Guillermo del Toro’s Giant Robot and Monster Mash
DIRECTED BY GUILLERMO DEL TORO/2013
JIM TUDOR: Giant robots versus giant monsters. That’s really all anyone needs to know about fanboy favorite director Guillermo del Toro’s (Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy films) effectively bombastic venture into summer mega-budget 3D filmmaking and twelve year old boy pre-occupations. But if more info is needed, here you go: It’s the near future, and a portal in the deep Pacific Rim is releasing giant nightmarish hell-beasts to the surface. The extended prologue (which could’ve been decompressed into a film of its own) informs viewers that this first triggered an “end of days” panic, followed closely by human innovation saving the day, in the form of armed piloted towering robot warriors. The robots (known as “jaegers”) have been mostly effective as a globally unified method of defense. But now, the monsters (known as “kaiju”) have ramped up their assaults, and it’s panic time all over again. This is where Pacific Rim gets started.
So yes, it’s a lot like “Voltron” or (going farther back) Shogun Warriors, but live action, and PG-13 no holds barred. The twelve year old I once was had a blast, but my actual adult self laughed on the way out about having a headache. Between the cracks of all the loud surface fisticuffs there is enough in-universe detail about kaiju classifications and jaeger operating procedure to keep motivated fan-nerds busy for years. But thankfully, del Toro embraces simplicity, allowing the necessary explanations to come and go as needed, keeps the popcorn popping throughout. As eye candy, the film hits the summer sweet spot more successfully than anything so far this year. That said, the next day I’d nearly forgotten it all. (As the headache faded, so too did Pacific Rim.) In this sense, the film merely middling del Toro, who’s nonetheless letting his inner child run wild here, to great, if fleeting, effect.
ERIK YATES: Visually, this is a great film for summer. I happened to have seen it on the IMAX in 3D, and it really added to the experience as you felt you were in the middle of the battle. But as visually satisfying as it is, I found its simplicity the reason that I too had practically forgotten it the next morning. Ron Pearlman’s small role was applauded in the theater when he appeared, but this was the least engaging del Toro film for me despite it being a summer blockbuster and personal passion project for the director. Most of the fights are indistinguishable from one another, as nearly all take place at night, and in the rain, or underwater. The backstory on the characters also did nothing to connect me with what was at stake for each of them. So I resigned myself to simply just enjoying it as if I was 12 years old, as you said, and thus left the theater visually satisfied, but otherwise unengaged from anything else about it.
JIM: This brings us to an admitted subjective problem, but one that I know at least several others will identify with. For me, by virtue of the possibility that del Toro no doubt has it in him to infuse this Transformers-soiled giant robot smash-‘em-up sub-genre with heart and/or soul, Pacific Rim was my most anticipated film of the summer. And while it worked well enough as high stakes sci-fi/fantasy eye candy while I was watching it (the visual effects artists much be commended for effectively communicating the vast scale of these skyscraping beasts and ‘bots; scale being one of the trickier basic tenants of animation to pull off convincingly), the ridiculous ratio of months-of-anticipation to immediate-shrug-off is appallingly steep.
I was hoping for perhaps deeper meaning and/or characters I might actually care about. The former hope can be safely abandoned – it all amounts to an Independence Day-esque global rallying cry for collective humanity rising above whatever’s ailing us. The latter hope fares slightly better, although the blond haired blue eyed leading man (Charlie Hunnam, “Sons of Anarchy”) is never engaging, and his newly assigned jaegar co-pilot (Rinko Kikuchi, The Brothers Bloom), saddled with an intense childhood flashback and a prickly relationship to commanding officer Idris Elba, is only slightly more-so. It’s the supporting cast of utter glorious weirdos that shine brightest: Charlie Day as a fast-talking kaiju obsessed scientist, Burn Gorman as a tweed-clad science wonk, and Clifton Collins Jr. as an omnipresent ops guy with the hair of Elvis and the wardrobe of Larry King. These characters live and operate in the fun, audience-pleasing zone of B.P.R.D. (Hellboy’s Beurau of Paranormal Research and Development) del Toro weirdness. But they are almost at odds with the Rah! Rah! Rah! global patriotism of the main storyline.
