Movie Review: “Pacific Rim”

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When I was a wee lad, like most other children, I would bring my toys into the bathtub with me. You know, to turn a daily occurrence into something fun – which is what being a kid is all about.

Being a youth who grew up during that magical time in the 1980s, the usual suspects that joined me amongst the bubbles were of three varieties. First, I needed a monster, which was my brown-colored, plastic, “Return of the Jedi,” Rancor monster (he was the big guy that tried to eat Luke in Jabba the Hutt’s dungeon) with the lever on the back that made the jaw go up-and-down. Next up was my robot army, which consisted of my three Transformer figures (I wasn’t a HUGE fan), which were locked in a perpetual state of robot hood, due to my lack of “transforming” skills (which is why I wasn’t a huge fan). And last, but not least to me, was the army of the people, who were represented by my extensive action figure collection, which were mostly G.I. Joes and Star Wars dudes.

Well, to make a long battle short, the robots and the humans would join up to fight their common enemy – the monster. Many casualties and prunelike fingers later, the last remaining robots and humans would walk away victorious and I would hit the pillow having staged an epic battle that shaped the Earth’s future.

Why am I telling you this weird and personal story from my formative years? I’ll tell you why, because I’m pretty sure that somebody, somehow, found out about these epic encounters (either with hidden cameras or some top-notch wire work) and managed to turn them into a feature film decades later.

That film is finally hitting the theaters now – it’s called “Pacific Rim” and I’m willing to bet it’s the “dream project” for any male that grew up in the 80s and played with the toys I played with and watched the sci-fi/fantasy movies that I watched.

It pays homage to two kinds of films. First off, the old school, Ray Harryhausen, (who has a shout-out at the tail-end of the credits) stop-motion creature features like the “Sinbad” movies from the 1960’s and 70’s, as well as “Clash of the Titans” in the 80’s. It also has some elements of “Cloverfield,” “Independence Day” (especially the rah-rah speech towards the end) and “The Host” (the Korean creature feature, not the “Twilight”-y film) in it as well. But more importantly, it conjures up the cult-classic, Japanese monster movies that starred such rubber-suited baddies as Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Megalon and (don’t forget) Mechagodzilla. And it combines all of these together in a superior way, I might add.

Also, the director of “Pacific Rim” is no stranger to creature-heavy films himself. Mexican auteur Guillermo Del Toro has given the cinematic world such monster-filled fare as “Mimic,” “Blade II,” “Pan’s Labyrinth” and the “Hellboy” films. In other word, he is no stranger to bringing massive, slime-dripping fiends to the big screen.

So, when I heard he was making a film in which giant robots called Jaegers would fight huge beasties referred to as the Kaiju, needless to say my inner-child and I were super excited to see it. It sounded supremely ambitious, but if anybody could pull it off it would be Del Toro.

pac rim kaiju human

“Nah man, I can take this guy. He’s just a little guy.”

Now, I saw the film in an IMAX theater with 3D glasses on and seeing the film in these conditions is the equivalent of either going to Wrigley Field or to Fenway Park to take in nine innings. In other words, to see the film in a 3D IMAX environment is the perfect way experience it. There is one, teensy-weensy problem with it, though. There is A LOT of raucous, fast-paced battles happening on the screen and sometimes it is quite a bit to take in on such a giant screen. It’s the same problem that plagues all films of this scale, but in the grand scheme, it’s a minor disruption.

I’m pretty sure that for anybody who decides to see “Pacific Rim” the plot is incidental, but (for the first act, at least) the plot is kind of interesting. The film is based on an out-there idea by screenwriter Travis Beacham, who supposedly came up with it while walking on a California beach and envisioning “God-like” robots and monsters fighting each other. The screenplay was then fleshed out by co-writers Beacham and Del Toro.

In the world of “Pacific Rim,” 2013 turns out to be not such a great year for mankind. This is the year that a tear – both in the physical and dimensional sense – occurs in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and a gigantic monster spills forth from this sea-floor crevice and attacks the city of San Francisco without warning. Of course, the monster kicks quite a bit of ass before it is finally taken down – six days and 35 miles inland later – by the primitive combination of battleship, fighter plane and tanks. The monster is killed, some creative person dubs it a “Kaiju” (which means “monster” in Japanese) and the Earth rejoices that the monster attack is over. All is well, right?

Wrong. Another Kaiju comes out of the crevice, which is now referred to as The Breach, and then another and another, until it’s obvious that these things aren’t going to stop attacking. Eventually, when planes, boats and tanks just aren’t getting the job done, all of the military powers of the world join forces and start up The Jaeger Program. The Jaegers (which is the German word for “hunter”) are robots that are equally as huge as the Kaiju. Although, as the Kaiju go from Category 1 in size all the way up to Category… well, I won’t ruin it, the Jaegers get bigger as well.

One of the main themes of the film is the way that the inside of the Jaegers are

Pacific Rim - neural handshake in progress.

“Who put the hairgel in my helmet again?!”

occupied. The Jaegers started out being controlled by one pilot, who would lock into it using a form of telepathy. However, the early pilots could not stand the size of the Jaegers, thus TWO pilots were then used to occupy a single Jaeger. These two pilots would form a type of psychic bond with each other called a “Neural Handshake.” The two synched-in pilots would then proceed to “Drift” with one another and one pilot would control the left hemisphere of the Jaeger, while the other would control the right hemisphere.

