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Pacific Rim: Go See It

July 18, 2013

When I left the theater after watching Del Toro’s nerdy love letter Pacific Rim, my initial thought was that he had just Rocket Punched the current narrative about blockbuster movie’s square in the jaw.

For those who aren’t paying attention, there’s a trending belief that blockbuster films with their high budgets (in both production and marketing) will eventually implode in upon themselves. This started with a panel discussion between Lucas and Spielberg that basically outlined the idea that movies would become more like plays with higher ticket prices, and longer time spent at the box office. The reasoning behind this is that these movies are just becoming too costly to produce for their return on investment. The recent failure of The Lone Ranger is being hailed as an example of a tent pole movie (though I still don’t understand how a movie no one wanted could be a tent pole) that collapsed under its own weight. If, the prevailing theory states, just a few more of these were to happen in one summer it would be the end of blockbuster films.

In fact, this summer’s round of fairly lackluster offerings seemed to be a death knell in and of themselves. Sequels lacking in charm and bad adaptations seemed to be all that was in the box office this Summer.

Then Pacific Rim came rising from the waters like its fantastically designed kaiju and smacked me in the face with a boatload of fun. As I sat in that theater, gawking at fantastic visuals married with well directed action and solid performances, I suddenly felt like a little kid again. There seemed to be magic in the air as I sat in a crowded theater literally falling into a world and story that were just amazing. This is what a Summer Blockbuster should be, I thought, something simple, fun for the whole family, and exciting.

Granted, its domestic box office does reveal that maybe I only felt that way because I am a giant nerd just like every other man, woman, and child in the theater that afternoon. However, it’s international box office take was fairly good, and it doesn’t seem like its going to go away anytime soon. Especially with movies like RIPD coming down the pipe, I think Pacific Rim might do well for itself.

I also see growth potential because of this: You should go see it. Yeah, you, the person reading this. Go see it, take your friends or your family or your girlfriend or whatever. This really is a movie that is fun for everyone and not in that cynical way of, “We crammed it full of dumb things to appeal to a wider audience.”

There’s no attempt to appeal to children with infantile comedy. There’s no poorly structured romance subplot that does nothing except theoretically entertain women (because women can’t appreciate action or storylines that don’t involve romance). What little muscle-rippling machismo is in this movie comes from a character who you’re supposed to dislike. This movie isn’t about appealing to the wider audience, it’s about having fun and it turns out that everyone can have fun.

I could sit here and talk about so many things. There’s rich world building, a fast-paced tightly knit story where no scene is wasted, great characters that will surprise you with their depth, and all those characters are played by actors who are really hitting their mark. Idris Elba is of course fantastic, and Charlie Hunnam is great and believable as a blue-collar grieving Jaegar pilot. However, it’s performances like Charlie Day’s where you’ll be surprised merely by the charm and range he provides. Obviously, none of these actors can be discussed without mentioning Rinko Kikuchi, who as the female lead in this movie was just phenomenal.

Add in fantastic graphics, solid directing from a man who has brought us many great films, and you’re in for a great time.

The only drawback I could say this film has is that at times it was almost too simple in its plot. It got to the point where I began to wonder if it was actually satirizing blockbuster dialogue and plot points. There’s one particularly groan-worthy moment that comes, but it’s done with such delight that you’ll find yourself laughing and smiling rather than groaning. Which is truly the thing that makes this film amazing. There’s never a moment when you feel like the cast and crew thought this was stupid or that they were just there for a paycheck. They clearly had fun.

And you will too.

As always, nitpicking and nerd wankery past the break for true believers and superfans.

************

Chariots Chariots, superfans!

After Man of Steel failed to deliver me with a good iconic theme that could be played throughout the film’s more intense moments to drive the action and make the main character seem more heroic, it was great to have something modern and bombastic in this movie. The main theme is a riff that combines traditional orchestral elements with electric guitars and electronic music, providing something that feels futuristic while still connecting you to a classic heroic feel. That was great, and the way it plays throughout the film at all the right moments is perfect.

Of course, this greatness is balanced out by the fact that the credits roll to, I shit you not, an original rap/R&B song created explicitly for the film. At that moment I truly didn’t know what to think anymore, as I thought rap songs created explicitly for movies had died out around 1992. I was at least thankful that it wasn’t particularly terrible, but then I felt bad that it wasn’t terrible for that is truly the hallmark of a movie rap.

Anyway, like I said, the movie’s plot is fairly simple.

As you know from the trailers the basic idea is that for some reason great beasts referred to as kaiju have come out of some inter-dimensional rift in the Pacific ocean and they’re basically here to wreak havoc on cities. A quick montage sets the stage for everything, with Charlie Hunnam’s voice over providing an explanation that is laced with sorrow. It seems to strange to have him sound this way over what seems to be a fairly triumphant story of humanity fighting back and winning, but it makes sense fairly quickly.

