Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
July 2013

Pacific Rim

Beasts of the Pacific Wild

A thinking man's blockbuster it's not, but 'Pacific Rim' has more than enough artistry and visceral force to make up the difference

Pacific Rim
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenplay: Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Ron Perlman, Burn Gorman, Max Martini, Robert Kazinsky and Clifton Collins Jr.
Rated PG-13 / 2 hours, 12 minutes
July 12, 2013
(out of four)

If Pacific Rim were a two-hour slideshow of Guillermo del Toro's concept art and creature design, I would still pay to see it. In a way, that's most of what I took away from the movie. Not that it doesn't have other virtues, but the wealth of imagination on display here is overwhelming. This is a dazzling, live-action cartoon world of scaly, neon-blooded beasts; towering, weaponized, man-operated robots; neon-soaked, Hong Kong-flavored shanty towns and the bombastic, flamboyantly dressed smugglers who rule over them.

This is a world of colorful places and colorful characters (with even more colorful names) that would feel right at home in the panels of a comic book. And how about those colors, now that we're on the topic? In a time when summer blockbusters tend to look more or less the same (the teal-and-yellow color palette, the vague and indistinct metropolis), here's one with the boldness to actually have a visual personality, splashed with the deep purples and blues of royalty and the garish crimsons and neons of the red-light district.

That brand of theatricality strikes the perfect chord for a film in which monsters fight robots for the fate of the world. It's a cartoonish conceit that requires the vivid imagination of someone like del Toro to bring it to life. (There's not nearly as much imagination to the screenplay, but more on that later.)

There's been a recurring defense of the film as something made for our "inner 12-year-old." But personally, I don't care what my inner 12-year-old has to say on the matter, because I'm not 12 years old. But more importantly, I don't think Pacific Rim only has value when seen through that childlike prism; rather, it's a terrific piece of artistry in its own right.

Of course, just as a musical is judged largely by its musical numbers, so too should a monster movie be judged by its monsters. And these monsters are magnificent. They're peculiar and idiosyncratic - beautiful, even - with their misshapen heads and horns and their armor and their tails. Their wings and spikes and their glowing blue venom. Del Toro is famous for his creature design - a gift he's put to especially great use in Pan's Labyrinth and both Hellboy entries - and he's basically unleashed his sketchbook on us this time around, giving us a slew of different breeds, each with its own distinct (and fantastic) design. I found myself imagining a hypothetical monster fashion show, where each creature would waltz down the catwalk and show us what they've got, with del Toro emceeing and describing each one in detail.

Again, we find this movie in contrast to so many others of its supposed ilk. Consider how many recent alien monsters have come and gone in recent years, without us even remembering what they looked like. It's even true of good movies, like The Avengers, whose alien attackers barely even registered for me visually even as I was watching the movie. There's no such problem here.

The creatures are known as Kaiju, and they arrived through an interdimensional portal on the floor of the Pacific Ocean and proceeded to reign destruction down on one city after another. In response, human civilization put aside its national boundaries and banded together to develop the "Jaeger" program - the building of giant machines designed to combat the Kaiju.

Operated by two-person pilot teams sharing memories through a process known as "The Drift," the Jaegers are mankind's answer to its impending demise. Interesting that del Toro - an avowed Frankenstein fan whose feature debut, Cronos, was quite explicitly inspired by it - should return to that idea of life creating life. Or, in this case, the mechanized appearance of life. (Note: del Toro is also said to be developing a Frankenstein story of his own as well as a stop-motion version of Pinocchio, yet another creation/reanimation myth.)

Pacific Rim's script (on which del Toro shares credit with original writer Travis Beacham) moves along with an almost pathological predictability, to the extent that we sometimes know the next line of dialogue - and the next, and the next - before it's ever spoken. As richly conceived as del Toro's futuristic world is, he peppers it with shallow archetypes masquerading as characters. The performances either make or break each role. In the lead we get the hotshot pilot, Raleigh Becket - he's reckless! he's emotionally complex! - who loses his brother (and Jaeger partner), leaves the program, then gets called back for redemption just in time to save the world. Maybe Charlie Hunnam can be a fine actor in a well-written role, but without one here, he's completely lost (and strips the film of its would-be emotional center).

Then there's the rival pilot who despises Raleigh for no other reason than the plot needs to provide Raleigh with a rival with whom he can come to a dramatic understanding, full of newfound respect, late in the film. (Shades of Maverick/Iceman - hardly the most nuanced bromantic rivalry in screen history.) Somewhat more effective are Idris Elba as the Jaeger commander, Stacker Pentecost, and Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, The Brothers Bloom) as his assistant, Mako Mori, who inevitably becomes Raleigh's new co-pilot.

But perhaps not surprisingly, the characters that work best are the ones that fit most comfortably in the cartoonish milieu - first, the dueling scientist nerds, Charlie Day as Dr. Newton Geiszler and Burn Gorman as Dr. Gottlieb (who comes closest to being a full-on anime character, a live-action person by technicality only); and second, the real highlight, the great Ron Perlman - dressed to the nines, gold-toothed, waltzing around in jangled, gold-plated shoes - as Hannibal Chau, trafficker of Kaiju body parts and king of the black market.

As clunky as much of the film's exposition can be, del Toro manages to deliver in a number of small ways, with his oddball subplots, side characters and flights of fancy in the production design and camerawork. That he is also very gifted in handling action is no surprise, and it is in those often-astonishing action sequences - man-as-monster vs. beast - that his herky-jerky plotting and setup pay off. This may not be his cleanest film nor is it close to his best, but it's nothing if not a strange, imaginative and personal interpretation of what a Hollywood blockbuster can be. In other words, exactly the kind of thing a Hollywood blockbuster oughta be.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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