Pacific Rim‘s Monster-sized Fun

Summary:  Today we have another guest post by film critic Locke Peterseim, reviewing Pacific Rim. It’s something different, a break in our series of reviews of films that providea mirror in which we can see ourselves.  I haven’t commented on these movies — leaving the reviews to the pro. I hated The Lone Ranger, which he liked. Here he reviews Pacific Rim, which I consider the best science fiction movie I’ve seen in years — and the most enjoyable since The Avengers. Post your comments about the film — and this review!

Pacific Rim

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Pacific Rim‘s Monster-sized Fun

By Locke Peterseim

Posted at the film blog of Open Letters Monthly
18 July 2013

Reposted here with his generous permission

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I can’t recall a movie that – for better or worse – comes so completely as advertised as Pacific Rim does.

If you’ve been looking at the summer marketing and thinking, “Good lord, that looks head-slappingly stupid,” you are correct. Likewise, if you’ve been watching the commercials and thinking, “Ho-lee crap, this looks mess-my-pants awesome,” you are also correct.

And if your assessment, sight unseen, of Pacific Rim is that it’s just a summer popcorn flick about giant frakkin’ robots and giant frakkin’ monsters beating the stuffing out of each other, then you are dead on. Gloriously, mindlessly, entertainingly so.

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Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim
Charlie Hunnam in Pacific Rim

The film’s story is simple: Giant monsters are popping out of a Lovecraftian inter-dimensional rift, located deep within a Pacific Ocean trench. Or to rearrange Nietzsche for the occasion, “When you gaze long into the abyss, you’re gonna end up fighting giant monsters.” So we humans make equally gargantuan robot-mech guys that are controlled by a pair of humans strapped into elliptical machines in the robots’ noggins. (It’s like going to the gym, only in a giant robot.) Then the creatures and the robots meet up and punch each other lots.

(I’m guessing at some point this week an inspired defense contractor sat across a desk at the Pentagon and told a general, “Can we really afford not to build a fleet of giant billion-dollar robot-mechs?”)

Pacific Rim arrives on big screens (the bigger, the better) so impressively, cinematically self-actualized that, like the gargantuan robots and monsters traipsing throughout it, the film exudes a sense of undeniabilty. It feels as if you can no more argue over its artistic and aesthetic merits than you could debate the motives and methods of a 25-story-tall lizard-beast stomping toward you across a burning cityscape.

Likewise, director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro feels like the perfect person to serve up all this.

Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim
Rinko Kikuchi in Pacific Rim

Throughout his 20-year career making feature films, the Mexican auteur has written and directed art-house horror-fantasy films like Chronos, The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth — films that are acclaimed and awarded for their subtle and nuanced allegorical approaches. He’s also romped his way through pure, unabashed Creature Feature delights like Mimic, Blade II, and Hellboy I & II. (In his spare time, Del Toro produces dark little genre love letters like The Orphanage, Splice, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, and this year’s better-than-it-seems ghost tale Mama.)

So when Del Toro (who over the the past five years has seen two massive dream projects slip away: his long-pursued adaption of Lovecraft’s The Mountains of Madness and his directing of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films) turns his attention to the Giant Monster movies he loved as a child, not only do the Kaiju geeks trust that he knows what he’s doing, but he’s handed a “Get Out of Popcorn-Movie Jail Free” pass from many foreign-film connoisseurs who assume that, given the film maker’s art-house cred, Pacific Rim must be deeper and more aesthetically interesting than it seems on the surface.

I’m not at all sure about the latter, but when it comes to the former, there’s no doubt the director not only loves him some rampaging super-beasts but knows how to capture them on film.

I often find myself bemoaning the lost of emotional verisimilitude and cinematic impact in big CGI-centric special-effects fests, but if there’s one genre that’s benefited from the ever-advancing ability to create new screen images with digital pixels, it’d be Giant Monster flicks. Whatever the overall strengths and failings of movies like Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla remake, Cloverfield, and now Pacific Rim, their over-sized CGI beasties look fantastic as they destroy our cities.

