Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Pacific Rim Review

I live my life according to a strict and ancient code. It is called the Creed of MEGAS and, though it has many complex and subtle rules, its central and most sacred tenet is that I dig giant robots.
I can't help it. Something about them just speaks directly to the pleasure-centres of my brain, bypassing all conscious thought. If you show me a giant mechanical creature, I'll be willing to forgive any number of sins (cough, Revenge of the Fallen, cough). Big robots, and their piloted mech cousins, make me very very happy.

What this means is that Pacific Rim feels like it was made specifically for me, and I'm therefore the last person on Earth you should trust the opinion of.

For years the world has been under attack from Kaiju (Japanese for "giant sodding monsters") and, somehow, the best solution has turned out to be fighting them with giant sodding mech-warriors called Jaegers (German for "hunters" as well as "deadly student booze"). For a while this worked but now, with attacks becoming more frequent and more ferocious, the Jaeger Program is failing - their robots getting destroyed, their pilots getting killed, and their funding getting cut. The film follows retired mech-pilot Raleigh Becket and rookie Mako Mori - who operate his outdated Jaeger, Gipsy Danger, through a Vulcan mind-meld - as they prepare for a last-ditch assault on the deep-sea interdimensional portal from which the Kaiju emerge.

On some level, I'm completely aware how stupid all this is. But on another level, it's pretty much what my dreams look like.
Happily, Pacific Rim is also completely aware how stupid all this is. After the reveal of Gipsy Danger's secret weapon, and a ludicrous moment with a desk-toy (to say nothing of Ron Pearlman's black-market Kaiju-part-dealer), we're under no illusion that it’s taking itself seriously. This is a film with a character named Hercules Hansen, a building called the Shatterdome, and a part where someone actually shouts "Elbow Rocket!" Gritty and realistic, it is not.
Which isn't to say it's a parody, or even tongue-in-cheek. While it is self-aware, and often pretty silly, it's also incredibly earnest - even when it’s poking fun at itself, it's always completely invested in its story, its world and its characters.

In truth, those characters only range from simple archetypes to basic stereotypes. They’re reductive and minimal and their stories aren’t always handled as well as they could be, but they're humanised enough that we still care about their struggles. It’s used as shorthand: we recognise most of these characters immediately, which means we understand them immediately, too. The ones we don't understand are explained through the pilots' mind-melding process - "the Drift" - which means we literally walk through their minds and memories. This is criminally underused, but the few times it does appear are brilliantly effective and powerful.
In spite of their simplicity, or maybe because of it, the characters make a strong impression quickly and we can't help but care - so much so that Marshal Stacker Pentecost (played to perfection by Idris Elba) might be my favourite character of the year.
What sounds like a weakness is used as a strength - Pacific Rim is painting with broad strokes on a huge canvas, so it helps to keep things basic. The plot is simple, the characters are simple, their relationships are simple, and it's all delivered to the audience as simply and efficiently as possible. The entire history of the Kaiju War, for example, is recounted in the first five minutes, and it contains more information and world-building than most entire films!

The world-building is phenomenal, by the way. It's a living, breathing place, so real you can smell it. Those first five minutes - the origin of the Kaiju and Jaegers, the early victories and the later defeats - are so dense with information that they could almost be the first two films in a trilogy. In a film-climate currently obsessed with origins and franchises, it's actually surprising that they're not. This film is willing to just throw us into its world, fully formed and expertly realised, and to end without setting up a sequel. It's confident enough to be self-contained, and that's worth celebrating.

Also worth celebrating is the action. It's why I'm here, it's why you're here, and it's why director Guillermo Del Toro is here (though I still can't pronounce his name). They sold this film on robots fighting monsters, and it delivers spectacularly.
All the action is excellent. Inventive, distinctive, gorgeous to look at - everything you could want from this kind of mayhem. Del Toro clearly loves this stuff, and as much thought and care is put into the fight-scenes as into the dialogue scenes; maybe more. Every Jaeger, and every Kaiju, moves and fights in a different way, giving each battle a unique personality. The only constant is the scale and weight of these things - their movements are big and slow, and collisions and impacts feel enormous. We've seen big movie action before, but it's never felt this big.
Yet, even while the scope is huge, it remains tightly character-driven. We’re made aware early on just how vulnerable Jaeger pilots are, and the battles cut to them throughout. The pilots may shout things like "Let’s do this!" a little much, and it’s a shame that the character drama never directly informs the action, but it’s more than enough that we always know and feel the human stakes.

My only complaint is that the action peaks too early. The movie’s highlight is undoubtedly a battle in Hong Kong - it’s an incredible sequence for a number of reasons, not least the diversity and changing nature of the fight, but the main reason it works is that we can really see the scale of the combatants. When the Kaiju or Jaegers stand beside buildings, their size is breathtaking. When they’re smashing each other’s heads into those buildings, so much the better! It also means they can make use of their environment - using cranes or shipping crates as weapons - to further show off their enormous size and weight.
The final battle abandons urban locations for a more natural landscape - which makes sense for the story, and is certainly better for the population (Superman could learn a lot from these guys), but it means we lose the sense of scale. The fight itself is still fantastic and creative and tense, but it just can’t replicate the sheer awe of seeing how big they are. Of course, we know they’re still huge, but without a visual reference to remind us, they don’t really feel it.
It doesn’t matter, though, because that last fight is more about the characters. Though the drama may be thinly sketched and, dare I say, even a little cheesy, it all pays off in that climax. The battle may seem smaller, but it has a massive heart.

Pacific Rim is, first and foremost, enormous fun - pun intended. It takes a ridiculous premise and simple characters, and works them into a surprisingly effective story. That story is very basic, but it’s a solid enough foundation to build an immersive, believable world with some of the biggest, most impressive, most downright enjoyable action you could hope for. It's big, loud, crazy, over-the-top and completely lovable - which is not surprising since that's basically a discription of Del Toro.
I was probably going to love this film whatever happened. Just the mere sight of Striker Eureka (the shiny, sexy, super-high-tech Australian Jaeger) is enough to get me grinning like an idiot. But if you’re willing to accept how daft Pacific Rim can get - if you’re willing to Drift into its mindset - I think you’ll be grinning too.