ERIK: I totally agree with that. I also saw a potential for him to infuse this film with social commentary on the level of District 9. While the elements where present, I couldn’t tell if he was making a statement, or just reflecting human tendency. Living in Texas, I am used to discussions of protection and fences, etc. In the film, it looked like del Toro might be making a subtle jab at American immigration policy. As a Spanish speaking director, I found that a fascinating possibility, as he would no doubt be expressing the concerns of so many surrounding this debate, given the elements present in the film. For example, the aliens come through a breach that allows them to enter our world. We develop new technology to deal with these (illegal?) aliens who are entering our world. Eventually, the other side adapts and exploits our technology. We retreat into building a fence of protection, basically adopting a policy of isolationism. Lots of collateral damage ensues from such political decisions both in real life and in this film. There are more examples, but I would have found it more interesting story-wise had he delved more deeply in such a narrative as it may have provided a greater subtext for the destruction happening on screen. And as a selling point for my idea of this being political commentary, in the film, while they are building the protection fence, a sign can be seen on screen reading something to the effect of “this fence will be effective—-Never”. “Never” is written over a crossed out date of implementation. This is current, political commentary at its best had del Toro crafted it more. It may also be something that didn’t even cross his mind but is there because of our natural tendencies to seek protection over conflict. Either way, I was hoping that he’d deal more with human nature in this film than it just being a battle royale.
JIM: Well, this is summer – I guess we shouldn’t be too disappointed. Those ideas of yours are interesting, but I agree that a notion peppered here and there do not equal a fully formed idea. But, people seeking an immediately forgettable battle royale will surely be disappointed. And unlike the afore-mentioned Transformers movies, Pacific Rim doesn’t wallow in any creepy, leering sexism or inappropriate dingbat humor. Although Pacific Rim didn’t completely blow me away for the long haul, it might just be my seven-year-old son’s cup of carbonated caffeine. By contrast, I would never consider taking him to a Michael Bay Transformers movie, even though he out and out loves the toys. The movie isn’t completely kid friendly – there are some pretty intense moments – but if my boys survived and adored Jurassic Park and Speed Racer, then perhaps this too will in his future. No parental verdict yet, but the fact that I’m considering it says something to del Toro’s childlike innocence and mischievousness coming through – something lost on Michael Bay and his fleet of creative wannabes.
Many will mistake Pacific Rim for a Transformers knock-off that lacks both recognizable pre-established characters and movie stars. Perhaps the insane success of the Transformers series helped this film get the green light, but I would argue that the true seeds of its inception go back to (you guessed it) Inception. In an age of studios insisting upon presold recognizably (movies based on comic books, toys, TV shows, theme park rides, or previous movies) for any given event film before they pull out the checkbook, Christopher Nolan’s heady adventure stood alone as a massive spectacle that was also a fully original screenplay idea, and auteur-drive effort. So too is Pacific Rim, but without the studio calming presence of a Leonardo DiCaprio or even Joseph Gordon Levitt anywhere to be found. In this sense, we need more films like this: Major, uncompromising visions that aren’t afraid to present audiences with untested concepts and characters. (In light of this project having replaced del Toro’s dream project, an adaption of H.P Lovecraft’s “In the Mountains of Madness”, some will no doubt point to the author for inspiration for the Cthulhu-esque big-bad kiaju. For sour old me, having never gotten into that stuff, I’m to the point of simply not wanting to hear about it. Listening to a Lovecraft devotee is like listening to a Radiohead nut wax on about everything post “OK Computer” thru “Hail to the Thief” – their eyes get a far off gleam, a knowing grim arrives, and they’re off and running. Will Pacific Rim inspire such devotion? I think we can stomp that thought right now.)
It’s just too bad that despite all of it’s auteur-driven originality, Pacific Rim, while certainly fun, leaves us with that certain Transformers sugar crash and hollowness.