Friday, July 12, 2013

Godzilla-Transformer Showdown: "Pacific Rim" delivers big, fun spectacle with just a little heart and soul


Pacific Rim (2013)
132 min., rated PG-13.

Upon initial glance, "Pacific Rim" looks like another big, clangy hunk of junk metal à la the "Transformers" movies. Then you actually read the fine print: director Guillermo del Toro. The Spanish filmmaker of the stylish, cheeky "Hellboy" films and the grimmest and most strangely beautiful adult fairy tale that is "Pan's Labyrinth," Del Toro is no Michael Bay, trading cynicism and mind-numbing, soullessly slick senselessness for a fleet sense of fun, imaginative whimsy, and visual beauty. As del Toro lovingly merges his affection for Japanese-style monsters with rock-'em-sock-'em robots operated by human hearts, "Pacific Rim" is a zowie, enormously enjoyable piece of pop art with great spectacle and a little heart and soul, to boot. You still won't have to think too much, but where it counts, this delivers the sensation and, of course, cool-looking sea monsters.

The invasion of giant alien beasts, called Kaiju, began in San Francisco, rising from a portal beneath the Pacific Ocean instead of the stars, destroying the Golden Gate bridge and then attacking all over the globe. To fight the monsters, a program has been divised, where two pilots suit up in armor and control skyscraper-sized robots, known as Jaegers ("hunters"). On a mission in Alaska, cocky pilot Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and his older brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) go against the direct orders of their commander, General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), to make a rescue, Yancy dying in the process. Five years later, when it's now 2025, Raleigh is working construction when he's brought back into the fold by Pentecost because an apocalypse is upon them. Just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in!

"Pacific Rim," co-written by del Toro and Travis Beacham (2010's "Clash of the Titans"), is mostly about the monster-mecha destruction, but there is succinctly explained dense mythology, cool ideas, and archetypal characters whom we can actually give a hoot about but don't completely get in the way of what audiences came for in the first place. Upon meeting Raleigh and his brother, we learn about the process of "drifting," where two pilots are psychically linked to helm the Jaegers and are thereby compatible and know each other through and through. Since this kind of movie needs comic relief, it comes in the set of doctors Newton and Hermann, played by a tattoo-sleeved Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, who end up being more screechy and twitchy than funny. Newton soon develops a machine that allows him to be one with a Kaiju brain, an experiment, which, in turn, lets him in on the monsters' colonization plan. It's a small price to pay, but ignore the fact that the Jaegers are out to save humanity but have no problem stomping on cars through the Hong Kong streets as they take down the Kaiju and tear up high-rise buildings for the sake of wanton destruction.

Backing the effects with a human element, del Toro knew what he was doing when casting an international ensemble. Are the characters paper-thin? Pretty much. Is the dialogue mostly generic even as it tries to be clever? Heavens, yes! All the same, the actors do what is required of them and they do it well. As Raleigh, or just "Damaged Maverick Hero," Charlie Hunnam is ruggedly good-looking and perfectly likable, toning down the hotshot bravado after the prologue. Achieving the most pathos, Rinko Kikuchi is moving and capable of holding her own as Mako, Raleigh's bright but fragile partner who's been protected by General Pentecost since she was a young girl. Idris Elba is stern and authoritative, dressed in snazzy suits and speaking with purpose. When motivating the pilots at a rally, "Today, we are canceling the apocalypse," you believe him. And, as always, when Ron Perlman shows up as Hannibal Chau, a mysteriously pimped-out black-market monster parts dealer, he's showy and fun to watch. 

There's something to be said for a big-ticket, effects-driven summer blockbuster being an original piece of work—that's right, it's not based on a toy—and designed with care, especially its antagonistic creatures. They might have little on the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" or even the terrifyingly formidable monster in "Cloverfield," but for fantastical, neon-colored beasties, the varying Kaiju designs, from Godzilla-like lizards to aquatic hammerheads, are detailed, grotesquely beautiful, and just plain awesome to look at. The picture is set on a spectacular scale and has an epic scope. More importantly, Guillermo Navarro's glorious lensing makes the imagery pop, especially the nighttime brawls during torrential downpours, and steadily relies on geography, so we can, you know, understand which big thing is in relation to which other big thing. Amidst all the smashing, there's the amusing use of a full-size battleship and swords, an umbilical cord strangulation, and then a three-second break from the destruction involving a Newton's Cradle earns a chuckle. In the daylight, there's a stirring memory, along with the haunting image of a red buckle shoe, from Mako's past that allows us to understand her vulnerability and reason for revenge on the Kaiju.

The antithesis of noisy, dumb, hollow, and joyless action tentpoles, "Pacific Rim" has a sense of joy. Because of del Toro's genuine artistry and affection for fantasy, the film is coherent and thrilling as kinetic eye-candy and doesn't leave one utterly cold on an emotional level. Though 132 minutes is a long time for what simply amounts to robots taking out monsters, it's a chance to see a visionary director reach into his toy box and tap into that giddy excitement he felt as a kid. Another purely fun feature presentation to go with the air conditioning and concessions has arrived.

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