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Pacific Rim

July 13, 2013
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pr1Despite the name of this blog thing, I’m not a mecha guy. I’ve probably made that clear in the past. Giant robots, angsty pilots, and cities collapsing are cool and all, but they don’t strike at my heart the way they do for a lot of y’all. And while I love me some giant monsters, that love is more of an aesthetic thing. I love the rubber suits, the funky sound effects, and low-budget models. I don’t have a real affection for the beasts so much as a love of the visual style of those 60s and 70s monster movies. My action fetish is more along the lines of a lone dude taking down a building of pseudo-terrorists with nothing but a gun low on bullets and a sarcastic attitude.

So going into Pacific Rim, my excitement had less to do with wanting to see the likes of Mazinger Z and Gamera duking it out in ridiculous Hollywood budget style, and more to do with curiosity over what Guillermo del Toro was going to do with such a premise. The dude makes a damn good movie, even when things get a little too dramatic for my tastes (Pan’s Labyrinth, for instance.).

Yeah, he didn’t really disappoint. Pacific Rim’s a damn good movie.

Let’s get the negatives out-of-the-way. The main dude’s as bland and uninteresting as your typical mecha anime lead. He has a token tragic past, is a little reluctant to get back in the robo-cockpit, and pretty much fits into any other mecha pilot stereotype you can think of. Formalistically, yeah, that works. This is a mecha movie. The main mecha pilot kinda has to be that sort of blank slate, as dictated by genre rules. But that’s always been one of the major weak points of these sorts of stories: you create a blank slate through which the audience can project itself and all you really get is a blank slate. So yeah, I get why he’s that way, but it still sucks.

My biggest gripe with this movie is more endemic to modern Hollywood movies than it is to mecha/monster genre trends. With the exception of two fairly brief sequences, all of the big action scenes take place either at night or underwater. This sort of thing always makes the action scenes appear muddied and unclear, even when the camera’s pulled back and there isn’t much in the way of shaky cam shit. The action is relatively clean by those terms. We still have a few closely-filmed shots that don’t work, but for the most part things are shot far enough away so as to see things. But all of the darkness doesn’t lend itself to clarity, and things can get a bit confusing. It’s especially annoying when the monsters and mecha and fighting up close. Sometime’s it’s hard to distinguish what anatomical bit is a robot and which is a monster. This shit isn’t nearly as horrible as it is in the Transformers movie, where nothing makes a lick of sense visually, but there are a few times in Pacific Rim where things get muddied. Still, it’s better than most modern action films, so I gotta give it that.

The thing with Pacific Rim is that it’s largely a genre exercise. It isn’t bringing anything new to the mecha genre. It takes all the things inherent to the genre and simply lathers on layers and layers of glitz and style. As far as anime goes, the best thing to compare it to is that Giant Robo OVA from the 90s. Pacific Rim and Giant Robo are all about dealing out the traditional super robot story in a grandstanding manner. Everything’s bigger and louder and shinier.

It’s excellence has less to do with the actual execution of the thing and more to do with that whole “database” thing anime fans like to harp on. We’re getting the reluctant pilot. We’re getting the hard-boiled veteran. We’re getting bickering amongst fellow mecha pilots. We’re getting heroic sacrifice and tragedy and angst. Those big macro concepts are presented in a way we’ve never really seen them before– with the same sort of visual spectacle only reserved for other geeky properties. The capes and tights types have gotten it before. The hard sci-fi dudes have gotten it before. The fantasy and science fantasy peeps have gotten it before. So yeah, in a lot of ways the awesome factor of Pacific Rim has more to do with “Hey, WE’RE getting equal treatment” than it does with “Hey, the craftsmanship of this movie is awesome.” Someone familiar enough with the shit we otaku-types love took the time and the money to make something we’d appreciate. It’s ticking off universal boxes, and we’re salivating over it.

