Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim: Monster Mash

Pacific Rim (2013) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for intense sci-fi violence and brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.12.13

Guillermo del Toro must have loved Godzilla movies as a kid.

His newest action fantasy, Pacific Rim, is a valentine to the dozen or so romp ’em, stomp ’em features that starred “the big G” during del Toro’s formative years. (Quite a few more have been made since then.) This tip of the hat clearly is deliberate, since the director and fellow scripter Travis Beacham refer to their ginormous critters as kaiju, the Japanese term — literally “strange beast,” but more commonly “giant monster” — coined, back in the day, to describe Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and their ilk.

Strapped into the high-tech body suits that make them "one" with the giant robot
warriors into which they've been placed, Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako (Rinko
Kikuchi) prepare for a battle they already know is unwinnable, against a monstrous
beast with adaptive "enhancements" that have made it far stronger than their
mechanical avatar.
Throw in plenty of 21st century whiz-bang special effects, and the result is a high-tech thrill ride that blends big monsters, equally massive robot-like avatars, and the stubborn pluck of a puny human race unwilling to go quietly into that good night.

During a summer laden with end-of-the-world scenarios — zombie apocalypse and Kryptonian apocalypse, not to mention the biblical Book of Revelations — this one takes the prize for cheeky absurdity. At the same time, del Toro and Beacham pay careful attention to the human element, giving us would-be saviors who are inspiring for their fortitude, and endearing for their flaws.

Not to mention, it’s always nice when a screenplay takes the optimistic view, and shows world powers uniting in an effort to save the planet. Such all-for-one selflessness goes all the way back to H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, and the reminder is refreshing in this divisively cynical age.

Audacious fantasy has been del Toro’s stock-in-trade ever since 1997’s under-appreciated and genuinely creepy Mimic. He also was the perfect choice to adapt graphic novelist Mike Mignola’s lunatic Hellboy series, and — as an executive producer — del Toro has chaperoned riveting projects such as 2007’s wonderfully atmospheric The Orphanage.

And let us not forget his masterpiece: 2006’s Pan’s Labyrinth, the Oscar-winning horror film that brought adult sensibilities to a genre too frequently willing to settle for much less, and which demonstrated that human monsters can be much, much worse than anything cooked up by our vivid imaginations.

Pacific Rim doesn’t wade through such high-falutin' waters, though; this is simply del Toro’s first stab at a crowd-pleasing, mega-budget summer blockbuster, and he has done a commendable job.

The film, set in the not-too-distant future, opens with an extended flashback: An unseen narrator recalls the unexpected arrival of the first kaiju, an enormous — and quite savage — amphibious creature bent on death and destruction. It rises from the ocean depths and wreaks considerable havoc before being brought down by conventional military hardware.

Apparently passing this off as an isolated incident — perhaps a lone, Bradbury-esque behemoth, driven by curiosity to the surface world — mankind is similarly unprepared months later, when the next one arrives. And then another. And another, at noticeably shorter intervals. Scientists realize that they’re coming from some sort of dimensional portal deep in the Pacific Ocean.

Faced with the obvious need to Do Something, the world’s nations pool their resources and develop the largest, most versatile and aggressively lethal weapon ever devised. This is the Jaeger Program, which constructs 25-story-tall mechanical “robots” that are operated by two pilots whose minds are linked both to each other, and to the machine’s limbs and assault gadgets.

Think Wii technology, taken to the obvious extreme.

For a time, the ploy is successful; thanks also to a computer-sensor “early warning system” that registers portal activity, the kaiju become an irritating but dispatchable menace. Jaeger pilots, like Apollo astronauts, turn into the world’s new heroes.

Years pass ... and, then, the unthinkable. The kaiju adapt; a Jaeger robot falls. The pendulum shifts, and Earth’s first line of defense loses its edge.

(Yes, this is all back-story!)

The story proper opens as the Jaeger Program is scrapped, much to the dismay of its guiding light, Pan Pacific Defense Corp Commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). World leaders shift their strategy to the construction of tall, thick sea walls apparently intended to prevent the kaiju from making landfall. (This seems an idiotic notion on all sorts of levels, not the least of which is the havoc increased numbers of the monsters would wreak on ocean life.)

Predictably, this new defense proves less than successful. Worse yet, scientists have determined that the kaiju are popping up at exponential rates, leading to the ghastly realization that, soon, two of them will appear at the same time.

