Friday, July 12, 2013

Review: "Pacific Rim"

Director: Guillermo Del Toro
Runtime: 132 minutes

With so many summer tentpoles designed to launch franchises, there's something refreshing about a film willing to start at the end. Pacific Rim, the latest film from Mexican monster maestro Guillermo Del Toro, condenses an entire story's worth of exposition into a swift opening reel that could practically function as its own open-ended short film. With big visuals and a smattering of exposition from protagonist Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), Pacific Rim establishes the beginning of its world, and then gives itself room to comfortably exist in that world for the remainder of the story. It's a structural decision that pays off in spades, and ensures that this simple, crowd-pleasing effort provides maximum entertainment. 

Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham haven't necessarily created a truly original story. The set-up, which shares DNA with everything from Godzilla to the acclaimed anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, is more of a template for Del Toro to do what he does best: create phenomenal creatures to wreak havoc. Those creatures are known as kaiju, and they emerge, in good ole sci-fi fashion, from a trans-dimensional rift in the Pacific Ocean. One by one, they lay siege to cities, and humanity fights back by creating monsters of its own: giant robots, with two pilots (one for each brain hemisphere) called jaegers. In other words, it's the sort of narrative a 12 year old boy might come up with on an afternoon left at home alone with his action figures. 

That youthful enthusiasm is present from the start, even as it's channeled through the vision of a skilled visual craftsman. As Game of Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi's score surges underneath, and we see two pilots lock into their massive machine, it's hard to feel anything but pure giddiness. For all of the grandiose destruction on display, Del Toro strikes a tone that is light, yet still sincere and fun.

Rather than bog the narrative down in the dire circumstances and existential worries of the characters, Del Toro and Beacham create just enough surface character development for one to engage. Raleigh is dealing with a previous trauma involving his former co-pilot, while new pilot Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) struggles to control her emotions and memories while merged in the robot's core. And then there's commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), the man desperate to hold the jaeger program together, even as the world's governments withdraw their support. 

The story's sense of finality (humanity is in a last ditch attempt to close the oceanic portal) is present, but never to a degree that it sinks the story. The characters may be largely exhausted by the toll of the fight for survival, yet the film is anything but gloomy. Barring a few dips in its character-building sequences, Del Toro's pacing is engaging and fluid. The robots and kaiju are massive (and captured from angles to highlight their scale at every turn), and their clashes are appropriately epic. Yet, despite the stakes, this is not a case of a film's apocalyptic violence becoming overbearing and numbing. Even as most of the battles take place at night, in the water, and in the rain, there is a sense of clarity to the (stunningly-rendered) clashes. 

The fun of the whole experience is more than enough to compensate for the cliched characters. Some are nicely handled (Elba is always a formidable presence), while others are merely functional (Hunnam is a blandly appealing lead), but under Del Toro's guidance, even the cliches become largely enjoyable. Similar to Gore Verbinski's Rango, Pacific Rim sets out to take all of the typical cliches of monster movies and mecha cartoons and simply mash them together with a knowing, polished eye. 

So even though Del Toro and Beacham don't infuse the script with the same level of bizarro wit than lifted Rango above its own cliches, the pair still craft a story that builds nicely to a satisfying conclusion. Though hardly meant to sear any images into your imagination (aside from the monsters), Pacific Rim is an unqualified success of geeky boyish enthusiasm. Del Toro has been given a budget that dwarfs those of all of his previous film, and it's a joy to see his visual imagination blown up on such a massive scale. A more complicated narrative would have only prevented the film from being the sort of straightforward joyride that it winds up being. Rather than try and bring the emotional depth and striking storytelling of efforts like Pan's Labyrinth to the monster genre, Del Toro has opted to sit back and play with his digitized creations. Usually it isn't fun to watch someone else play with their toys (especially if it's a video game). Consider Pacific Rim a nutty exception to the rule.

Grade: B/B-

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