Although, the above concept seems unnecessarily complex for a movie about robots and monsters beating the motor oil and goo out of each other, but it’s actual a brilliant concept. Even though it’s a little complicated, it allows for one – the two pilots to form an instant bond with one another, which works out well as a plot device, due to how important that both of them are to the success and survival rate of the mission. I layman’s terms – it creates instant drama, as if fighting a monster wasn’t dramatic enough.

This automatic drama is extremely evident during the first big Jaeger/Kaiju fight of the film, in which we’re introduced to the Becket Brothers who pilot the robot called “Gipsy Danger” (all of the Jaegers have bad-ass names like “Crimson Typhoon,” “Cherno Alpha,” and “Striker Eureka”). Since one Becket brother, Raleigh (played by Charlie Hunnam), is the film’s main character and the other one, Yancy (played by Diego Klattenhoff), is not, I’ll let you guys figure out what happens during this important-to-the-story, opening battle scene.

The second bit of usefulness that “drifting” creates is it allows the screenwriters to create a back-story for the characters through flashbacks that occur during the drifting process. Actually, when you break it down, it’s an extremely clever way to cheat, as flashbacks normally are, but at least this time they’re done in a way that I’ve never seen before. When Raleigh finally decides to give the Jaeger suit another go and gets a new co-pilot/partner – this time it’s the spunky, yet mysterious, Mako Mori (played by the super-cute Rinko Kikuchi) – it allows the filmmakers to show the audience Mako’s past and why she turned out to be one of the world’s most qualified Jaeger pilots. Again, kind of a cheap trick, but I’m not complaining.

The cast of characters is rounded out by Idris Elba (who does a fantastic job with the tough-as-nails role of the General-like Stacker Pentecost), Charlie Day (who, I never thought I’d say this, was annoying as the self-proclaimed “Kaiju groupie” and jittery scientist Newton Geizler), Rob Kazinsky (who’ s having a great week after being unmasked as Warlow on “True Blood” and plays Australian hot-shot Jaeger pilot,  Chuck Hansen) and Del Toro mainstay Ron Perlman (who chows down on the scenery as black market Kaiju-parts dealer Hannibal Chau – who’s named after his “favorite historical person and his favorite Chinese food place in Brooklyn”).

However, let’s not split tentacles here, the real stars of the film are the Kaiju and the actual Jaegers themselves. There are really only four aforementioned Jaegers that are featured in the movie, but there are nine different Kaiju – and every, single one of them are better than the last. I won’t go into details about what makes them different or special, as that would spoil some of the good time, but I’ll give you a sample of some of their names (yes, just like “Transformers,” the Kaiju have names) – Knifehead, Leatherback, Otachi, Slattern and Onibaba, to name a few.

QUICK SIDE NOTE: That being said, the creatures are given their names almost instantaneously after emerging from The Breach. So my question is: Does somebody have the unenviable task of waiting in a boat or a helicopter above The Breach for the creatures to surface, so they can give them cutesy names? I’ll bet you it’s Disney, just so they can have the rights to the names and likenesses of Kaiju – ya’ know – for toy-making purposes and possible theme park rides in the future, Just a thought.

Anyway, these creatures are spectacular – in scale, design, etc. And they are constructed beautifully with every detailed pore or claw or shark-like tooth. They even have these bedbug-like parasites that crawl all over them (just like those bugs crawling over that giant… uhh… thing towards the end of “The Mist”). One of my favorite moments of the film is when Hannibal Chau orders his team to strip a downed Kaiju of all its parts: i.e. the brain, the bones (Kaiju bone powder is apparently an aphrodisiac), and even the aforementioned parasites – who are nasty-looking, but infinitely cool at the same time.

Thank God for the humorous moments – like the Kaiju surplus scene above – as they keep the film grounded, even amongst all of the fantastical elements of drifting and neural handshakes and destruction at an epic level. It’s these moments that make the film, while all of the relationship-heavy moments kind of weigh it down. This especially goes for the plot lines that surround the Mako Mori character, as they tried to make her interesting (a hybrid of shy, mysterious and deadly), but it just didn’t work. Her whole orphan-turned-pilot-turned-love interest just added cheese to dish that simply didn’t need it – if you catch my drift. Again, films like this should be simple and kept that way, not bogged down with sentiment and lovey-dovey looks.

Plus, the end could have been better, as well as the uninspired score by Ramin Djawadi, which sounded like it was dubbed – note-for-note – from his own score from the “Clash of the Titans” remake. It was a little too busy, which was the opposite of how the sound was handled in the brilliant first trailer for the film. They should have stuck with that route.

Nevertheless, I’m just being hyper-critical about a film that succeeds on so many different levels. Although, most of them are on the technical and the visual design level and not exactly on the plot, character arcs, or dialogue, but this movie doesn’t need that level of success. All it needs are the robots, the monsters and the havoc they create – and all of these tiers are stacked up to create a formidable foe, that I’d put up against any monster movie made before or after it.

At least that’s what the inner-version of me that’s still in the bathtub – filled with Star Wars figures, G.I. Joes and Transformers – is telling me to say.

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