Sunday, July 14, 2013

"Pacific Rim" (2013)

Starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi
Written by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro
Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Rated PG-13 - Violence, frightening images, language, peril
Running Time: 132 Minutes

Humanity always thought an alien invasion would come from outer space. They never expected that huge, powerful monsters might rise up from a dimensional rift deep beneath the Pacific Ocean. But that's exactly what happened. In response to the threat from these massive beasts, called Kaiju, humanity has banded together to create the Jaegers - incredibly powerful robots, controlled by human pilots connected psychically to the machine and to each other. Two people are required to pilot the machines, as the psychic toll of doing so is too much for any one man to take.

One such pilot is Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) who controls the Jaeger called Gypsy Danger with his brother, Yancy (Diego Klattenhof), as the two are "drift compatible." Jaeger pilots, it seems, are a select breed - only two people who are deemed psychically compatible may join together to control the Jaeger, each pilot serving as one hemisphere of the giant robot's brain. But during an encounter off the coast of Alaska, a Kaiju causes serious damage to Gypsy Danger, killing Yancy and forcing Raleigh to pilot the Jaeger back to shore - alone.

Five years later, bigger, badder Kaijus are slaughtering the Jaeger teams, and the world's governments have decided to mothball the program in favor of building a massive, impenetrable wall around the entire Pacific Ocean. The leader of the Jaeger program, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) has moved the final four Jaegers to a base in Hong Kong, from where he intends to launch a desperate final attack on the rift under the Pacific. But to do so, he needs Raleigh to come back and pilot Gypsy Danger one last time. But Raleigh, in returning, finds only rivalry and resentment among his fellow Jaeger pilots, who view him as a quitter. And the one person he believes could be his copilot, a young woman named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) has been forbidden from doing so by Pentecost.

Outmanned and outgunned, the Jaegers and their pilots are the last remaining force standing between the increasingly devastating forces of the Kaiju and the extinction of humanity.

"Pacific Rim" is not just a giant-robots-vs-giant-monsters movie. It is the giant-robots-vs-giant-monsters movie. Oh, and I guess there are some humans in it, too.

That's the problem with "Pacific Rim" - the setting and imagery and action sequences are wonderful. On a technical level, it's a marvelous film. The level of detail in the special effects is astonishing, from the scraped-paint, lived-in look of the Jaeger pilots' suits to the well-worn hulls of the Jaegers themselves, to the unique designs of each monster, to the bizarre Hong Kong lair of a shifty character named Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) built around the rib cage of a dead Kaiju... "Pacific Rim" is an absolute joy to watch.

It's a shame, then, that the script is so predictable and riddled with cliche characters and dialogue. In fact, the story seems to borrow so much from "Independence Day" that I wondered if the writers of that film didn't deserve their names in the credits. Even the nature of the Kaiju... There are few surprises in the plot at all; you know exactly how it's all going to go down if you're paying attention at all.

The characters are all stock creations. There's nothing particularly original or unique about any of them, really. There are jock pilot rivalries right out of "Top Gun," the seemingly meek Asian woman who's actually an accomplished martial artist, the badass commander, and a couple of bickering, wacky scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman. Sure, everyone seems like they're having a good time, but you've seen it all before. The script also has a tendency for its characters to talk in speeches, which can bog things down some.

Still, there's an innocence to the proceedings that's charming and effective. All these characters eventually learn to put aside their differences and fight together for the common good. In fact, you can see how the film is sort of structured in various groupings or pairs of characters who have something they need to get over and get together on. Even slimy Hannibal Chau grows a bit of respect for Charlie Day's wacky scientist, Dr. Newton "Newt" Geizler, who proves his worth by surviving a Kaiju attack in a public shelter. Geizler also overcomes disagreements with his partner, played hilariously over the top by Gorman.

There's a sense to the film of the kind of imaginative playing with toys that kids do. Robots vs monsters is a sort of mythic, iconic childhood concept and "Pacific Rim" plays on that idea entirely. If you can't let go of your adulthood, remember all those times you sat at home and pitted the Ghostbusters vs the Decepticons with help from the Ninja Turtles and a handful of broken GI Joes, you may not understand the appeal of "Pacific Rim." The movie only feels like it should be rated PG-13 because of the intensity of the action sequences, as full of whiz-bang comic book imagery and bright colors as they are.

The movie is pretty dang gorgeous to watch. del Toro knows how to use his camera, and many comparisons will aptly be made to Michael Bay's "Transformers" franchise. While Bay shoots his giant robots constantly breaking out of shaky frames in a more verite style (some would call "crappy"), del Toro keeps things steadier and goes for longer shots to let you drink in all the action and detail in his shots. The way the Jaegers move is totally fascinating, as they're both "motion-captured" in the sense that their movements are mimicry of their pilots', but there's also a stiff robot-ness about them that's difficult to describe but really cool to see. The Jaegers pound and slam the Kaiju through various locations around the globe, shattering buildings and loading "Pacific Rim" with more sheer property destruction than any other movie this year, save maybe "Man of Steel."

Beyond just the special effects, the whole movie is awash in bold primary colors, further lending to the atmosphere of child-like wonderment. So despite its thin character development, "Pacific Rim" remains a lot of fun. There's a mild sense that with some beefed up character arcs, the film could be something truly special, rather than just a $150 million nerds' day dream. But the fact remains that if you ever did play with robots and have that little inkling within you to see that idea brought to life on the big screen, you should see "Pacific Rim."

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