Let’s Go Voltron Force!
A Film Review of Pacific Rim
By: Lawrence Napoli
Well, not exactly, but Guillermo del Toro’s giant f’ing robots vs. giant f’ing monsters-scifi action-extravaganza has certainly set the table for a series of non-Transformers films to be promptly adapted, mass produced and shuttled to your local cinemas ASAP. Yes, yes, Michael Bay’s Transformers were very visually dynamic films and certainly showed off the proficiency of today’s technology not to mention the talented digital artists behind those computers, but the stories within Bay’s films didn’t exactly have the same impact as the look of the bots. I respect the fact that Pacific Rim is a film that attempts to be more serious than displaying Shia LaBeouf screaming at his mother to “put away the booties!” That’s not to suggest that this film is entirely gloom and doom as Charlie Day’s contributions see fit to break up the tension regularly. But it does suggest that having more respect for your own subject matter can work with impressive CG to galvanize better filmmaking in general and more satisfying end products in particular. Film adaptations of Voltron, Robotech and MechWarrior are sure to come, and the stories within those fictions are much more dramatic than giant f’ing robot films have delivered so far, so let’s hope whoever helms those projects expands on del Toro’s playbook.
The teasers for this film brought a high level of anticipation, but I’m not going to lie; I had serious reservations due to the fact that it was a brand new Hollywood IP and del Toro’s history with Hellboy, Blade II (sperm removal?) and Pan’s Labyrinth didn’t suggest he had the pedigree to deliver a story on as massive a scale as Pacific Rim. There’s a difference between being a talented creature designer and being able to aptly envision things as large as skyscrapers smashing each other and their environment into oblivion. Thankfully, del Toro was not intimidated by the scale as well as the vast number of visual effects artists contributing to the overall spectacle. His leadership delivers a sci-fi-action film that is visually impressive, contains satisfactory human elements of drama while maintaining good pacing throughout to deliver a very entertaining, CG-heavy movie. Pacific Rim is easily one of this summer’s better popcorn flicks, but it is by no means perfect.
Part of the problem is that this story requires a heck of a lot of setup and this is reflected in the inordinately long introduction that precedes the title flash on the screen. Co-writers del Toro and Travis Beacham have an interesting story on their hands, but this film is intent on highlighting the end of a drawn out, global conflict over the course of many years. This is a difficult task to accomplish for any script because it demands the audience to accept a lot of bullet points on faith alone without any form of emotional investment in characters or situations. As a result, what seemed like explaining the important detail of the Pacific Rim disturbance in the first place actually gets glazed over because ultimately, this movie is concerned with getting right into the action as soon as possible. Details like describing the use of giant robots as defense and their functionality gets the same kind of treatment. In fact, just about every instance of uniqueness that the story presents receives the same kind of brief lip service which gives the audience yet another “end of the world” scenario that seems formulaic, predictable and all too familiar. This is one of the reasons why this film counters with so many scenes featuring the giant robots at work because quite frankly, when they do what they do, the audience is suddenly less concerned with plot, dialogue and character. When compared to del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, Pacific Rim has the intelligence of an episode of Sesame Street (no offense Big Bird), but dumb can still be fun. It has just enough human drama as depicted via the pilot teams for the “Jaegers” (what the giant f’ing robots are called). The special relationships they share with each other keeps the story disciplined. Character development is as much of a wash as the story’s details, but simply seeing these individuals work together is a real treat and, as it turns out, a vital infusion of the human element in a film where almost everything on every single frame is digital fabrication.
As for all that action, it really is something special to see. The cinematography by Guillermo Navarro gives the audience all kinds of dynamic angles while juxtaposing them with excellent close-ups to get us as close to the action as possible. In many respects, the action is framed like some of the best boxing films of the past, and yes, once the punching begins, those familiar with Real Steel will begin to notice some parallels. All of the fighting is essentially savage fisticuffs between robots and monsters, but naturally there are moments where “special attacks” are used to finish off opponents. Oh yes, plenty of lasers, missiles, giant swords and buzz saws abound which don’t exactly channel the awesome power of the Blazing Sword, but it comes awfully close. What helps the viewer really appreciate this mammoth combat is the fact that movement within the frame is relatively slow when compared to other contemporary action films. Remember, the combatants are still the size of buildings and they simply do not demonstrate the agility of Bruce Lee. The action sacrifices fluidity for shear, wrecking-ball brutality, but make no mistake, this is a plus for Pacific Rim. The only thing I would have amended to the overall philosophy behind capturing all of this digital mayhem is to cut to more super wide shots to really give the audience a more appropriate sense of scale to these titans having at each other. Sure we see plenty of buildings and cities getting turned to rubble, but seeing large things get stepped on like a 3 year old steps on his or her Matchbox cars gives the viewer a whole new perspective on destructive force.
Pacific Rim boasts a cast filled with mostly newcomers who produce satisfactory performances in their respective roles, but the best belongs to the one recognizable veteran: Idris Elba as Marshall Stacker Pentecost. The Marshall is the man in command who’s in charge of the Jaeger Program and exudes everything you need in a prototypical leader. Dignity, respect, presence and dominance are all balanced by Elba’s temperance which makes him the kind of leader soldiers go the extra mile for as opposed to cowering in fear or scheme in spite of. The true main character, Raleigh, played by Charlie Hunnam, produces the typical white man, pretty boy save the world with something to prove performance, which is fine, but what was truly lacking was the flaccid romance he shared with onscreen love interest Mako, played by Rinko Kikuchi. Yet again, the romantic angle of any action film gets chopped off at the knees because there just isn’t enough screen time, but man, actors got to have chemistry to even have a chance to show chemistry. I didn’t even realize that Charlie Day (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Horrible Bosses) was in this film, but his golden nuggets of screen time shared with fellow bumbling scientist played by Burn Gorman (The Dark Knight Rises) were welcome moments of reprieve without shifting the tone of the film to ridiculous.
Pacific Rim may have had a budget on the same level of the AAA comic book adaptation ($180 million), but it certainly isn’t being marketed as such. I wouldn’t be surprised if this film underperforms in North America for this specific reason, but also because word of mouth will not spread like wildfire in its favor. This film delivers a very specific kind of sci-fi action, and if you aren’t into giant f’ing robots, you lose 80% of this film. I also wouldn’t go so far as to qualify this film as a must see, but during a summer that has been filled with good, but not great blockbusters, Pacific Rim is worthy of consideration. Sci-fi seems a tad underrepresented in 2013, and though del Toro’s love letter to Mecha-centric fiction is a little light on brains, it certainly delivers some serious brawn. If you’re bored with name brand adaptations, check out the Rim, just be sure to activate interlocks, have your dynotherms connected and get your infracells up so you can get your megathrusters to GO!