest problem with Pacific Rim is that it feels like the third film in a trilogy that doesn’t exist. The first few minutes cover the twenty years of history that separate our world from the one seen on screen. This involves a large amount of exposition, covering a lot of ground very quickly. In a way, it feels like we’re arriving late to a party with people we don’t know. We catch up pretty fast, and it’s a pretty good time, but it’s also a lot to take in very quickly.

At the same time, Del Toro works hard to make up that difference. The concept of “the drift” is a handy storytelling tool, allowing the director to give use fleeting snapshots of the lives of the characters every time they strap into the giant robots. One character compares it to blinking your eyes so that reality is slowed down to something approaching a slide show, and it’s an apt comparison. We can make out shapes and faces in the washed-out ether, faint traces of entire lives reduced to a few seconds of slide show.

So much for building bridges...

So much for building bridges…

Again, Pacific Rim is strongest when it plays to Del Toro’s visual strengths, and these sequences work a lot better than the exposition-heavy introductory monologue. Either way, Del Toro constructs the film in such a way that it’s easy enough to grab a hold of the concept and figure out what’s going on.

Pacific Rim is great fun. It’s biggest problem is that it strives too hard to do too much in a short amount of time. That a very forgiveable flaw in any summer blockbuster, especially one that feels as rich and textured as Pacific Rim.

2 Responses

  1. Within the opening 15 or so minutes Charlie Hunnam’s voice-over establishes the reality of a future where monsters (the Kaiju) repeatedly invade earth, to stem this humans have created giant robots (Jaegers) to combat them in increasingly badass iterations. This opening does a great job in conveying the scope of a film which is big, not just regular big, but like, Jason Biggs in 1999 bigg. entering the cinema from a world where these events rarely occur is initially a lot to throw at the audience, but it’s handled so effectively and without tongue in cheek that it quickly becomes a world I had a blast experiencing. Maybe it was the incredible effects shots of robot related destruction used as a throwaway shots, but what I think really sold the opening sequence and the film as a whole is the enthusiasm Del Toro clearly has for the story he’s telling.

    The cast is essentially a rogues gallery of TV’s better dramas playing variations on roles they’ve nailed in the past (see: Elba, Hunnam and Klattenhoff) and some inspired casting of It’s Always Sunny’s Charlie Day who, as should be expected provides some effective comedic relief. Added onto this the score comes courtesy of Ramin Djawadi who’s masterful use of themes on Game of Thrones is carried over to this film for some great emotional cues and many a rad motif courtesy of Tom Morello on guitar.

    It’s appropriate Del Toro has a Frankenstein adaptation lined up as a follow up project as Pacific Rim can at times can feel stitched together from all the sources of inspiration the film has. This comes from many areas such as Japanese manga, the personalities of the actors from previous films and the imagery of robots destroying buildings which transformers ran into the ground. But Del Toro succeeds time and time again at allowing these disparate elements to fit together believably by way of some very confident filmmaking. I could easily take issue with the oft hammy dialogue and macho relationships but where the film succeeds in other areas and revels in creativity trumps the dissatisfaction one could take from these scenes. I also found Hunnams character a tad lacking in charisma and internal conflict but whatever, it’s not the end of the world. Oh wait, yes it is hahahaha…

    The films successes go beyond its imagery and continued invention within battle scenes as the script is very economical when it comes to pacing. The films battle scenes are so engaging and exciting due to clearly established stakes present which left me devoid of the “action fatigue” transformers loves to throw my way. And although the Kaiju battles seem to never be in short supply, the film essentially follows the rule of three when it comes to battle sequences and left me oh so satisfied.

    In conclusion, I give it points for being one of the funner summer blockbusters in recent memory, for being an original property and for its sheer tenacity to exist which all amount to what is just a darn good time at the movies.

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