Thursday, July 18, 2013

Pacific Rim

Alternate Title:  Godzilla vs. Voltron

One sentence synopsis:   The world turns to enormous battle-robots piloted by pairs of memory-linked pilots to defend the planet against gargantuan aquatic monsters.

Things Havoc liked:  Pacific Rim has one of the best opening sequences I've seen since Watchmen, a rapid-fire series of establishing shots done over narration that effortlessly enmeshes you with the premises of this world. In less than five minutes, the film grounds you in the premise of its world, introducing the alien monsters that come from the sea, as well as the giant robots which fight them. But more importantly, the sequence is studded with wonderfully inventive shots that explain the actual effect these momentous changes have on society, the economy, the government, grounding the audience in the movie's world in less than five minutes, all while giving us snapshots of the awesomeness to come.

Directed and produced by Guillermo del Toro, the great Mexican fantasy filmmaker who last gave us the Hellboy series and the inspired Pan's Labyrinth, Pacific Rim is an unabashed love letter to two staples of Japanese cinema and culture since the end of World War 2: The giant robot movie, and the Kaiju (monster) movie. The premise, a transparent excuse to cause robots and giant monsters to battle one another within major cities, is hardly the first to decide to do so, but it might well have the strongest pedigree behind it. Unlike Roland Emmerich's Godzilla, del Toro has no shrinking archaeologists to clutter up the screen, preferring instead to leap directly into the world of robot pilots and bad motherfuckers, front and center of whom is the incomparable Idris Elba, for once allowed to play a role in his native English accent. Elba plays (I'm not making this up) General Stacker Pentecost, an officer with a name so ridiculous that it is actually awesome. The character is the usual stern commander, yet Elba seems to be channeling Samuel L. Jackson's turn as Nick Fury by blending a role that could easily have been the "pain-in-the-ass CO" with that of the "elder badass", a combination he is exceedingly good at producing. Yet believe it or not, Elba's character does not have the most absurd name in the movie. That award belongs to Ron Perlman's Hannibal Chau (yes, you read that right), a smuggler and black marketeer, who makes his living dealing in monster parts and organs, who despite limited screentime, manages to camp it up in his usual style. His character moreover represents another piece of a larger world, one that was hinted at in the opening credits, a world accustomed to sights as absurd as giant monsters and robots, and making the best of it.

Things Havoc disliked:  Yeah, sorry guys, that's all I got.

Giant robot and Godzilla movies, honestly any sci fi SFX extravaganzas, work not because the effects are awesome, but because they offer a sense of scale. This is the reason why monuments play such a big role in the Emmerich-style disaster movies, and why Godzilla is always smashing up Tokyo in the old Toho films. To tell us that a robot is gigantic is meaningless, we must see that it is gigantic by comparing it with things that we know the scale of. Only then can we properly modulate and gauge what we are looking at by comparing it to our everyday lives. Unfortunately, for all the sturm und drang of the many, many battle sequences in this film, only twice does the movie bother to give us scale. Once is in Hong Kong, midway through the film, where we get to watch a robot beating a monster by using a cargo ship as a club, while the other is a flashback to a battle in Tokyo, seen entirely from the ground-level eyes of a little girl. These two sequences are awesome. The others however, all take place against the backdrop of the open ocean, distant skylines, or indiscriminate ruin, meaning that the robots and monsters in question might as well be five feet tall for all we can tell. This baffling decision robs the fights of any weight, as we might as well be watching guys in suits of armor battling guys in suits of foam and felt, as in the olden days.

And unfortunately, the non-battle parts of the film do not provide succor for the film. The leads here are unknown Charlie Hunnam and Babel's Rinko Kikuchi, playing respectively ace maverick pilot Raleigh and sheltered rookie pilot Mako. The description you just read, unfortunately, covers basically everything you need to know about these characters, and neither one are up to the task of elevating themselves beyond the usual cliches and boring PG-chaste will-they-or-won't-they dance of a thousand other films (to say nothing of the task of acting alongside Idris Elba). I realize that we're here for the giant robots and all, but I cannot fathom for the life of me why these two were even cast. They share no chemistry, elevate their characters not a whit, and provide nothing but padding between action scenes. Though in fairness, their padding is not so blatant as that of the other robot pilots, who are either useless (the Russians and Chinese) or bullshit antagonists in the Iceman-Top-Gun vein, only stupider (the Australians... oh god... the Australians). One would imagine with the fate of the world on the line, that people would have better things to do than get in one anothers' faces and recite clenched-jaw cliches about how someone is "not good enough" or "too reckless". It's enough that one begins to wonder where the homoerotic volleyball montage has gone.

And I'm sorry, I know this is one of those turn-your-brain-off plotless popcorn movies, but the decisions that went into this film make no goddamn sense. A major component of the movie is the fact that the giant robots must be piloted by two pilots synced together via some kind of memory-sharing technology, who then use AR overlays and robotic mimicry to control the bot. Unfortunately, what this means is that unlike in Iron Man, where we can just assume that Tony Stark IS his armor, we are cutting every five seconds to the "cockpit" of the robot, wherein the two pilots are performing synchronized Sentai martial-arts poses while strapped to a gurney. This looks stupid, irrespective of how you frame it, and it makes the actual robot's moves look stupid by association. On top of that, the concept makes no sense. We have robots today who can walk, jump, negotiate terrain, and even dance on anything from two to eight legs, automatically. You're telling me there's no way for the pilots of these robots to simply pilot the damn things without looking like rejected extra footage from Legend of the Rangers? I've piloted virtual mechwarriors from my home PC that had as much range of motion and capability as these robots evidence, for god's sake. Why the synchro-tech?

So much, and I haven't even begun to talk about the stupid scientists' subplot (an overabundance of comic relief is a good barometer of a bad film, I find), one of whom is a blithering idiot and the other of whom is a hyper-British blithering idiot. I haven't talked about the uproariously stupid relationship that this movie has with such concepts as fluid dynamics, nuclear bombs, and general physics. I haven't talked about the terrible score, a boring, visually-detached generic "techno-badass" soundtrack, made all the more baffling by the pedigree of its composer, Ramin Djawadi, a man whose credits include Iron Man and Game of Thrones. So much to talk about, and so little space, and yet every time I sit down to think about the movie, the list just gets longer.

Final thoughts:     Look, I understand how movies like this are supposed to work, and that I'm a critic who hates everything and doesn't understand the masterpiece and can't have any fun and blah blah blah. I'm sorry, but no. This movie is a summer blockbuster like a hundred other summer blockbusters, and judging it purely on those terms, it pales by comparison to even the other blockbusters of this summer like Iron Man 3 or Man of Steel, neither of which, I will remind you, were masterpieces. The movie's bumbling, sleepwalking plot, brainless, placeholder characters, and baffling, momentum-shattering decisions all combine, ultimately, to make a film that is watchable, but only barely. Maybe in a movie that had turned the camp to 11, this would have been less bad, but Pacific Rim is relentlessly serious in tone, except when it's not, except when it really is. After a certain point, you just stop caring what the director was thinking.

Del Toro has made great movies in the past. God willing, he will make great movies in the future. But in the present in which we live, all he has made is a giant mess.

Final Score:  4/10

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