Sunday, July 14, 2013

Pacific Rim

Finally, some large-scale pleasure at the movies. Guillermo del Toro’s exuberant Pacific Rim mashes up monster movies, war pictures, and science fiction into a funky and thoroughly entertaining spectacle. I was one of those disappointed that del Toro didn’t wind up directing The Hobbit, but if the alternative was a capital-M Movie that feels so fresh yet warmly familiar then I don’t mind at all. Pacific Rim suggests a new way forward for the effects-driven blockbuster, a way that depends on the imaginations of filmmakers like del Toro who aren’t afraid of either humor or pastiche.

The worlds of del Toro’s films always feel detailed and fully formed, and Pacific Rim is no exception. We’re in a grimy, weathered near future when the Earth has been ravaged by creatures called Kaiju that spring from a dimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The construction of giant fighting robots called “Jaegers” with dual pilots neurally linked keeps the monsters at bay for a time, but the funding for the Jaegers is pulled just as the Kaiju begin to adapt and grow stronger. The few remaining Jaegers under the command of the extraordinarily named Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) retreat to Hong Kong as a last stand for humanity. (We’re told an elaborate network of coastal defense walls has failed, so much for border security.) Among the ragtag band gathering for Pentecost’s last mission are Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam, swaggering just the right amount), a gifted pilot coming back into service after a tragedy, and a mysterious young woman named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). You may remember Kikuchi’s Oscar-nominated turn as a deaf teenager in Babel, and here she gets a more conventional character to play but one with a clear emotional arc. The men and women of Pacific Rim move big, heavy things around, but one of the movie’s best moments is a close quarters fight between Raleigh and Mako during a search for Raleigh’s new copilot. In a movie of enormous scale, the scene is a human-sized reminder of the physical effort needed to save the world.

Del Toro (who wrote the script with Travis Beacham) fills out Pacific Rim with a wacky but useful scientist (fun Charlie Day), underused Ron Perlman as a broker in Kaiju parts, and a corps of other familiar types played with high energy. Is isn’t surprising that digital effects take over to a large degree as the Jaegers and Kaiju face off at the climax, and if the movie was going to fall off the table it would be here. Remember how long the finale of Man of Steel felt? It was only last month. In Pacific Rim the action feels both bigger and more specific. We’re always aware of how big the combatants are (shipping containers and even ships themselves are used as weapons), but del Toro never lets us forget that the Jaegers are a manifestation of humans. There is a marvelous image near the end of a wounded Jaeger hobbling along, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so pleased to hear the word “analog” used in a movie. Arguing that Pacific Rim has a message or a seriousness of purpose feels like a stretch; it’s a very well-made piece of pop entertainment. But it succeeds because del Toro keeps his big toys in perspective and doesn’t forget that above all this is all supposed to be fun. Pacific Rim is the best time at the movies this summer and a reminder that big things begin with one idea.

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