Friday, November 29, 2013

Gamer's Movie Review: Pacific Rim


[Sorry that I haven't written in a long while: you can blame the pitiful state of gaming for that.  But I will have additional thoughts on that in a follow-up blog entry.  In the meantime, enjoy this quick rental review of Pacific Rim!]


It was love at first sight.  This is the best summation of my reaction to finally getting a chance to see Guillermo del Toro's new sci-fi tent pole production, Pacific Rim.  Pure, unadulterated love.

You see, for me cinematic science fiction has definitely been heading in the wrong direction these last few decades.  As someone who grew up reading (and loving!) the great science fiction masters of yesteryear - authors such as Asimov, Bradbury, Hubbard, Saberhagan, and so many more - I have developed a distinctive taste for science fiction that doesn't just ask the great science fiction motivator question of "what if...?", but also provides a smart yet thrillingly imaginative answer to that question.  I admit that is a tall order to fill, yet somehow the old masters managed to fulfill that order time and again.   Strangely, Hollywood, despite its billions of dollars and army of scriptwriters, has been largely unable to do so.


Instead, we have been force-fed a diet of either cartoonish and superficial science fiction along the lines of the $380 million dollar after school special that was James Cameron's Avatar, or we lurch to the other end of the spectrum and wind up being forced to suffer through an insipid lecture on the latest socioeconomic hobbyhorse that is taking Tinsel Town by storm, one merely disguised as science fiction by the misappropriation of that genre's robots/ray guns/spaceships/what-have-you so as to make the Marxist poison go down easier (I'm looking at you, WALL-E).  Whichever way Hollywood lurches with this stuff the end result has been the same for me:  it just isn't fun anymore.   Schoolyard silly?  Yes!  Tedious?  Absolutely!  But fun?  Er...no.  Nor truly imaginative, for that matter.  I swear, if I see one more jungle planet, or one more garbage dump planet, I'm going to get on a spaceship and leave for good....

I think this is why I so readily fell in love with Pacific Rim.  This movie represents a return to science fiction fundamentals, to a time where the all important "what if...?" wasn't asked by a tedious professor of feminist studies,  but by a practiced storyteller with an active imagination.  In this case, the question is a classic one right out of the black and white glory days of sci-fi monster movies: "what if Earth was invaded by giant monsters?  And what if they only way to defeat those monsters was to 'create monsters of our own'?"  Now those are the questions to ask!

And from there the movie is off and running.  Indeed, "running" might be the perfect word as the movie immediately wows you with an eye-popping battle between a towering "Category 3" Kaiju (Japanese for "strange creature") and an equally towering Jaeger mech (no, not a 'robot') piloted by two human "ranger" pilots linked by a mental "drift", something that helps to better distribute the mental load of managing such a mighty weapon.  What results is the type of giant monster vs. giant mech battle scene that I have yearned to see since I watched Voltron as a kid.  It is just...awesome!  So awesome in fact that it almost brought a tear of nostalgia to my Gen X'er eye.

I won't tell you what happens during that battle as it involves a pretty important plot point, but suffice to say that this battle will mark a turning point in mankind's eight year struggle against an alien invasion that originates from a multi-dimensional "rift" in the Pacific seabed.  For after this battle mankind's Jaeger offensive would begin to fail, leaving major cities along the Pacific Rim (hence the name of the movie) vulnerable to destruction from the claws and teeth of ever more powerful Kaiju.  Things get so bad in fact that mankind is ultimately forced to a last ditch defensive strategy involving the construction of massive "Anti-Kaiju Walls" to protect coastal cities, something that politicians assure the world will work where the Jaegers have failed...despite the fact that a Kaiju is soon seen to effortlessly smash his way through such a wall (clearly the same government contractors who have built the Obamacare website must have built these walls).  Of course, the Earth's only real hope still lies with the now abandoned Jaeger program, which is now exiled to Hong Kong with its last handful of functional Jaegers.  The question is:  can they turn the tide so late in the game, and with fewer resources than ever?  Classic underdog movie incoming!

