Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim is a gigantic hit

Sometime this year, the world was/will be invaded by gigantic monsters, or kaiju, from beneath the sea. Literally, beneath the sea as they are coming from a large fissure on the ocean floor that has a sort of wormhole to another dimension. Got that? And why are we suddenly under attack from these behemoths? Seems they were here once before (the dinosaurs) but the environment was a bit too inhospitable for them. But now, with all of mankind's contributions to the earth's atmosphere, we've basically made the planet a great place for them to live and us to die so the Jaeger program was created to construct gigantic war machines (robots, but not really robots since these are actually piloted by humans) that are our last defense against the kaiju (no other conventional weapons work against them).

But there's a problem … the kaiju are getting bigger and stronger, and some government muckety-mucks think a giant wall around earth's coastal cities will be enough to keep the kaiju out, so they dismantle the Jaeger program. And then the kaiju break through the wall. It's up to retired Jaeger pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) to save the day by rejoining what's left of the program, but his memories of losing his brother during a fight (the Jaegers require two linked pilots basically sharing one brain, so he still has his brother's memories) and the trauma experienced by his new partner may be larger obstacles to overcome.

Pacific Rim is the definition of a summer blockbuster. Director Guillermo del Toro wastes no time in getting the movie started. We get a brief recap of what started in 2013 that leads quickly up to the story of Raleigh and his brother in 2020, to the film's present of 2025. By that time, Raleigh is a construction worker on the wall when he's called back to duty by his former commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). The film wastes no time on any major character development, giving us archetypes for supporting characters (a Chinese team of pilots and a Russian team of pilots never get to say a word, but are stereotypically identifiable just by their looks) including a father/son team from Australia, with the son having a chip on his shoulder about washed-up Raleigh returning to the program.

Of the three main human stars, Hunnam is handsome and stoic, but he's almost a bit too bland and reserved. Elba is a commanding presence and really puts his all into the performance, especially when he gets to bark out the film's iconic line, "Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!" Rinko Kikuchi, as Pentecost's right hand, Mako, who becomes Raleigh's left hand, isn't given a whole lot to work with but she manages to take her character's inner pain and put it all right on her expressive face. She really has to have the most internalized performance, but you still can feel her trauma and need for revenge against the kaiju. The little girl who plays the young Mako in a flashback is amazing, registering the child's pure terror while trying to save herself from a kaiju.

But Pacific Rim isn't really about the humans, it's about the kaiju and the Jaegers. If you've ever seen a Japanese monster movie ("kaiju" comes from that particular genre), you should get great joy from Pacific Rim. Del Toro obviously loves the genre of giant monsters smashing major cities, and has gone to great lengths to make each of the kaiju look different and have different abilities. The addition of the Jaeger as an opponent to the kaiju makes the fight scenes more thrilling because, unlike a movie like Transformers where it's hard to tell the robots apart when they're fighting, you have two distinct adversaries so there is no question as to who is fighting who.

The film, however, rests on the success of the CGI effects and they are flawless. You marvel at the effects, knowing these are not people in rubber suits. These characters have real weight to them even though they exist only on a massive computer hard drive somewhere. The film would have fallen apart completely if the audience did not buy what they are seeing, and after the initial wow factor of "how did they do that," you settle back into your seat and enjoy the ride. I had the opportunity to see the film in IMAX 3D, and the experience was amazing. The film looks beautiful, the 3D worked well although it's questionable if it was really necessary, and the sound design pummels your ear drums while helping to sell the illusion of the weight of the CGI creatures.

With only a few minor quibbles (lack of characterization, and the late-in-the-game appearance of a new weapon that should have been used much earlier), Pacific Rim is a blockbuster that should be seen on the big (or biggest) screen. It's a summer popcorn movie, but it's not a sequel or a remake, and it's not a movie based on a TV show, so audiences need to show Hollywood that we can support something original.

Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

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