Friday, July 19, 2013

To Fight Monsters: Initial Reaction to PACIFIC RIM

Guillermo del Toro's PACIFIC RIM is a leviathan of a movie. I have minor complaints but I can't urge people enough to see this movie now, in IMAX 3D if at all possible, where the action is whale-sized and the sound mix thuds against the chest like atrial fibrillation, and not wait for its Blu-ray 3D debut. This is a film built to be enveloping and felt like a tsunami wave. It's bound to lose a great deal in its translation to home entertainment -- I imagine it must lose something even when viewed in 2D, though it was shot that way. The 3D conversion is spectacular and I suspect this might become one of those movies, like Gance's NAPOLEON, that will demand a generational reissue to the big screen 50 or 80 years further down the line, if we still have such things.
It's not a remake or a reboot of anything, but it is also a microscopically detailed tribute to many things in our genre. I noticed homages to STARSHIP TROOPERS, CLOVERFIELD, JURASSIC PARK, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD, WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS, and there are also homages incorporated into the creature design, little nods to characters like Gamera adversaries Zigra and Gyaos. As I expected with Guillermo del Toro guiding things, the film is an expression of love directed toward a veritable panorama of fantastic cinema, with its fantasy gently but firmly steered onward and upward, toward levels of adult stress that those aforementioned films may have noted but never dared address with such gravity or intensity.
Most commentators about the film are getting completely hung up on the monsters and robots element, but there is a human element at work here too, and it's what elevates this story above the level of the rock 'em sock 'em. The movie is rich with great characters -- certainly not original characters, but familiar archetypes given a renewed sense of life and depth with better writing and heavyweight performances. Likewise, while ethnically diverse, the film is refreshingly unburdened with racial stereotyping. Everyone here blends together under a common threat.

Idris Elba (as Stacker Pentecost) and Rinko Kikuchi (as Mako Mori) are extraordinary, Ron Perlman is properly larger than life as the cheekily named Hannibal Chau (whose crew cannibalizes the dead kaiju, harvesting their remains for various purposes), and even the secondary characters are remarkable. Burn Gorman as Gottlieb is a fusion of Colin Clive and Dwight Frye, doing everything but stopping to pull up his sock, and Robert Kazinsky plays the thorn in our hero Charlie Hunnam's side shadings of complexity that reminded me very strongly of the young Oliver Reed. The heart of the film, the scene it most needed to pass with full marks, the fulfillment of its essential promise, is Mako Mori's childhood flashback -- and it's one of the most emotionally wrenching scenes I've ever seen in a monster movie. Little Mana Ashida makes it a classic, reminding us that it's really the acting -- not the special effects -- that sells this stuff.
My only real complaint about the picture some might consider a big one, but for me it's just an incidental complaint in the midst of a very rich meal: I wasn't too impressed by the creature design. The creatures were supposedly designed with the idea that they could be men-in-a-suit, but they didn't strike me as conceptually original and basic as the screen's most memorable monsters; instead, they reminded me of the CLOVERFIELD critter put through a customizing kit. As a kid, I saw many of the forerunners of this film at weekend matinees and I would spend the next week or so drawing them from memory. Could kids today go home and draw these creatures from memory? Would they want to? That's the one level where I feel the film's imagination failed. The creatures are overwhelming, they are believable, but they are lacking something all the great Toho characters had in spades: character. Instead, they have a block-fisted comic book dynamism that, for me, consistently brought to mind the art of Jack Kirby, much as SPOILER the plotline about the monsters being the exterminating vanguard of a planet-sucking being SPOILER OVER made me think of the Silver Surfer and Galactus. (Really and truly, the film's dedication should have been extended to include Kirby, who gave us all those Marvel Monsterworks with Fin Fan Foom and Googam, which have much more to do with this brand of film than anything by Ray Harryhausen -- as I believe Harryhausen himself would be the first to agree.) I feel the movie could only have been enriched further, it would have raised its stakes, had del Toro given us something soulful to champion about the monsters, as they marched toward the dehumanized colossus robots sworn to protect humanity. At the same time, the level of talent in the human performances frequently breathes fresh life into some clich├ęd dialogue -- such as "This is for my family."
As it is, I don't believe PACIFIC RIM is pure entertainment; as with the best genre fare of the 1950s, I think it contains some subtle messaging that makes it as slyly political as PAN'S LABYRINTH and THE DEVIL'S BACKBONE were overtly so, and the most balanced of all del Toro's films between art and commercialism. It's all there in the notion of "To fight monsters, we created monsters."

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.