Gypsy Danger in Pacific Rim
Gypsy Danger in Pacific Rim

Del Toro is especially loving in this respect. Though careful to always show them at night, underwater, or against rainy, gray storm skies (masking any oily digital shimmer), the director camera-bangs the hell out of his towering subjects, wheeling in and out and around them to give them not just impressive size, but scale and weight up on the screen. More than just visually spectacular, things on the screen feel big, as if you really were a fly on the wall looking down at the ginormous beings below. Or in this case, a helicopter buzzing dangerously close to an other-dimensional beastie.

(Pacific Rim‘s monster designs themselves aren’t anything terribly new. Unlike Cloverfield, which went out of its way to try and come up with a weirdly unique being, the creatures here are mostly homages to the greats: not just Godzilla, but Gamera and Rodan as well.)

The “heel” monsters may still grabble and slug it out with the good-guy “face” robots like WWE wrasslers on radioactive ‘roids, but there’s rarely a moment of “man in suit” or “bad videogame” fakery on display. And while Pacific Rim is easily his biggest film (not just in terms of his subjects, but also budget and mainstream hype), the heavily stylized director still fills the corners of his sets with the sort of retro-industrial pulp flair and steampunk bordello designs that infuse his smaller films.

Between the raging monsters, stalwart robots, and sumptuously “worn-in” decor, there’s a lot for your right-hemisphere brain to drool over in Pacific Rim. Which is good, because the film’s plot, characters, and dialog from Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham will leave your left-hemisphere brain bleeding out your ear. (It’s genuinely hard to tell if the clenched-teeth clichés passed off as dialog are intended as cheese-ball genre homages, or if Del Toro and Beacham are just that Top Gun tone deaf.)

Most of the bad script lines are either bark-bellowed by the otherwise great Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost, the leader of the robot squad, or grunted by the usually decent Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket, the one-time hot-shot robot jockey driven into exile by past tragedy.

Russians to the rescue in Pacific Rim
Russians to the rescue

Elba gets to keep his British accent for a change, but Hunnam’s also British, and while he’s been working in Hollywood for a decade, again it’s hard to determine if his performance is meant to be tongue in square jaw or if he thinks all hard-bitten American heroes should talk as if Clint Eastwood was gargling with Warren Oates. (It doesn’t help that the once Bowie-lithe Hunnam is now all Sons-of-Anarchy beefed up, making his face look like Jason Segal decided to go as Val Kilmer for Halloween.)

And yes, keeping with its pulpy spirit, nearly everyone in the film has monikers along the lines of Stacker Pentecost, Raleigh Becket, Hannibal Chau, Newton Geiszler, Herc Hansen, and Mako Mori. You keep waiting for folks named Stroker Passover, Cromwell Tudor, Achilles Einstein, and Shark Puncher Gelato to show up and help tussle with the critters.

As is often the case in these bigger-than-life event movies, a lot of the best performances are given around the edges, here by a solid supporting cast that includes Del Toro regular, geek fave, and Hunnam’s Sons of Anarchy pop Ron Perlman (one of the rare actors who can mug without moving his face) and Always Sunny in Philadephia’s jittery Charlie Day (channeling his inner Bobcat Goldthwait as a spazzy scientist off-setting the hunky robot jocks).

Stand Tall with our Jaegers

Also on hand is Babel’s endearing Rinko Kikuchi as Becket’s co-pilot and (naturally) love interest, as Del Toro and Beacham cram the non-monstrous parts of the movie with a little too much interpersonal melodrama and cheese-ball pilot conflict. (The various robot pilots seem to have been handed their “will he/she overcome this in time to save the day?” personal issues from the same corner Genre Store where they got their names.)

