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Pacific Rim (2013)

| July 12, 2013 | 0 Comments

With his new science fiction thriller “Pacific Rim,” director Guillermo del Toro effectively takes Michael Bay to school on how to make a movie about giant robots.  Unlike Bay’s torpid transforming nonsense, del Toro’s film is thoughtful and smart.  It may not be perfect, but it’s got way more style, way more substance and way cooler robots.  It’s also got Ron Perlman as a black marketeer who runs an underground cartel dealing in alien body parts.  Let’s see Shia LaBeouf do that.

Guillermo del Toro loves movie monsters, there’s no doubt about it.  If you’ve seen “Pan’s Labyrinth” or “Mimic” or “Hellboy” then you know that he’s not a director who just throws CGI around for its own sake.  His movies are crafted with loving care.  His characters have more dimension then we might expect and his stories actually have meaning.  This is a guy who clearly loves movies.

His latest is an ode to the monster movies he loved as a child growing up in Mexico.  “Pacific Rim” takes place the future, when the Earth is being besieged by monsters, called “Kaiju,” that have arrived in our world via a space portal beneath the Pacific Ocean.   Following in the tradition of Godzillla and Mothra, these Kaiju have destroyed our cities, killed millions of people and depleted our resources.  In response, the military has put together a strike force consisting of 50 foot robots called “Jaegers” which must be controlled by two pilots at the same time (right brain and left brain).  The pilots are connected mentally through a neural bridge in a process called “The Drift”, effectively allowing them to share the same memories and mental stability so they can work together.  The two pilots share minds with each other and effectively are bonded for life.

Our hero is Raleigh Becket (Chris Hunnum) a nice-looking loner who never-the-less nurses a wounded heart.  Years ago, he was at the controls of one of these robots when his brother was killed while still connected to him.  True to the form of half the movies ever made, the wounded hero is reluctantly pulled back into service despite claims by the program’s commanding officer Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) that he is a loose cannon who doesn’t follow orders.  He also needs a new partner, and Pentecost reluctantly issues him another damaged soul named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) a Japanese pilot who bears the scars of having had her family wiped out by the Kaiju back in Japan when she was a child.

Per his usual, del Toro allows these characters to have an extra dimension, but not so much that they get in the way of the smash and bash.  They are connected to one another on an emotional level (the technology of the Jaegers demands it) just enough that we feel that there are people here and not just pawns to move around the plot.  One of the great joys of the movie is that a lot of time is devoted to the humans discovering things about the Kaiju and how to defeat them.

The characters are given an extra dimension, but only enough that they don’t feel like throw-aways.  The best performance in the movie (even under the constraints of pat dialogue) comes from Rinko Kikuchi as Mako.  She’s a talented actor who got a lot of attention – and an Oscar nomination – six years ago for her performance as Chieko in “Babel”, as a deaf Japanese schoolgirl who filtered her grief over her mother’s suicide into sexual rebellion.  Kikuchi hasn’t made a major American film since then, but she is still a talent waiting to be discovered by audiences.  She has an open, expressive face, especially in the reaction shots: When she’s not talking, she’s listening, not just waiting for the other actor to finish so she can talk.  She has a fine and delicate screen presence that suggests strengths waiting to surface.

Another great performance comes from Charlie Day as a nervous scientist who is bright enough to use the neural bridge to mentally connect with one of the monsters to figure out their plan.  With his hyperactive manner and high-pitched voice, Day is perfect for a movie like this.  He plays Newton Geizler, a scientist who suddenly finds that he needs a severed alien brain and that puts him in contact with the oddly named Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), a greasy black marketeer who has made his bones selling Kaiju body parts of every description.  It has to be seen to be believed.

One the human level, the movie works.  It outclasses most science fiction hot air in which the technology overwhelms anything else.  Where it comes up short is on the action itself.  Yes, the special effects are impressive, and the robots here have more character than the ungainly Transformers.  But, del Toro’s special effects team makes the unwise decision to shoot every monster vs. robot battle at night and in close-up – usually while it’s raining.  These scenes, shot at a distance in broad daylight might have given us a little more visual orientation.  We know what’s at stake for the characters but we’d like a little more involvement.   Still, del Toro has fashioned together a movie that is worth your time.  Let’s put it this way, if a Monsters vs. Robots movie has to be made, this is probably as good as it gets.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.