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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Pacific Rim

The Monotony of Monsters

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Determined to make a different kind of summer blockbuster, director Guillermo del Toro avoided superheroes in tights and capes, trading the more familiar American comic book universe for Japanese genres involving monsters from the sea. And yet, Pacific Rim is suffused with the same dark, gothic hues as Gotham City or Metropolis, along with hard-eyed characters brooding over tragedies in their pasts. They may not be supermen but they are good soldiers, piloting super machines in a war for human survival.

Del Toro’s villains are kaiju, monsters from another dimension that rise through a portal on the Pacific floor. Think of the gigantic reptiles Godzilla once fought, coupled with Alien DNA. The good guys operate from jaegers, steel fighting giants with arms and legs and batteries of weapons. They require at least two pilots, and in a concept worthy of Philip K. Dick, the machines are so complex that the minds of the jaegermeisters must meld and become as one.

It’s a recipe for romance, especially when case-hardened but inwardly troubled protagonist Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) meets eager-to-make-pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). But first comes duty and the obstacles thrust in their path by their commander, Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), a father figure to Mako and a stern disciplinarian to all.

Much of Pacific Rim is set in a Hong Kong drenched with the influence of Blade Runner—an attractive setting but populated with gratuitous references to Chinatown and great films of the past. The arc of the story concerns the race between the ever-evolving kaiju and the increasingly sophisticated jaegers—cut short by meddling politicians determined to build an ineffectual wall around the Pacific. As the jaeger program is being phased out, Pentecost decides to make a final stand against the slimy invaders. Brawn is assisted by brain in the form of a kooky couple of scientists trying to figure out their enemy.

References to larger questions are made: the kaiju are invading because global warming is transforming the Earth into a more hospitable planet for voracious reptiles. But the main attraction is monotonous in its simple pleasure: giant machines hammering against great reptiles in a series of wrestling matches with the world as the trophy.

Del Toro claims he wanted to avoid “army recruitment video aesthetics,” but that’s exactly what he delivers—in 3D that sends shards of metal flying into the audience’s comfort zone. As politicians make the wrong decisions for dubious reasons, the only bulwark against the monsters is the implacable Marshal Pentecost and his stalwart jaeger crews. Pentecost seems to go rogue against the civilian chain of command (the point isn’t clear in a screenplay favoring spectacle over sense) and he, in turn, is hard pressed to harness the rebellious energy of his men (and one woman). The individual and the unit are the yin and yang of Pacific Rim; the machines are obedient servants in human hands; and the threat of the hive-mentality reptiles looms. If Pacific Rim has a moral, it’s don’t grow complacent and never trust a politician.