Pacific Rim is also somewhat weakened by a common ailment among big summer action movies: a finale that falls short of all the buildup. Del Toro lays out so much earth-shaking monster-slugging awesomeness throughout the film that by the time he hits his climactic set piece (with the obligatory races against the clock and heroic self-sacrifices) a certain sameness has settled in — the big finish feels more like a plateau than a peak. Otherwise, the film delivers almost exactly what it promises; that is to say, it’s the Giant Robots Fighting movie we all hoped for from Michael Bay’s Transformers flicks, back before the Transformers franchise made us all more than a little sick of Giant Robots Fighting movies.

One of the most interesting things about Pacific Rim and audience response to it is that, in its entertaining success, it feels like the Ultimate Geek Nostalgia Movie. Despite the fact it’s one of the few big summer movies that doesn’t officially remake/reboot/reimagine an existing franchise, comic book, or toy line, there’s no doubt the film is Del Toro’s heart-felt ode to Godzilla and the other Giant Monster movies he and so many other geeks (myself included) loved as kids. (The film is dedicated to the late, beloved creature-makers Ray Harryhausen and Godzilla godfather Ishirō Honda.)

Idris Elba in Pacific Rim

Not to take anything away from Del Toro, who’s done a pretty bang-up job here, but amid the recent Star Trek and Lone Ranger redos and upcoming return to a galaxy far, far away (and dozens of other examples we could all name from the past decade), it does beg the question: What does it say about our pop culture imagination that so much of our big-tentpole fantasy filmmaking these days feels both created by and marketed to geeks’ inner 12-year-olds?

Over the past 40 years, we’ve all been raised in the post Free to be You and Me age to actively seek out and embrace and feed our inner children, but with the Internet-fueled rise of Geek Culture over the past decade or so (“I can now easily find people who share my once-embarrassing love of nerdy stuff!”) and marketing campaigns now laser-targeted for the Comic-Con crowd, what was once considered a delicious, decadent indulgence now feels like a Geek Imperative.

(For example: in the post-Harry Knowles/Ain’t it Cool News film world, nearly every personal reaction to a film has to start with a lengthy dig back into your childhood toy chest. I’m no different — I grew up on Godzilla and Ultra Man giant monsters and robot movies. Mostly because I was too chicken to watch “really scary” movies on the Friday night Creature Features or at Saturday afternoon matinees. And yes, I giggled with glee when one of the Pacific Rim kaiju stomps on a railroad car… just like in the old Man in Suit days.)

But as much as I enjoyed Pacific Rim and respect Del Toro’s obvious genre dedication and mastery, the film and the joyous fan-boy and -girl reaction to it has me wondering if over the past decade we haven’t overfed our childhood geek selves to the point they now tower over us and the cinematic and pop-cultural landscape like mutated monsters, threatening to crush everything in their path.

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(2) About the author

Locke Peterseim writes the Hammer and Thump film blog at Open Letters Monthly, an online arts and literature magazine. A film critic whose work has appeared on Redbox, WGN Radio, and in the Magill’s Cinema Annual, he also serves on the board of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

These days he still enjoys films on their artistic and entertainment merits, but also finds himself as much if not more interested in them as cultural mirrors; artifacts of how we want to see ourselves–and how mainstream studios want to sell those desires back to us.

Some of his other reviews:

  1. Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe
  2. The Hunger Games: How a Real Film Emerged from the Deadly Arena of Young-Adult Movie Franchises
  3. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – You Say You Want a Revolution?
  4. Transformers 4 is the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America
  5. 300: Rise of an Empire: The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War
  6. The Wolf of Wall Street: What’s So Funny About Greed, Ludes, and Unchecked Capitalism?

