Sunday, August 4, 2013

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Directed by Guillermo del Toro. 2013.

Roger Ebert once champed at the idea that Stanley Kubrick was once approached to make a pornographic movie. What might a truly great director have made, the late critic surmised, from a preposterous collection of cliches and routines. Guillermo del Toro might not be in the Director's Pantheon just yet, but I entertained a similar curiosity when I heard the maker of Pan's Labyrinth would helm a mainstream action movie. What subtext would he underlay, what mystery would hang about, what details would linger in the shadows. Of course he would hit all the basic action beats, right? Well, to Pacific Rim there's a good, a bad, and an ugly.

The good comes all upfront, and I'll admit for about 10 or so minutes I was pretty thrilled. We open with a classic suit-up montage set to Ramin Djawadi's rollicking score which is so ballsy and vigorous that I didn't care he basically reworked his Iron Man soundtrack. Then a huge nasty monster snarls up out of the ocean and as it's about to crush a fishing boat, a massive robot stomps into the frame. With no lasers, rockets, missiles, swords, or electronic gadgetry, the two behemoths slug it out in a bruising, brawling fistfight. I was in machismo heaven as the two gutsy pilots, electronically connected to each other and their Jaeger, coordinated their movements to pummel the beast.

This bravura opening precedes a few suitably varied riffs on action cliches. Instead of walking us through the overused sight of a monster showing up and surprising everyone, Pacific Rim begins in the middle of the beast onslaught. It shows us a weary public, economic distress, waving political commitment: the tolls of war. I wanted to see more of these elements and had the threads been strung throughout, later scenes would have carried more import. For example, at one point, the Jaeger program is officially discontinued and the remnants carry on as a resistance with scant resources under their General Pentecost. These two variables could have introduced a lot more tension, say, if we acutely felt the lack of resources (like in Aliens) or tension in the command structure (Die Hard.) We also a see a surprisingly friendly look at a black market, which here sells the remains of the aliens (Kaiju) to the resistance for study. This was noteworthy, but it wasn't developed into a significant point that the governments had failed and the resistance was doing the job.

Pacific Rim also introduces another fruitful, if foolish, premise: the pilots share each other's thoughts when connected to the Jaeger. Yes, it's unnecessary and implausible, but I thought it had a lot of potential. I thought we'd see interesting pairs of people fighting together. Maybe some of them are criminals or scoundrels and they need to learn to work together or with soldiers who have no choice because they're not an official outfit anymore. Nope. The setup is exploited only once in a long, heavy-handed scene and then abandoned. There the two main characters, Raleigh and Mako, hook up to the Jaeger and we learn that Mako had a traumatic experience fleeing a Kaiju, so when "drifting" in the Jaeger with Raleigh the first time, she can't control herself. And then the second time they're linked everything's fine. Raleigh is not developed any better. Is he fighting for revenge after losing his brother, to save the earth, or as the movie suggests, just because it's better to die fighting? I'm not expecting profound character arcs here, but I don't think getting one clear motive is much to ask. Raleigh and Mako never really learn to work together, nor do we see what they have in common, so they don't feel significant as a pair.

Alas, the remaining problems with Pacific Rim are more problematic because the genre depends more strongly on these elements. First, every action movie uses an "or else" countdown to funnel the action towards a climax. Pacific Rim does this in two unsatisfactory ways. The first is the shtick that the Kaiju are coming at a fixed, increasing rate. This is fine for us, but it's handled as theory in the plot, so the other characters don't believe it. As a result, they don't move with an urgency which is felt outside of scenes, that is, structurally in the movie. For example, if the clock is ticking, we and the characters should feel trepidation every time a new wave shows up and a Jaeger team steps up to the plate to fight. Since it's just more of the same to them, we don't feel any escalating tension. The second countdown shtick is General Pentecost's plan to nuke the portal from where the aliens come. Unfortunately, we don't know why he's waiting and not carrying it out; there may be a reason, but we don't know it and so we forget about the plan.

Pacific Rim's second action foible is disobeying the Rocky Principle, which holds that we'll watch a main character get bloodied and bruised, but we can only live with it after he comes back and beats the living hell out of the bad guy. After the dismal losses in Hong Kong, the finale here had to be more than an underwater version of the opening. What I think the writers were going for, though, was the sense that the Jaeger program was deteriorating, and thus really couldn't succeed. Yet for that to work the story needed a clearer countdown scenario and a "fight in the shade" moment in which some troops fight to the death while others complete the secret plan (300Return of the Jedi, The Matrix Revolutions, Independence Day, among many.) Instead, it's kind of depressing to watch the good guys get pummeled, and even Raleigh and Mako's Hong Kong success feels murky and unsatisfying.

Fourth, any battle is only as good as the preparation leading up to it. The gold standard is The Lord of the Rings. Here, though, the excitement of the showcase Hong Kong battle is predicated on several factors which are not set up enough to serve as foundations for a payoff. Specifically, there's not enough lead into 1) how Raleigh and Mako make an effective team, 2) the sense of space around Hong Kong, 3) the fighting styles of the other pairs of Jaeger pilots, and 4) the strengths and weaknesses among the Jaegers, and 5) the plan of defense. As a result, the battle feels disconnected and there's no punch to the actions because they're not prepared.

Fifth, missed opportunities stick out like a sore thumb in any movie, but in one with so little development they're even more egregious. Pacific Rim has five central characters, none of whom are properly paired. The two quarreling hot shots should have learned to work together, the two old men should have washed down the gulf in glory, and Mako should have stayed solo and independent, pulling off the near-impossible feat, like her rescuer General Pentecost, of solo piloting a Jaeger. Instead we get an unsatisfying mishmash of pairings and a final scene which looks like the woozy, romantic finales to the old Bond movies.

Lastly, there a few too many gaps in logic. You can tolerate many such flaws in a fluid, confident movie, but they start to thud when they come too heavy and often. There's an analog Jaeger? It has diesel engines? Why are there no other military forces of any kind on the planet? If monsters are coming out of a hole in the ground, why not put defenses at the site of the hole? If the characters are sharing each other's thoughts, why do they talk to one another? How could a wall possibly have seemed like a good idea?

There are parts to like in Pacific Rim, like Ron Perlman as a black market Kaiju mogul, and some clever details, like a district built around the bones of a Kaiju and a pretty spectacular fight in Hong Kong, but these elements are unsupported by any significant, even passable, context, and thus flat. The monsters are fun and gruesome, but we only see them at night in the rain. In a few scenes I couldn't even tell how many monsters there were or whether they had been killed yet. What gives?

I really wanted to like Pacific Rim, but far from redeeming a silly genre, it limps along as B-movie.

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