All hope now rests with the remnants of Pentecost’s Jaeger program, and its four surviving robots: Gypsy Danger, from the USA; China’s Crimson Typhoon; Russia’s Cherno Alpha; and Australia’s Striker Eureka. Although everybody already knows that Jaeger tech has proven unsuccessful, mankind isn’t about to go down without a fight. (Damn straight!)

Del Toro never works with big-name stars, preferring the greater verisimilitude of fresh faces blended with seasoned character actors. Our all-American good guy, Raleigh Becket, is played by Charlie Hunnam, best known these days for his ongoing role on TV’s Sons of Anarchy. Hunnam is properly clean-cut, and Becket is a flawed tragic hero: an emotionally crippled, one-time Jaeger pilot who never recovered from the years-ago battle that marked the beginning of the end.

Still, as Pentecost insists — in the grand tradition of such underdog sagas — “You’re the best we’ve got.” Elba probably is one of very few actors who could make that hoary line sound credible; his Pentecost is the epitome of crisply starched, unswerving loyalty to tactical precision. We’ve not seen a military commander rendered so persuasively since George C. Scott’s George S. Patton.

The Australian Jaeger is manned by the father-and-son team of Herc and Chuck Hansen (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky). Martini, a longtime acting veteran, exudes the sort of hail-fellow-well-met Aussie charm that we’ve come to expect; Herc also grants Becket the respect he deserves. That isn’t the case with Chuck, played by Kazinsky — a relative newcomer — as an arrogant snot whose only saving grace is ownership of an adorably sloppy bulldog.

Pentecost has a ward, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), the now-grown survivor of a horrific kaiju attack that terrified her as a child. Although she has trained just as hard as anybody else, and wants desperately to co-pilot a Jaeger, Pentecost holds her back; acknowledging her Japanese devotion to honor and respect, she complies.

Becket won’t have it. Recognizing that he and Mako share the all-essential mind-meld compatibility necessary for superior Jaeger control, he naturally rebels. (Cue the inter-personal tension.)

On top of which, Mako is seriously cute.

Kikuchi brings unexpected emotional gravity to these proceedings; as also is the case with Hunnam’s Becket, we learn much about her personal tragedy. Mostly, though, Kikuchi makes Mako interesting, and she effortlessly wins our hearts and minds.

A shout-out also goes to Mana Ashida, who plays Mako’s younger self. This little girl brings frightening intensity to a flashback sequence that explains her thirst for revenge.

We never get to know the Russian or Chinese pilots, which is a shame. For openers, they look intriguing ... and, more to the point, del Toro muffs this opportunity to make his film as inclusively international as the storyline.

Comic relief is supplied by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, as Geiszler and Gottlieb, a pair of whack-job scientists with way-outside-the-box views on how best to tackle the kaiju “problem.” They’re the original odd couple: Day’s Geiszler is sloppy and dangerously impulsive, while Gorman’s Gottlieb is fussy, prissy and just as misguidedly wary. They’re obviously conceived, by del Toro and Beacham, as an entertaining alternative to the boring, white-garbed scientist-types who customarily offer dull-as-dishwater “explanations” in such films.

But we know right away that salvation must lie with these nutball researchers, despite their tendency to try Pentecost’s patience.

Finally, Ron Perlman — a familiar face in del Toro’s films — pops up as Hannibal Chau, a Hong Kong-based black marketeer who has made a fortune selling kaiju parts on the black market. Perlman chews up the scenery in style; he’s the only actor, thus far, able to give the late James Coburn’s devious ear-to-ear grin a run for its money.

Production designers Andrew Neskoromny and Carol Spier have a field day with the opulent sets, from the Loccent Command Center, home of the holographic computers that monitor the kaiju battles, to Chau’s opulent “kaiju reclamation center.” Visual effects supervisors John Knoll and James E. Price do equally well with the city-leveling battle scenes; we’ve come a long way from the days when Godzilla would stomp cardboard cities.

Much of the film’s persuasive, pulse-pounding power comes from cinematographer Guillermo Navarro’s ability to convey the essential sense of size and scale. Unfortunately, the 3D effects were applied after the fact; although the results are better than most cases of “fake 3D,” the finished film nonetheless suffers from the overly “dark” look that is typical of retroactive enhancement.

Pacific Rim won’t win any awards for originality, but that’s not an issue; del Toro and Beacham intend their film as a genre homage, much the way George Lucas riffed classic westerns in Star Wars, and Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich updated H.G. Wells in 1996’s Independence Day.

This high-tech monster mash is ripping good fun, as is the case with White House Down. And there’s nothing wrong with that, when it comes to popcorn action flicks.

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