(3)  For More Information

(a)  See all posts about:

  1. Book and film reviews
  2. Art, myth, and literature

(b)  Posts about films:

  1. Does the Tea Party movement remind you of the movie “Meet John Doe”? , 27 January 2010
  2. About the movie “Fight Club”, 28 March 2010
  3. Robocop is not a good role model for the youth of Detroit, 12 March 2011
  4. We want heroes, not leaders. When that changes it will become possible to reform America., 11 January 2013
  5. Loki helps us to see our true selves, 15 May 2013
  6. My movie recommendation for 2010: Vitual JFK (the book is also great), 30 June 2013
  7. Hollywood’s dream machine gives us the Leader we yearn for, 30 June 2013
  8. Rollerball shows us one aspect of America, and a possible future, 13 August 2013
  9. In “Network”, Howard Beale asks us to get mad and do something. He’s still waiting., 19 October 2013
  10. Are our film heroes leading us to the future, or signaling despair?, 28 October 2013
  11. “Ender’s Game” is a horror movie, showing us our dark side. No worries; we’ll forget faster than we eat the popcorn., 2 November 2013
  12. We love “Transformers: Age of Extinction” because it shows us what we don’t want to see (Spoilers!), 5 July 2014
  13. “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” asks if you want a Revolution, 27 July 2014
  14. Transformers 4: the Greatest Film Ever Made About 21st Century America, 3 August 2014
  15. 300: Rise of an Empire – The Half-Truths and Bloody Fog of Cartoon War, 10 August 2014
  16. Ender’s Game: Playing at Shock and Awe, 17 August 2014
  17. “Edge of Tomorrow”: Cruise, Again and Again, 24 August 2014
  18. Shut the Robo-whining: The Robocop Remake Has Something on its Mind, 31 August 2014
  19. A new Man of Steel for 21st century America: a warrior superman, 7 September 2014
  20. Elysium Shouts Big, Loud Messages About Health Care & Immigration Reform. Gun Control, Not so Much, 21 September 2014
  21. “The Lone Ranger” shows Hollywood’s new paradigm, since films were too deep for us, 28 September 2014
  22. Hollywood transforms “The Hobbit” into The Desolation of Tolkien, 5 October 2014

 

(4)  The Trailer

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(5) Another perspective on Pacific Rim

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3 thoughts on “Pacific Rim‘s Monster-sized Fun

  1. I’m curious, FM, other than the fact that the movie didn’t bash governments, why did you see and like Pacific Rim?

    I have a reason for fondness for the movie but I doubt you have the same reason.

    You see I have a son who is/was a Kaiju-fan boy and I went to see it with him. I kind of wrecked the movie for him at the end. We came out of the theater and he was ecstatic and I was “Meh.” He asked me why I wasn’t impressed and I told him that it lacked imagination. That just about choked him and he asked why I thought so.

    So I explained how powerful modern weapons really are. I started with the 16 inch naval gun and the Hellfire anti-tank missile and asked him to imagine what would happen to ANY Kaiju that got hit by these weapons. He was awestruck, that one thought really shook his imagination to the core and he started applying researched science to his Kaiju monsters. They aren’t nearly as stylish but they make a LOT more sense (in a Kaiju sort of way).

    The criticism/comments from the other fan boys (why wouldn’t a giant burrowing worm have 40-foot wide horns? They look so cool!) have permanently soured him on most of Kaiju and is in the process of turning his extremely vivid imagination in more fruitful directions.

    1. Pluto,

      Few TV shows or films can withstand logical scrutiny, let alone examination of their scientific basis. In Star Trek, ships are frequently hit by phasers or torpedoes with their shields down, yet remain — even with their crew alive. In Walker, Texas Ranger, the bad guys would either need extensive facial reconstructions (and new teeth) after their beatings by the Rangers (who are oddly reluctant to deploy their guns). And so on.

      Pacific Rim is a nicely done b-movie, displaying an effective collective response to a threat — unlike the superhero (lone actor) stories that have seized our minds. It’s the opposite of, for example, Winter Soldier — where the collective response (Shield) proves incompetent (taken over by HYDRA) and tyrannical — and we’re saved by a few superheroes.

  2. Alec Baldwin was on Max Keiser and speaking as a film business expert noted that in his youth it was parents who went to the movies leaving the kids at home to watch tv with or without a sitter. Today of course parents send the kids to the movies and then watch a DVD or NetFlix at home. So today films are made for kids. Adult fare like House Of Cards is produced by Netflix. I tend to agree. Same idea. Get away from the kids. But inverted now.

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