Friday, July 12, 2013

Monster Smash: PACIFIC RIM

Hollywood may be in the business of talking Earth’s destruction to death, but at least once in a while we get a lumbering blockbuster done with a light touch and clear affection for the genres it inhabits. Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim grabs gleefully two classic standbys of Japanese science fiction, the giant monster attack and the man in huge robot suit, and hurtles them together at top speed. The result is an exuberant creature feature that’s thought through the implications of its premise in satisfyingly complete ways that serve as a nice backdrop for larger than life one-on-one boxing matches between hulking mechanical defenders and slimy, resourceful beasties.

Del Toro, of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy, among other great fantasies, has always been interested in creating cinematic worlds to wander around in, feats of imagination that feel fully realized. He’s done it again, this time in a film that’s as fast and forward moving as anything he’s ever done. It’s a crackling thin B-movie blown up on an A-budget, alive with the power to be as big as the filmmaker’s imaginations. It’s exactly the movie it wants to be, simply and sincerely and nothing more.

It starts with a rift in the Pacific Rim that allows monsters from another dimension to slip through one at a time. Called Kaiju, these massive creatures, a sort of combination of dinosaur and shark, wage devastating attacks on coastal cities. All seems lost until humanity bands together to create gigantic robots to fight back. As tall as skyscrapers and sturdy as tanks, these enormous fighting machines are too powerful for just one pilot. To move, to fight, and to win, it takes two people moving in perfect synchronization. They call it a “neural bridge” through which they “cerebral drift,” just some of many priceless bits of technobabble here.

The robots are successful. The problem seems to be contained. And here’s the first sign that we’re not in the hands of a filmmaker who will be content to serve up the concept and stop there: that all happens before the title card. We skip ahead several years and the monsters are still arriving, but now with greater and greater frequency. Mankind needs a last ditch effort to shut these Kaiju down once and for all or the apocalypse will surely come thundering down. The film follows a band of international military and scientific personal (refreshingly global-minded) as they scramble to save mankind from certain doom.

The characters are vibrant B-movie types: tough guys, nerdy researchers, control room button-pushers, ambitious young professionals, nervous civilians, and flamboyant criminals. And yet del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham haven’t been content to stop there. They’ve created flesh-and-blood archetypes that don’t just pose and snap jargon at each other. They have interior lives that are quickly drawn in big gestures and through action, but are no less impactful because of it. The film is in some ways narratively skimpy, but in all ways imagination rich, with characters there to provide just enough emotion to power the enthusiastic exploration of the simple, infectiously entertaining premise.

The cast is important to pulling this off. The leader of the team is Idris Elba, all gravitas and stillness, exerting complete unquestioned authority over the mission. He recruits a talented pilot (Charlie Hunnam) who retired years earlier after, as we see in the pre-title sequence, suffering a devastating loss of his co-pilot in a Kaiju attack. Elba needs the pilot’s expertise to attempt the endgame, pairing him with a hugely talented, but untested, pilot (Rinko Kikuchi), who has traumatic attack-related memories of her own. The relationships between these three form the solid core from which we can care somewhat about the people in the mechanical contraptions punching monsters in the jaw.

But that’s not to say the rest of the characters contribute nothing to the larger picture. A father-and-son team of pilots (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky) provides additional emotional investment and there are fun turns for, among others, Charlie Day as a monster-obsessed scientist and Ron Perlman as a flashy king of Hong Kong’s black market for Kaiju organs. Once the monsters appeared, many people found new jobs to do and more money to make. These roles are examples of how del Toro so purposefully thinks through the way the world has changed in the years since the monsters first appeared.

It’s the little things, like the neighborhood built into a huge Kaiju skeleton in Hong Kong, that remind you how fully and convincingly drawn this future society is, scuffed, worn and torn as if people actually live and die in it. But that’s just the del Toro way, to create fully imagined worlds by lovingly synthesizing a variety of influences through his recognizably soulful and loving genre vision. Pacific Rim is the stuff of anime and Godzilla, Transformers and Harryhausen. (There’s also a computer voiced by Portal’s Ellen McLain, a nice sonic touch.) I suppose such smoothly incorporated variety is only natural for film that’s a product of a Mexican directing a Hollywood riff on Japanese sci-fi.

Here the pieces work together in perfect harmony. It’s a film of absorbing special effects and terrific design. It’s so lived in and the characters have such ease within it that the film practically plays like a promising original effort and its bigger better sequel at the same time. Guillermo Navarro’s cinematography is a palate of inky primary colors from which emerge the gorgeous cold blues and warm reds of robotics and readouts, and scaly green and brown creatures from the deep. The sound design is rich with clicks, whirs, growls, and punches. Each step of the beasts both unnatural and manmade makes the theater quake with thunderous bass. The fights are occasionally confusing, but always spectacularly framed for maximum impact of scale, our attackers and defenders towering over us. It’s altogether a spellbinding sensation.

We see all kinds of digital destruction every weekend lately, but here’s a kind that’s grounded and thought through. It brings back some of the simple power of wonder, to stare up at unreal sights that dwarf us and makes us feel something of the nourishing power of the fantastic once again. The film is one of massive scale handled with a light touch, overpowering without overwhelming. It’s not a great movie, but it’s great creature feature fun, a rare ebullient expression of serious spectacle.

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