What results is an old school sci-fi actioner that keeps you on the edge of your seat as one frightful sea monster after another requires whacking with the massive metal hands - and rockets, plasma cannons, swords...amongst other weapons - of the last four mechs in existence.  These battles are truly eye-catching spectacles, particularly due to how Del Toro brings so much color to them.  The mid-movie battle in Hong Kong is particularly striking as it manages to catch a Blade Runner visual vibe with all the neon lighting and LCD displays in that city, something Del Toro uses to great visual effect.  But even the battles that take place out on stormy seas are wonderful to behold in all their detail.  I was particularly impressed by how Del Toro managed to avoid the oft chaotic battles that plague Michael Bay's dreadful Transformer movies where visual FX computers seem to haphazardly vomit pixels onto the screen.  While there are a few moments where Pacific Rim's battles can get a bit busy, it is never as muddled or confused as a typical Transformer's mash-up.  Instead, the audience gets to feel every blow and see almost every punch, leading to visceral fights that I couldn't help but to become emotionally invested in, especially after coming to appreciate how nasty the Kaiju are by nature.  I also enjoyed how Del Toro always seemed to position the camera in just the right way so as to convey the awesome size and power of these clashing behemoths. 

The great visual effects aren't limited to battles, either.  This movie just has a great visual style to it.  For example, I particularly enjoyed how Del Toro conjured up the ghost of World War II  by providing glimpses of propaganda posters throughout the film:


Even the Jaegers displayed on their chassis' the type of artwork  that was often seen on the nosecones of B-24 bombers.  The weather was also used to good effect as most of the battles took place during dark and stormy nights...yes, yes, I have heard that this has something to do with covering up the limitations of CGI (1998's Godzilla used a similar technique), but I still found it to be an effective way to reinforce the apocalyptic tones of the film.  Lastly, the Jaeger cockpits were also nicely realized with their mechanical contraptions that translate human movements into mechanical ballets of death.  Listening to the actors grunt and groan with effort in their mechanical harnesses as they maneuvered their Jaegers in battle, just as modern fighter pilots groan against the punishing effects of "pulling G's"in a jet, made the battles all the more believable.


Speaking of actors: unlike many contemporary sci-fi films of recent years, Pacific Rim's weight is borne not so much by its massive CGI metal shoulders but by its excellent cast.  Our protagonist, Raleigh Becket, a washed-up Jaeger pilot recalled to active duty, is competently played by Charlie Hunnam.  Nonetheless, it is his co-stars that really steal the show.  Idris Elba delivers a home run performance with his cold-as-a-steely-Jaeger performance as Becket's commander, Stacker Pentecost, a man determined to save the world even if the world has long since given up on saving itself.  Becket's new co-pilot, Mako Mori, played by Rinko Kikuchi, is likewise a stunner, but this time in the "Lord, she's hot!" sort of way.  Rounding out the excellent cast are two mad scientists:  the professorial mathematician Dr. Hermann Gottlieb, played by Burn Gorman, and Dr. Newton Geiszler, the Kaiju specialist with rock star aspirations, energetically played by Charlie Day.  These two scientists basically go all Abbot and Costello during the film as they seek to find the solution to the Kaiju problem, but they do so with great comedic effect.  Add in Ron Perlman as a Kaiju black marketeer by the name of Hannibal Chau (I think this is one of his finest roles since Hellboy), and Ellen McLain, famed voice actress of GlaDOS from the game Portal (Del Toro is a gamer like most Gen Xers), as Gypsy Danger's AI, and you can't ask for a better cast than what is featured in Pacific Rim.

The icing on the cake for me was Del Toro's use of religious, particularly Roman Catholic, symbolism.  As anybody who has watched this director's previous works understands, Del Toro always finds a way to bring a deeper spiritual meaning to his films and Pacific Rim is no exception, something that truly surprised me as I didn't think a giant mech/monster movie could have much spirituality in it!  Nonetheless, Del Toro found a way to bring in a few such references.  For example, our protagonist, Raleigh Becket, bears the surname of a great Catholic saint who opposed great power with mere faith, a fitting analogy for a man who is tasked with slaying monsters.  Of course, Becket's commander has the surname Pentecost...need anything else be said about this motivating Holy Ghost of mankind's resistance against the Kaiju?  Then we have the lesser character of Ops Officer Tendo Choi (played by Clifton Collins, Jr.) who wears a rosary around his wrist at all times.  Lastly, and most powerfully, we have a final scene where the American Jaeger 'Gypsy Danger' descends into the alien's hellish universe for one last sacrifice - the Christological symbolism is both visually and metaphorically striking.   Well done, Del Toro!

Lastly, I found the music to be suitably rousing.  Somehow Del Toro combined the musical elements of rock, military marches, and Saturday afternoon cartoons into one pleasing theme!

So, What's Not to Like?

