Thursday, July 11, 2013

More monsters from the deep

Giant robots, ugly sea monsters and a robust comic-book spirit stave off disaster for Pacific Rim.
In what has been a largely disappointing summer -- at least in the blockbuster department -- director Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim comes as a refreshing surprise -- at least for a while. Taking his cue from classic Japanese horror movies such as Godzilla, del Toro imagines a time when hideous sea monsters called Kaiju are terrorizing the planet.

For reasons that aren't entirely clear, humanity has decided to battle these monstrous creatures with giant robots called Jaegers (German for hunters). It's also not clear why these 25-story tall behemoths need to be operated by two humans who work inside the machines and who must coordinate their movements through a symbiotic mind melding technique called "drifting." Wouldn't batteries have been just as good? Hasn't anyone heard of remotes?

If you haven't gotten the idea by now, let me make it clearer: Pacific Rim isn't about real-world logic; it's about putting a big-money charge into monster-movie tropes that once were considered indispensable components of second-tier entertainments.

Del Toro's movie is also about actors delivering uninspired dialogue with a straight face, about the wanton proliferation of special effects (some very good) and about a fair amount of well-conceived dystopian set design.

Put another way: The impressively scaled world del Toro creates is probably more interesting than what takes place in it: At its best, Pacific Rim brims with the kind of comic-book monumentalism that the lingering adolescent in me still finds impressive, epic-proportioned battles staged in a virtually created vastness.

I don't think del Toro, who has directed Hollywood movies such as Hellboy and more idiosyncratic fare such as Pan's Labyrinth, would object to anyone saying that he has tried to play with every toy he can find in hopes of creating a movie that will boom and bash its way through a couple of hours of clangorous action, semi-interesting exposition and unadulterated genre kicks.

I saw Pacific Rim in IMAX and 3-D, and the experience was overwhelming, particularly in the noise department. There's enough metal-on-metal clanging to stock a couple of Transformer movies. Moreover, some of the action seemed repetitive, particularly as seen in cinematographer Guillermo Navarro's darkly hued images.

You won't find much by way of stand-out acting here, but Pacific Rim is the kind of movie that can get by on performances that are servicable. British actor Charlie Hunnam portrays Raleigh Beckett, an ace figther who -- along with his brother (Diego Klattenhoff) -- has earned a reputation as a premier Kaiju killer.

But when Raleigh's brother dies (in the movie's gripping prologue), a dispirited Raleigh quits fighting and takes a job building walls to keep out the sea monsters. You needn't have seen a ton of movies to know that the commander of the Jaeger force (Idris Elba) will summon Raleigh back for one last battle against the rapidly proliferating Kaiju.

This task acquires increased urgency because the Kaiju invasion is about to intensify and because the Jaeger force, which thus far hasn't succeeded, is about to be disbanded.

When Raleigh rejoins the Jaeger fighters in Hong Kong, it's clear that he's going to need a new partner with whom he can "drift." Enter Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel), a serious fighter who wants to battle monsters. Elba's character doesn't want Mako to fight for reasons that are revealed during a preparatory drifting exericse.

The screenplay by Travis Beacham raises and drops issues at speeds that rival the movie's action set pieces. It's not the most elegantly conceived piece of work, although it makes room for a few complications about the Kaiju and for a couple of dueling scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) who provide comic relief.

There's also a cameo from Hellboy stalwart Ron Perlman, who plays a character with the strangely evocative name of Hannibal Chau, a Hong Kong criminal who lives in a Blade Runner-like portion of the city, where he sells the body parts of slain Kaijus.

I wish I could say that the movie -- entertaining for roughly three quarters of its length -- hadn't worn out for me, but the combination of noise and action eventually took its toll on both my ear drums and nervous system.

That's not to say that Pacific Rim isn't fully loaded for summer. Del Toro knows how to make a comic book movie, and -- even when the material lets him down -- he does his best to keep the movie's dark world spinning as furiously as possible.

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