Thursday, July 11, 2013

Too close for missiles, switching to giant robots



PACIFIC RIM

"These kaiju, if you insist on calling them that, suck."

2013
 Directed by Guillermo del Toro
Written by Guillermo del Toro and Travis Beacham
With Charlie Hunnam (Shinji Ikari), Rinko Kikuchi (Rei Ayanami), Idris Elba (Gendo Ikari), Robert Kazinsky (Asuka Soryu), Ron Perlman (Lilith), Max Marti
With Charlie Hunnam (Raleigh Becket), Rinko Kikuchi (Mako Mori), Rinko Kamuchi's shockingly beautiful bob haircut with bangs (itself), Idris Elba (Stacker Pentecost), Robert Kazinsky (Chuck Hansen), Max Martini (Herc Hansen), Charlie Day (Newton Geiszler), Burn Gorman (Gottleib), Ron Perlman (Hannibal Chau)

Spoiler alert: moderate



Pacific Rim, a primer: an interdimensional rift has opened beneath the Pacific Ocean. From it emerge monsters!

 Kaiju.

In response to the monsters, we fly F-22s directly into their faces. When this tactic somehow fails, immense humanoid machines called Jaegers are built to punch the monsters instead. This is apparently very expensive, so the Jaeger program is wound down in favor of a plan devised by Roger Waters, and walls are built around the entire coastline of the Pacific Ocean. Fortunately, Norway is on the Atlantic. Unfortunately, the walls are hilariously ineffective, and I’m sad I used up the one “Darmok” reference the law allows me to make per year on The Purge. With the walls crumbling, cities dying, and Earth's forces unable to compete with increasingly frequent monster raids, the Jaeger force prepares an all-out offensive to close the rift, based upon multiple viewings of Ghostbusters and at least one sit-through of The Avengers.

So.  You can see that it took a lot of effort to fuck this up.

In Pacific Rim, they say the word "kaiju" approximately one hundred times. The very first frame of the film is literally "kaiju," followed by its dictionary definition. The omnipresent holographic digital displays sure have a lot of shapes and colors with the tag KAIJU next to them. But this is not a kaiju movie, and only in this technical sense does the film actually feature kaiju at all.

 Kaiju.

What does it feature?

Well, it features a script that rips off Top Gun in detail, but fails to understand any of its complexities or nuance. (That sounds like a joke, but it’s not. Imagine if Iceman were nothing but a mindless prick rather than fundamentally correct, if Goose were a man we never knew, and if Maverick was the same feckless tool in the last frame as he was in the first.)

 Kaiju?

And, as you likely gathered, there’s not a little Evangelion in here too, up to and including an obtuse and garbled Christ reference. Here’s a fun Bible fact: Jesus didn’t eject.

It features a lot of comedy bits, which land here and there, thanks in large part to Charlie Day’s actual scientist who is also the actual hero of the movie, and Burn Gorman’s apparent numerologist, who seems to have been plucked from the nineteenth century and manages to describe an easily discernible mathematical pattern he's found in the kaiju’s rate of emergence, as if only he alone could have done it, and needed two whole blackboards full of calculus for its proof.

"Congratulations, man! Here’s your Nobel Prize in Counting!"

It features a seriously interesting science fictional concept in the form of the Jaegers’ command system.  Shamefully, this conceit is both overexplained and underutilized. To pilot a Jaeger, you must understand, first you dress up as Agent Maine from Red vs. Blue, and then (this part seems more important) you jack your central nervous system into its computer.  The Jaegers are thought-controlled, well, sort of, anyway—the pilots do still move around in their cockpits, similarly to playing DDR upon giant hydraulic stilts.

To incredibly distracting effect. We needed to see this once. Guillermo del Toro seems to believe that we needed to see it ten to thirty times per minute during key scenes. To his credit, this jarring and unnecessary technique does seem to eventually fade.

But the Zero System the Jaeger’s interface, like literally every thought-controlled apparatus in the history of shit on screen, causes nervous disorders and nosebleeds, subdural hematomae being notoriously unfilmic. (They're already in motion: why isn't this just motion control? Kinects don't usually make your head explode.)

In a bit of a twist, though, these effects can be avoided if the neural load is shared, via an artificial telepathic connection called the Drift. The two people sharing the Drift and operating the Jaeger thusly are not actually called pilot and RIO, but the general narrative function is the same, with the minor wrinkle that you have to be compatible with the person you Drift with, so it comes down to basically blood relatives and lovers, active or potential.

The interesting part of this is that the Drift also shares all your memories with your co-pilot, demanding total psychic vulnerability before another human being.  This is an idea so weird and unnerving and potentially complex that it could be its own movie.


Shane Carruth vs. Megalon

When our main two-person team gets into the Drift, we see them experience each others’ worst memories, but I was actually kind of interested in what happens when you are forced to suddenly simply know that a person you kind of just met, say, likes being peed on. And one of the other teams is a father-son combo: does the son know how his mom felt like on the inside now?

Hot Inappropriate questions about the premise aside, the Drift only really matters once, and it involves none of the Jaeger pilots, and only one human.