The film launches directly into a big robot/monster battle with Charlie and his brother at the helm of their mech Gipsy Danger. The combat is exciting, with high tension because of a civilian boat that gets caught in the crossfire. Tragedy strikes when the Kaiju tears the brother right out from the cockpit, and Charlie Hunnam can barely finish the thing off on his own. He is barely able to return to shore and free himself from the cockpit.

Overall, it’s a beautiful opening sequence that helps to drive home the dangerous reality these characters live in. Giant monsters can appear with barely any warning, and even the Jaegers can sometimes barely stand up to them.

The film jumps to several years later. The war has not been going well, and the world governments have decided to invest in a massive wall to keep the kaiju away. Idris Elba, as commander of the remaining Jaegar forces has realized he has one last chance for an all out offensive on the inter-dimensional portal but they’re low on pilots. Re-enter Charlie Hunnam who has now been ‘following the wall, looking for work,’ since his brother died.

The stage is set quickly as Charlie arrives in Hong Kong, meets Rinko Kikuchi who is an ambitious if somewhat awkward young engineer and Jaegar Hopeful. Along the way we meet several other characters to round out the global sense of this force; Russians, Chinese, and Australians are all in this fight together. The Australian team, a father and son pair of pilots who operate the only Mark 5 Jaegar, are considered the best pilots in the world and its made quite clear that this has gone to the son’s head.

The Australians are back from a recent victory in Sydney where they fought a monster who had broken through the wall. The stakes get raised in this movie with every passing minute, and that’s part of what makes it truly exciting. You can get lulled into a brief feeling of success but this gets snatched away from you as soon as you feel it. It really makes the viewer feel like things are on the line.

The film then spends time developing the characters, really introducing us to the world that they inhabit and actually tackling the nuts and bolts of the Kaiju phenomenon. This is explored through a pair of scientists, played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, who have competing theories on how the kaiju work and operate. Charlie Day’s character, an off the wall biologist who has a personality more akin to a celebrity chef, has developed the crazy idea of linking to a Kaiju brain just like the pilots of the Jaegars link their brains to pilot the robots.

While the science gets explained and expanded in one scene, we see the human effects of it in the next. Rinko struggling to become a Jaegar pilot, and Charlie’s decision that she will actually be his best choice as a co-pilot is complicated when they make their first test run and Rinko gets lost in a terrifying (and visually astounding) memory. This memory, and her attempt to struggle with it, forms the emotional core of the film. The actual obstacle that her and Charlie as co-pilots will need to struggle with.

This is where I’d like to say that the movie truly succeeds. There’s real chemistry between Charlie and Rinko, which really makes their scenes believable and heartfelt. What’s really amazing though is the movie’s ability to resist making them fall in love. By the end of the film you know that they love each other, like friends or more appropriately war buddies. One of the last scenes in the film is framed as if they’re about to kiss, but instead they just hug each other and cry in joy. I think it was great and amazing that they were able to pull that off.

Once the film gets back into the Jaegars with an attack on Hong Kong, it really speeds up. You’re met with some phenomenal action, and intense drama that really stems from the characters connections with each other. The drama isn’t merely some external problem caused by giant monsters, it really is about the relationships between all these people. Whether it’s the rivalry between Charlie Hunnam with his down-to-earth/street-brawling persona and Australian Robert Kazinsky’s over-the-top egotism, or the delicate relationship between Elba and Kikuchi, the point is that this is where the drama is coming from.

Like all giant robot properties, Pacific Rim is actually about the people rather than anything else.

All of this action and drama is rounded out by the gallows humor adventures of Charlie Day’s character and his search for a kaiju brain to complete his research. His story arc takes us out into the every day world of Hong Kong post-Kaiju, where all sorts of crazy folk beliefs and new structures have come into being in relation to these inter-dimensional monstrosities. Del Toro shows us a world where people are literally living in buildings next to the cleaned skeletons of giant monsters.

Then he gives us the greatest gift in the entire movie, Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, Hong Kong’s Kaiju organ smuggler. The reveal on this is so utterly priceless and perfect that I don’t even know how to describe it. The storyline itself is once again fun, and humorous, while still managing to be dark and part of a world where there really is a sense of danger from these giant monsters.

I think ultimately that that’s where this film really manages to hit it out of the park. There’s so much happening but yet you’re really never hit with any sort of mood whiplash. Everything manages to be fairly unified in tone and feel. The world is dark but it isn’t Grim-Dark and full of cynicism. People still manage to live their lives, and there’s a clear priority within the setting in making sure that civilians are out of harm’s way before the action starts. There is a distinct sense of hope, even if it’s very dim.

That’s what makes these characters heroic, it’s what makes their world interesting, and it’s how the action never really becomes boring. This is a world that is standing on the edge of the apocalypse but people still manage to believe in something better.

Maybe that’s what our blockbusters have been missing in recent years, I don’t know.

I’ll leave you with this thought I had the other night while talking about Pacific Rim.

When I go to the movies, I want to enter a world of ceaseless wonder and Pacific Rim gave me that. Call it simple, call it charming, call it Old Hollywood… I don’t care.

It was beautiful.

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