Considering “our” crowd never really gets that sort of Hollyw0od-level fan service, I think it’s fine to be a drooling fanboy just this once.

pr2But if this were just an exercise in mecha storytelling, I doubt I’d be digging it as much as I did. The things that clicked with me were mostly little cursory details. My favorite bit was the church in Hong Kong built into the skull of one of the dead kaiju. It’s a largely insignificant thing that’s quickly tossed aside once it’s mentioned, but it’s one of those little details that adds a lot more to the overall story than you’d initially thing. Turns out that a lot of people believe these monsters to be divine punishment from the gods. They’re here to purge us of sin, like some sort of rubber suit deluge or some shit. These peeps have chosen to worship the kaiju in some bid for forgiveness– if you adore the punisher, you may not be punished. That says a lot about the way the world is reacting to these monsters. The world isn’t nearly as united as the in-movie propaganda would have you believe. Yeah, the nations of the world have set aside their differences to build giant robots to kill these invaders, but not everyone is backing said resistance. When you have an outside force invading your home, not everyone is willing to take up arms. Some will look to allying with the invaders, believing that if they aid their invasion they’ll be spared the blade or whatever. Turning the invasion into a religion is the natural conclusion of that sort of mindset, and it’s a pretty damn cool detail. Shame it didn’t get more development.

Then there’s Ron Pearlman. He’s easily the best thing about this movie. His character is another natural reaction to the kaiju invasion. A strange new resource has been introduced to the world: dead monster parts. Pearlman’s character runs the black market for this shit. It’s unclear if there’s any real benefit for snorting kaiju bone– one dude claims it’s a male enhancement, but what the fuck do we know if he’s telling the truth– but the truth behind the matter is irrelevant. It’s the concept of taking rare animal and plant parts and claiming they’re miracle cures and the like. Yeah, sure, some rare organic materials do possess medicinal properties, but for the most part this sort of thing is a total sham used to dupe pees out of their money. It’s only natural for that existing market to expand into exploiting the kaiju.

I love these kinds of details that expand upon a story’s high concept. It isn’t just a matter of “insert weird thing into reality,” it’s “insert weird thing into reality and reality adapts.” Look at another giant robot movie from recent years: Transformers. A bunch of sentient robots start duking it out on Earth, and nothing discernible changes about the world. Three movies worth of stuff happens and the only thing that has changed is the fact that robots blow shit up. With Pacific Rim, these details show that the world is changing due to the presence of giant monsters. That’s clever writing right there, even if it’s just minor details barely glossed over in the big picture.

Another thing that makes this stand out in the modern crop of summer movies is the fact that it’s a fully-realized story. This isn’t an origin story. It isn’t the first in a pre-planned trilogy. This isn’t an adaptation fashioned to introduce the audience to a pre-existing franchise. The movie introduces its concept, allows it to develop, and allows it to end within the confines of a single 2+ hour movie. That in and of itself runs contrary to most big budget movies as of late. The Marvel movies were a series of introductory movies leading up to a huge introductory movie in the form of The Avengers. Most other big name summer movies are more concerned about showing how so and so character becomes the title character. This trend in using storytelling to establish rather than simply tell a story is really fucking annoying. Not everything needs to be a lead-in to some promised payoff. Maybe we can simply get said payoff from the get-go and worry about franchising and branding after the fact. You can blow up the fucking Death Star and save the princess and still make two more movies after the fact. Life goes on. More Death Stars appear that need exploding. More lives need saving down the line. Maybe you can, I don’t know, think up new ways to pull that shit off rather than using 10 movies to build up to that moment?

So this review kinda poses a problem with Pacific Rim. I’m enjoying it more for what it represents and less for what it is. From a strictly execution/storytelling standpoint, it isn’t particularly exceptional. It’s worth comes from what it represents. And yeah, media is often just as much about those aspects as it is about the craft.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. tf5f89 permalink
    July 13, 2013 4:06 PM

    Although the battles always being in the dark was a little annoying, there was one part where I thought it worked really well. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone so I can’t be very specific; it was underwater, and the fact that I couldn’t tell what was going on had me thinking “wait, what just happened?” so when I realized what was actually going on I was a lot more surprised.

  2. July 13, 2013 4:07 PM

    At least I had a good time, rather than being bored out of my mind completely. Nice review Landon.

  3. LoneWolf permalink
    July 15, 2013 2:06 PM

    Pretty accurate review. One exception in my opinion; I thought the fights were quite clear and easy to follow. I saw in 3d and have to say this movie ANNIHILATED my expectations. Best summer movie since Inception (not really comparable except in thrill factor).

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