July 12, 2013

Review: Drift Into 'Pacific Rim'

"We're drift compatible."

Director Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) goes for broke in Pacific Rim, his homage to the classic Japanese monster genre. The film is an all out fantasy, action, disaster epic. At its best, it focuses on stunning, rich, fully realized world building and superb action. Things unfold as the world, roughly a decade from now, fights the "kaiju" (sea monsters) with "jaegars" (giant robots) through an international team of heroes on a mission to kill these alien monsters from another dimension.

Pacific Rim is full of del Toro's impeccable, fantastical creature design with thoughtful choreography and masterful composition. You can see del Toro's unabashed enthusiasm on the screen as he delights in constructing how his monsters and robots are framed. One of the best sequences occurs in a flashback set in Tokyo. Its intimate nature amongst full scale destruction is awe inspiring, tense, and exhilarating.

It's too bad the film suffers from many of the same problems as other robot fighting action films (think Transformers). I struggled to care about or relate to any of the human characters (who occupy a considerable amount of the running time) and their non robot fighting related problems. An international cast of fine actors are saddled with some very predictable, clichéd motivations, sandwiched in between much more compelling and interesting robot/monster fighting sequences.

Most of the characters are uninteresting or interchangeable, all with equally ridiculous names. Charlie Hunmam is serviceable yet blandly generic as the reckless pretty boy rogue pilot. He plays by his own rules with a throwaway backstory, no personality, and is saddled with unnecessary angst. Luckily, Rinko Kikuchi brightens the screen with a charming presence and vulnerable physicality. Idris Elba plays his intimidating, heroic self. Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are a pair of comic relief type scientists bumbling their way through clunky plot mechanics. The pair's scenes are straining, mildly annoyingly over the top, and out of place amidst all the chaotic destruction.

Much of the dialogue and exposition is extremely wooden and forced. With so many actors from different cultures, it was hard to build chemistry through any naturalistic dialogue. Del Toro needlessly focuses on a lot of strange melodrama between the warring characters. Scenes of truly brutish interactions between pilots are constructed like a bizarro version  of Top Gun. The cinematic parallels don't stop there with more than a few often strange yet intriguing links to films like Eternal Sunshine, Jurassic Park, del Toro's own steampunk style from the Hellboy films, and of course, the original Godzilla.

Despite its marvellous technical scope, del Toro crafts an intimate but ultimately, uncompelling story about a group of fighters and survival. It's told big but feels small with largely mixed yet lavishly spectacular results. However, it's told without any pretense or delusions. Del Toro knows exactly what kind of film he's making and his enthusiasm powers though. Pacific Rim is pure fun and an entertaining ride full of monstrously wonderful visuals. It's amusing yet light in its bold, blockbuster filmmaking.

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