Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim

PACIFIC RIM: Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, directed by Guillermo Del Toro (131 min.)

It’s hard to believe that Pacific Rim isn’t based on some previous medium. These days, the only big budget summer action blockbuster extravaganza to come around has to be adapted from a comic book, or a video game, or some previous avenue of pop culture. When I first looked into Guillermo Del Toro’s new actioner, my first questions were “how is the video game this came from?” Or “where is the graphic novel?” I was surprised, pleasantly, to find out there was no prior history to Pacific Rim; this was all original in a way. What a daring move by Warner Brothers, and what a sad state of affairs that this is a daring move at all. And while Pacific Rim is technically “original,” the bones of the picture are undoubtedly cobbled together through familiar stories. That doesn’t change the fact that it is a whole lot of fun, and a fresh new story to enjoy.

Kaijus are gigantic monsters who, as the story opens, arrive on the surface of the earth not from above, but below. They make their way through a sort of portal in the Pacific Ocean where they march inland and destroy cities and kill people relentlessly. Each Kaiju is unique, and each is just as threatening and wickedly creative as the next. After exhausting our military resources on these massive creatures, the world bands together to create some monsters of their own; they are Jaegers, large robots controlled by twoor three humans inside the brain cavity area. Seeing these robots, as tall as skyscrapers, stirred my inner child. The Jaegers take on Kaijus in epic battles in the Ocean or along the coastlines of the US and Asia. Del Toro does a marvelous job of keeping the scale of these creations and their battles appropriately large. Everything feels massive on the screen, and inspires awe.

The story around this very basic premise is a little obvious from top to bottom. It is the basic military hero plot. There is a hot shot Jaeger pilot (Charlie Hunnam), who abandons the pilot life after tragedy, the old and wise general (the great Idris Elba), the rookie phenom (Babel’s Rinko Kikuchi), and the hardnosed fellow pilots who want to put this hot shot outsider in his place. And, of course, there is the comic relief, a wiry scientist (Charlie Day, perfect in this role) obsessed with understanding the Kaijus more. At least, with these conventional tropes of storytelling in place, Del Toro makes the characters interesting enough to hold our interest. Unlike the Transformers films, the gaps between the action aren’t full of racist jokes and one liners ad nauseum. Even Day’s comic relief gets an interesting side job, to go and get a Kaiju brain off the black market from a colorful character named Hannibal Chou, played by the Del Toro staple, Ron Perlman.

But we are here for the action, and the action is stunning. The story takes us off the coast of Hong Kong, where the Kaijus are predicted to attack next. The Jaeger program has been suspended, but General Pentecost (Elba) has assembled a collection of pilots as a last ditch effort to close their underwater portal. As the Kaijus are all unique, so are the Jaegers. One has three arms, one is built like a tank, and the central fighter, Crimson Typhoon, has a whirring jet engine in its chest. All of this is exciting to, as I said before, my inner child. I was reminded of my Transformers toys, and of course Voltron. It is so much fun to study the mechanical beasts and, when they jump into action, the fighting is jaw dropping.

Guillermo Del Toro is just the breath of fresh air we needed this summer to break the monotony of Lin and Verbinski and Bay, and sequels and franchises and on and on and on. Pacific Rim is original, but it’s not. The story is cobbled together, but that’s okay. At least these characters aren’t annoying, and even when these battles take place at night – they all do as a matter of fact – there is no disorientation because these massive fights are shot well. There are stakes at play, not just noise quotas to be met. All I can ask for from a film like Pacific Rim is to have some fun, and fun is undoubtedly the currency here.