Finally, Pacific Rim features an actor in the lead role whom I have decided, in true swinging Stephanie Meyer style, to nickname Sameremy Rennerton, after his acting coaches. He looks a bit like Heath Ledger would have, had he lived, and has marginally more talent than Ledger currently displays, considering that he didn't. And in a movie that also features Idris Elba, Ron Perlman, and, hell, Charlie Day, the decision was made that this guy, with this voice, be made not only the narrative center, but the narrator, as well. At least his voiceover is confined to the opening exposition. Unfortunately, he does in fact keep talking. Throughout the movie, in fact. Just at all sorts of inopportune times.

ACTING.

Perhaps I'm being too hard on Charlie Hunnam (he does have a real name). But he's no Garrett Hedlund.

All right: he does deserve a bit of a break, if a backhanded one. He's handicapped by the fact that he carries the main beam of this story, which is not very good, and by being surrounded by more interesting supporting characters, portrayed by, one surmises, more talented supporting players. As a result, he gets his face acted off by his co-stars in scene after scene. I did find myself caring about Raleigh Becket a little bit, despite all my instincts not to, but entirely through the efforts of his comrades. Maybe this movie learned Top Gun’s lessons better than I initially reported: even though he’s not the best, Charlie Hunnam is learning to work as part of a team!

In particular, he learns to work with Rinko Kinuchi as Mako Mori, the character who anyone could see should have been the central protagonist. She emotes like mad, despite and maybe even partly with the help of a somewhat thick accent veiling her speech (affected for the role, or real? Kikuchi appears to have worked principally in Japan, so ESL is a given, but it works). It could be interpreted as damning with faint praise, but she gives the best performance in the film. I even believed she was falling in love with Raleigh. Why? I have no idea. Well, okay, I have an idea: dude is buff like a Boeing B-52, so you can't blame her for wanting an Arc Light.

But because Mako Mori seems like a human being, Raleigh becomes a little bit more credible by association. She also has great hair.

Greatest hair.

It’s thus very unfortunate that, given such a wonderful performer, del Toro and Beacham serve her character so poorly. I kind of thought they wouldn’t go the way they did, and there were some early faint signs that they wouldn’t.

Mako Mori wants to be a pilot, specifically Raleigh’s co-pilot, and she’s not alone on that list. For vague reasons, Drift compatibility is best determined by the candidates wailing on each other with sticks. When Mori throws her sweet haircut into the ring, Raleigh encouragingly treats her more or less the same as the male contenders, and kind of for-real beats her up. It’s a little more restrained, which is unfortunate, and they do the rather cliché thing and have her win against the giant male who has already proven himself to be an excellent combatant, but it’s still pleasant enough. There’s an equality displayed here that’s refreshing yet is about to get flushed right down the toilet.

Since she's the best at wailing with a stick, she's chosen to be Raleigh's co-pilot.  On her trial Drift with him, however, Mori is assaulted by her memories of being almost killed by a monster, and, naturally, breaks just like the proverbial little girl. The mechanics of this aren’t even particularly sensible, since one supposes she can (and the movie suggests she does) remember this awful event all the time, so PTSD aside, she should have some resistance to her own memories. Or maybe the key watersports scene really was cut.

But, in a movie like this, misunderstanding one’s own plot devices is pretty easily forgiveable. Stupid sexist horseshit is a lot harder to stomach: at no point does Raleigh Becket, or any male character, experience anything like Mori’s fabulous furry freakout.

By now I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve expended over a thousand words talking about the script, and the performances, and the patriarchy, and so on and so forth. This is a Goddamned monster movie, why do I give a shit about this stuff? Well, sir or madam, you are 100% correct. I shouldn’t have to give a shit. But the movie is bound and determined to pretend to give a shit. I cannot answer why this is.  Ask the man if you can, I guess.

 Guillermo del Toro seen piloting a Raptor with about as much aplomb as he made this movie.

It’s a true thing that most kaiju movies (that are actually kaiju movies) are not brimming with good dialogue and scintillating acting, but besides the fact that I can honestly say that, for example, Godzilla vs. Monster Zero or Terror of Mechagodzilla really do have more humane characters than Pacific Rim, and the Heisei-era trilogy of Gamera films blows this shit away, I can also honestly say that any serious value this movie was going to have was in its script and performances. Because these kaiju, if you insist on calling them that, suck.

The word “kaiju” may literally only mean “strange beast,” but we have words for that already. The unavoidable connotation is a “strange beast” like a Godzilla, Gamera, Ghidorah, Gorgo or Giant Mantis. The fundamental requirement for real kaiju is that they have identity, and a kaiju movie is, if I must spell it out, a movie at least somewhat about kaiju. Identity, for a kaiju, is a distinctive and memorable appearance and at least somewhat well-defined attributes—and good luck finding that here.

Indeed, the truly great kaiju have personality. The monsters in this movie are interchangeable cogs in an alien war machine (oh, spoiler—if you didn’t figure this out immediately, get a CAT scan). I’m pretty sure only one of the monsters in Pacific Rim even gets a name. And that name is “Knifehead.”  None have voices you could hear over a crowd of shrieking, fleeing Edokko.

