Tuesday, 30 July 2013

GREAT FILMS: Pacific Rim (2013)

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Pacific Rim (USA, 2013)
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day

It's always tempting to create false dichotomies within a director's work, usually to make a point about their style or to create an artificial cut-off between their 'good' and 'bad' efforts. Sometimes such demarcations are useful and relevant: Steven Spielberg's filmography can feasibly be divided into 'serious' awards contenders and 'popcorn' crowd-pleasers (usually his better work). But in the case of Guillermo del Toro, such divisions are largely fruitless.

Whether he's working with a budget of $2m or $200m, del Toro has always managed to put his own unique stamp on a given film. With the possible exception of Mimic, none of his films feel artistically compromised or half-cocked; he is, like Christopher Nolan, an artistic auteur who just happens to be working in the mainstream. Pacific Rim is the latest example of his greatness as a director, combining eye-popping spectacle with good characters and interesting ideas, resulting in a proper summer blockbuster.
Pacific Rim stems from del Toro's desire to introduce a new generation of Western filmgoers to two specific genres that are prevalent in Japanese culture. One is kaiju ('strange creature'), the monster movie genre that began with Gojira (Godzilla) and subsequently extended into Mothra, Gamera and a host of others. The other is mecha, a sci-fi sub-genre with its roots in Jules Verne's The Steam House and H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. More specifically, del Toro is interested in mecha anime, taking inspiration from many different sub-genres that all involve giant fighting robots.
The history of Japanese mecha anime is far too complex and convoluted to go into much detail here - at least, not without losing sight of what we are meant to be reviewing. Some viewers may be familiar with the Macross franchise (also known as Robotech), which helped to popularise the genre in America. But the really big influence on Pacific Rim is Neon Genesis Evangeleon, which took the pulpy conventions of these series and pumped them full of fan-service, existentialist philosophy and emotional trauma. The series remains a landmark in anime, for good and bad, with most subsequent mecha anime sitting uneasily in its shadow.
Because Eva's influence is so great, it's perhaps inevitable that Pacific Rim would contain elements we can recognise from Hideaki Anno's series - despite del Toro's protestations about there being no conscious resemblances. Much of the film's iconography, if not directly borrowed from or referencing Eva, is in a very similar aesthetic field. The touchstones range from the robots having concealed weapons in their arms to the designs of the suits the pilots wear - one of them even looks uncannily like Rei's plugsuit in the original series. There are also thematic crossovers, with the unhappy childhood of Mako and the role of parent-related trauma, absence or alienation.
It would be wrong, however, to just call Pacific Rim a homage, or tribute, since it carves out its own identity with ideas and creative decisions of its own. Instead it's best to think of it as a genre exercise, with del Toro taking familiar, easily recognisable elements (for which he has immense affection) and putting his own unique stamp on them. If Cronos is his vampire film, The Devil's Backbone is his ghost story, and Hellboy is his comic book film, Pacific Rim is del Toro's take on monsters and giant fighting robots. And while none of these quite match up to the incredible Pan's Labyrinth, they are still extraordinary in their own ways.
Del Toro carves out Pacific Rim's identity in several ways. Firstly, and most broadly, he takes all the conventions of the mecha genre and mixes them with the conventions of more Western action blockbusters. The existential angst of the pilots that we expect from Eva and its derivatives is married to the rivalling machismo exhibited by the pilots in Top Gun or Independence Day. We're given a number of familiar plot elements (the romance with obstacles, a cold leader who isn't all that cold) but they are made compelling by being put in unfamiliar surroundings. This occasionally means the story is too predictable - we know pretty much how everything will work out - but del Toro makes us care about the characters enough for it not to matter.
Secondly, the designs and visuals of Pacific Rim are simply jaw-dropping. The robots look incredible, each one distinctive and creative in both its design and mechanisation. Even though there is an abundance of CGI, all the effects have a sense of scale and weight - the water is realistic, the stunts are very physical and the pain is incredibly real. The whole film is wonderfully designed, containing nods to Star Wars and Tron in the suit designs and Blade Runner in the sequences set in Hong Kong. Guillermo Navarro, who also shot Pan's Labyrinth, lights the film superbly, matching the interior scenes to ILM's effects to create an intensely operatic atmosphere.
Thirdly, del Toro makes a number of creative choices which use familiar genre elements as a springboard into something new. One of the most interesting concepts in the film is that of two people 'drifting' to control the robots, sharing their partner's mind and experiencing each other's thoughts, memories and traumas. This is a very interesting side-step from both Inception's concept of shared dreaming and from Eva's idea of robots being powered by human souls. Like Eva, the pilots experience the pain inflicted on the robots, but it's not explained or calibrated in the same way.
Unlike a great many of its competitors, Pacific Rim contains a rich cast of characters. This is in complete contrast to the template put forward by Michael Bay; his Transformers films are only interested in hardware, whether fleshy or mechanical, and have no regard or interest in the heart and soul. At the very least, we care about the characters enough to know what is going on - which, considering the standards of many modern blockbusters, might be an achievement in itself.
The film is unusual for a summer blockbuster, in that there is no big-name star attached. Idris Elba is the most recognisable face in a highly capable cast, and he delivers a very fine performance around one of the sound-bytes of the summer. Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi have great chemistry as Raleigh and Mako, and Ron Perlman makes a really good cameo in his fifth appearance with del Toro. There is also very good comic relief from the two scientists, playing by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman. There is no attempt to make them less cartoonish: this is a film that knows the genre and its audience, and loves both of them.
Despite all appearances, Pacific Rim is a film of ideas. But while both this film and Prometheus can trace their origins back to the Greek Titans, they adopt very different approaches to conveying their ideas. Prometheus rushed in head first, with all its ideas and themes being offered early on - but then its body, its mechanics, have to play catch-up, and neither the story nor the characters are ever strong enough to match the promise of its opening. Pacific Rim marches in feet first, inviting audiences to enjoy a great big rollicking monster movie, and then starts to feed us ideas when it has our full attention.
One of the core ideas of Pacific Rim is violence begetting violence. Nietzsche famously warned that "He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster", and for all their technical brilliance the jaegers are every bit as monstrous and destructive as the kaiju. But del Toro takes this further than a physical comparison, exploring the idea on a subconscious level. The very act of drifting with a kaiju both causes an attack and provides the solution to prevent disaster. A powerful dilemma is presented in a gripping and intelligent way, with no easy answers and plenty of action to support it.
The film extends this thesis in its design elements. The kaiju have two brains (reflecting the two jaeger pilots) and parts of their anatomy resemble shapes familiar to humans - their tongues, for instance, are like the insides of a flower. Del Toro draws increasing similarities between the foes even as the war escalates, turning the conflict into a symbolic one between different aspects of mankind as much it remains a physical one. The kaiju also have a connection to H. P. Lovecraft: their indifference to mankind's fate and pan-dimensional nature lends a willing comparison to the Ancient Ones.
Pacific Rim is a really great summer blockbuster which restores faith in the medium while affirming del Toro's status as a great director. The irresistible action and jaw-dropping effects are married to surprisingly deep characters, fine performances and a lot of interesting ideas, and the film delivers on nearly everything that it promises. Even with its predictable and familiar elements, the result is pretty damn mind-blowing, and sets the bar extremely high for the rest of the year.

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For a good introduction to Neon Genesis Evangelion, check out JesuOtaku's review here. Its feature-length follow-up, The End of Evangelion, was covered here by JO's TGWTG colleague Bennett 'The Sage' White. Dan Olson compares the two in great detail in this episode of his series Folding Ideas.

NEXT REVIEW: Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

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