I have to be honest: there isn't a lot to not like about this film as long as you approach as what is is: a piece of  monster-bashing science fiction designed for some nostalgic fun.  Any flaws are really minor.  For example, after the opening fight sequence, the movie takes a rather lengthy pause as it sets up the story and introduces the major characters.  Fair enough - the time is put to good use - but I found myself getting antsy for the next fight scene.

 I also thought the final fight scene was a bit underwhelming.  It takes place underwater at the Rift, something I thought had the potential to be wonderfully imaginative.  Sadly, with the exception of a few passing fish, the battle might have well taken place on land as there are few uses of the unique conditions I imagine fighting three thousand feet under the sea would entail.  And speaking of the final battle, Pacific Rim lazily falls back on the tired, old science fiction solution to every problem:  firing a proton torpedo into a thermal exhaust shaft two meters wide.  Same idea going on here. 

Another slight disappointment for me was the lack of detail concerning the 8+ year old war against the Kaiju, as well as the nitty gritty details surround the construction and maintenance of the Jaegers.  Del Toro has created a fascinating setting and I would have loved to been able to explore it in greater detail beyond the quick 10-minute intro at the start of the film.  Let's hope a few sequels rectify this flaw!

The last flaw of Pacific Rim is a minor one: the visage of Barack Obama during a faux newsreel concerning the first Kaiju attack.  I have to tell you: that really concerned me because whenever I see a director shoehorn that guy into his film, the movie usually is as bad as Obama's presidency (misery loves company, I suppose).  Fortunately, with the exception of that brief one second clip, he is never seen again, and the movie doesn't suffer any ill effects.  In retrospect, though, I have to say that maybe it is fitting Obama appears in a newsreel that details the beginning of the end of the world....

Concluding Thoughts

One of the things I found interesting about Pacific Rim was the generally downbeat reaction from the critics.  In many ways it reminded me of the confused and befuddled reaction many critics had to the rock solid Battle: Los Angles (a phenomenon I chronicled here).  Like then, I can only surmise that we are dealing with a systemic problem:  that we have a generation of critics that have been lulled to sleep by years of cartoonish science fiction along the lines of Avatar, Star Wars: Episodes 1-3, and countless other recent endeavors.  When confronted by a style of science fiction that is not only more soberly militaristic, but also lacks a Will Smith cracking jokes every few minutes (this was an actual criticism of Battle:LA from a prominent critic), I think most critics just fall off their bikes without their training wheels. 

But I think there is a deeper problem here, a generational 'rift', if you will.  Pacific Rim is, first and foremost, a Mecha movie.  Now, if you have never heard that term before it is probably due to the fact that you are NOT a Gen X'er.  Indeed, I find it a fun exercise to go through reviews of Pacific Rim and count the number of times Jaegers are referred to as "robots", a sure sign of a critic out of his depth (one recent review asked if this movie was based on The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers....*facepalm*).  Mechs have been popularized by countless amounts of Japanese manga and anime, such as Gundam and Voltron, not to mention lots of games as well (MechWarrior and Strike Suit Zero, for example), so we Gen X'ers have grown up with this stuff and completely understand what Del Toro is doing (again, a fellow Gen X'er).  With that in mind I think it is fair to say that Gen X'ers will/do enjoy this movie far more than Baby Boomers whom seem downright confused by the concept of walking tanks piloted by human Rangers!

Whatever the reason for the disconnect between the critics and the fans, Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is a solidly entertaining piece of cinematic science fiction that will please both Gen X'ers who have longed to see mechs brought to the big screen, and, needless to say, those who are just looking for some entertaining monster science fiction in the vein of Godzilla or Gamera.   Succinctly: long after the likes of cartoonish and politically correct sci-fi moves like Avatar are forgotten, people will still be watching Pacific Rim and its monster on mech mayhem.

Old school science fiction has returned, and Del Toro gets the credit for putting the fun back into the genre. 

Score: 4 out of 5 stars

Trailer: 


Addendum:  If you would like to experience some mech combat of your own, I can suggest four titles:

Hawken:  This is my favorite of the batch.  Not the slow, ponderous Jaegers of Pacific Rim, but something closer to a cross between a jet and a tank.  Regardless, this is a wildly fun free-to-play game!

MechWarrior Online:  While not as entertaining as Hawken, this free-to-play game deals with the more traditional mechs as seen in Pacific Rim.

MechWarrior Tactics:  Currently in closed beta, this turn-based port of the original board game looks like it will offer a lot of tactical fun!

Titan Fall:  Releasing early next year, this title looks like it will be packed with lots of mech vs infantry action!

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