No, true kaijuness was not absolutely required for Pacific Rim, though the constant use (and misuse) of the phrase grates given that any kaiju worthy of the description are absent. This is a mecha movie. That’s cool. However, once you go that route, the human characters regain ascendance.  Especially if you decide to spend like an hour in which no monster battles occur.

But whatever. Aesthetic appeal may not be a sufficient condition for being kaiju, but it is still a necessary condition for good robots vs. monsters cinema. The discouraging fact is that the monsters of Pacific Rim don’t have that appeal. Knifehead favors Guiron (there really are a lot of kaiju whose names start with “G”), but while Knifehead is obviously more-expensive looking, it isn’t half as childishly rad as the monstrous watchdog of Terra. Sadly, it’s no doubt by far the best-looking of the lot.

Actually, the mechs aren't too spectacular either, at least other than Raleigh and Mako's Gipsy Danger, which I will concede strikes an iconic figure despite being named by hateful bigots.

Antiziganism? Or antigiganism?

Of course, even if they did all look amazing, it wouldn’t matter in Pacific Rim, since the freaks (only) come out at night. There’s maybe sixty seconds worth of daylight rendering in the whole two hour affair. I’ll grant the Hong Kong sequence is well-illuminated by neon signage, so we can see the battle of the Gipsy Danger against two monsters, the first a messy mash-up you could call Barugyaos (or, turning to Toho, Rodanagon), and the second—man, I dunno, a Cavity Creep?  Thus, despite the mediocrity and sloppiness of the creature designs this is the one extended sequence, outside of the Knifehead fight (you get a pass on one rainy-nighttime scene, del Toro, and that was it), in which I did manage to temporarily find my happy.

Hot vague silhouette on vague silhouette action.

There are good-enough bits sprinkled about here and there. Mako's flashback does include a mild surprise.  Ron Perlman's pretty amusing.  I was a little fascinated by the idea that the monsters had annihilated the world economy, leading to rationing of basic foodstuffsI believe there's a line Raleigh utters about not having seen bread in years.  I, of course, dug the old-school nose art on the Gipsy Danger, and even its faintly offensive name, because they reminded me of air war.  The action, while by and large not exhilarating and much too obscured by darkness, at least is not obscured by shakycam, indistinguishable CGI metal storms, or completely spastic editing.  The opening theme is really lovely, even if it only gets reprised over the credits. The first shot of the movie, following the citation to Jane's Fighting Monsters, is a work of brilliance, as what looks like a starfield reveals itself to be shimmering debris around a colossal oceanic thermal vent, as Rennerton explains that the alien life we sought came from beneath the titular Pacific Rim.

I very much enjoyed the prospect of alien intellects, vast and cool and unsympathetic, which did a little to push it toward classic kaiju films, where alien invasion via mind-controlled giant monster was a veritable staple, featuring in no fewer, and probably more, than six Godzilla films—and at least eight if you count people from the future and people from under the ocean as alien.  (These so-called "kaiju" possessing intellect in their own right may have actually done the deed for me, happily recalling Gamera's battles with intelligent extraterrestrial kaiju Zigra and Viras.)

And I will give major credit where major credit is due: despite deciding to operate under cover of night, what light sources del Toro does provide—the running lights on the Jaegers, the bioluminescence of the monsters, the city lights in Hong Kong—supply well-vibrant splashes of color. Interior scenes are likewise warm and not inherently depressing to look at. The cockpit scenes, when edited correctly, kind of remind me pleasantly of the Speed Racer movie. The alien world is pretty visually radical. Overall, the palette itself is a bright one, and in an industry where blue-and-gray is so predominant that Gods and Generals is just a little too vivid for most cinematographers’ tastes, thank Mothra for that.  Now how about that sun, Guillermo?

If what you really, really, really wanted was a great American kaiju film, I reckon you’ll be better off reaching back and watching the King Kong that most fits your generational and aesthetic idiom (2005 for me), or to wait in the hope that Godzilla 2014 will not make all the same mistakes Pacific Rim has made. That hope may yet be in vain, but we can at least be certain that the truly fundamental mistake of making a kaiju movie without kaiju will not be repeated next year.

Score: 5/10

P.S.: I actually do kind of like Garrett Hedlund.

3 comments:

  1. TLDR. Without the plot exposition.. why is it bad? And should I still see it given that I like big action movies in theatres?

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    Replies
    1. TLDR version: The kaiju are messily designed and lack identity; compounding this, the fights are poorly lit; the lead is a bad actor; it takes a rather sexist turn; and the plot is derivative of sources it fails to understand.

      Regarding the length, in my business that's just called pleading with particularity. What good are conclusory allegations? Not much.

      Anyway, it's not bad-bad. It's just mediocre. If you like passably well shot big shit hitting other big shit and don't mind if it's hard to make out amidst CGI ocean spray and deep shadow, it's not a total wash. Honestly, though, I don't think you'd lose anything if you waited till home video.

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