Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable #9: Pacific Rim

Individual Reviews are useful, but criticism is a dialogue, not a monologue. I’m Max O’Connell of The Film Temple, he’s Loren Greenblatt of Screen Vistas, and we’ve got some things to say in the Guillermo Del Toro Roundtable.

Max’s Grade: 86/A-
Loren’s Grade: B+ (he doesn’t use the same idiotic 100-point scale I use)

Max O’Connell: We've  been eagerly awaiting Pacific Rim, not in small part because we’re big fans of Del Toro. I have a personal connection because I’ve been a Godzilla fan since I was about 3. It was my first movie love, so seeing Del Toro effectively do a Godzilla movie just made me happy.

Loren Greenblatt: When I was 4, I saw Jurassic Park, and during the showing, I stood up on my chair and said, “I wanna do that!” I decided I wanted to make movies. I feel that there are kids walking out of a theatre showing Pacific Rim who are making the same decision. This movie is an absolute joy.

MO: Basic plot: in the near future a bunch of giant monsters, called Kaiju (named for the Japanese film genre that gave us Godzilla) from another dimension come through a crack in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and start attacking. After trying more traditional methods, humanity builds a bunch of giant, human piloted robots called Jaegers, which is German for “hunter,” to fight the Kaiju. But twenty years into the program, the war is  taking a turn for the worse and the Jaeger program is being shut down in favor of building a wall. This turns out to be a bad idea, and the leader of the program, the awesomely-named Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba of Luther fame) brings in a former Jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) to be a final member of the human resistance.

LG: This isn't the kind of film we normally get in America, certainly not in live-action and at this budget level. The closest equivalent we have in recent cinema are Micheal Bay's awful Transformers movies. All these films are primarily concerned with giant monsters smashing up cities. The difference between Bay's films and Pacific Rim is that Guillermo Del Toro understands that an action movie’s success doesn’t depend on explosions, but on us caring about the people in those explosions. It’s not enough that we have a person piloting the Jaeger- we have two, because according to the film’s pseudoscience, one pilot isn’t enough to handle the neural load that comes with having your mind and movements connected to a giant robot. A jaeger requires two pilots liked through their memories. It's not one chosen person against the world, suddenly it becomes about teamwork, can these people overcome tension between them to work together. It's probably no coincidence that these Jaeger pilots tend to be family members, it makes thematic sense and it ups the stakes. Like we see In the film’s prologue, where Raleigh and his brother take Gipsy Danger, an American Jaeger, on an ill fated mission that end's the brother's death.

MO: He quits, and five years later, Pentecost brings him back. Raleigh gets to pick whichever co-pilot he wants, but the only one he really forms a connection with is Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi of Babel), who has her own past trauma with the Kaiju.

LG: After the first couple of giant monster battles, which really are quite wonderful, the film settles down and goes to the Jaeger complex in Hong Kong, dubbed The Shatterdome, and it turns into a bit of a drama about human cooperation in the face of outrageous adversity. I like that this is a reasonably multicultural group saving the world- we get a Russian team, a Chinese team, an Australian team, a British black guy running the program, and a final team made up of one American and one Japanese woman. It’s not just a bunch of Americans saving the world (but mostly New York) from certain doom. It’s a very universal-minded movie.

MO: There was a piece in The Dissolve this week by Tasha Robinson that argued that the film’s success was partly based in the fact that it doesn’t invoke 9/11, and that it tries to make it more universal.

LG: Not that it can't be done in a film like this. The original Godzilla very liberally quotes WWII imagery, like the destruction of Hiroshima and the firebombing of Tokyo, that would have been very fresh in the minds of Japanese audiences and arguably more traumatic. But we've been getting a lot of 9/11 imagery this Summer and I'm glad that Del Toro didn't resort to it here, and Robinson is right, the lack of that imagery with its coddled, American context fits in to Del Toro's universalist mindset. It's one of the key things this film gets from being directed by a non-American. Unlike similar films, we don't have a jingoistic military fighting against a dehumanized group of “others,” this is a film about humanity saving humanity.

MO: I also love that while the main appeal of the film is the brawny “giant robots fight sea monsters” angle, two of the most compelling and helpful people in the group are a pair of scientists.

LG: Charlie Day from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is sort of their version of Jeff Goldblum. He’s an excitable, he has Kaiju tattoos and fancies himself a rock-star scientist but he’s very nerdy and silly.

MO: He’s kind of the Guillermo Del Toro stand-in. He’s made entirely of boyish enthusiasm, and Day is very good in this role, credibly spitting out the pseudoscientific dialogue in a rapid-fire pace while still serving as a pretty great source of comic relief. And on the other hand, we have Burn Gorman as the other scientist, Herman, who’s much more button-down. It’s kind of a battle between an intuitive, experimental scientist and one who believes almost solely in testing numbers. So we’ve talked a little bit about how we actually care about the characters in the explosions…but what about those explosions?

LG: Oh my god, those explosions are wonderful! Shooting and framing these kinds of battles is very difficult. It’s difficult when you have these large things fighting each other to capture everything and still convey a sense of scale. If you’re too close, you can’t see anything. If you’re too far away, we don’t get the size. Michael Bay showed us how not to do it. Del Toro finds a very nice middle-ground where it feels almost like these are giant sporting events. And the creatures are a lot of fun- every Kaiju is a little different, they come in different sizes and have different abilities. The Jaegers themselves are full of these wonderful gadgets, some have three arms, some have swords, etc. All this keeps the fights from being repetitive There’s always something else going on, and we feel like the stakes are being raised with each battle, which is essential.

MO: There’s a sense of levels to everything, which was a problem with, say, the Chicago sequence in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which is just an hour of carnage. We don’t feel exhausted at the end here because there is a gradual build. Part of that is the size of the machines and monsters, part is Del Toro’s natural gifts with pacing. I’ve heard some people complain that the fights are all staged in the rain at night, which I guess I can understand, but they all look great. He’s able to use some frenetic editing when it’s called for, but we have a sense of where everything is, we can tell what’s going on…for almost every fight, I know exactly where every character is in relation to each other, whether it’s established through photography or through cross-cutting. That sounds simple, but so many blockbusters forget basics of spatial dynamics. And that’s what makes everything so exciting, not just the robots with swords. Though, come on, my inner 9-year-old was about to have a joyful heart attack at that sword. But then there’s the look of this: the way it’s composed, the way colors blend together in an impressionistic blur. It’s a beautiful film.

LG: And there’s a sense of humor in the fights when there needs to be. Del Toro is great with those cartoonish moments in the middle of his fights, like the Wile E. Coyote shot in Blade II. Not to spoil anything, but there's a wonderful moment involving a Newton’s Cradle (the clicking metallic balls that go back and forth when you hit one) and another involving a football stadium. I almost feel like we’re underselling it by saying that the fights are staged competently. It's almost a commentary on how badly many action scenes are shot that we are too often impressed with 'competently shot, ' but this goes beyond that. There’s a lot going on in these fights to make them work. There's a lot things going on with the mismatching of the abilities of the different Kaiju and Jaegers and then on the inside of the machines- Raleigh and Mako need to link their memories in order to pilot them. And Mako has a similar past trauma, so there’s a lot of tension in whether or not she’ll be able to hack it. It’s a little bit of a Top Gun set-up.

MO: It sort of is, though that’s subverted. This is kind of a regular thing with fighter-pilot movies, where the cocky fighter-pilot gets someone killed, but by the end he saves the day, so it’s no big deal. Del Toro’s not interested in celebrating the macho hero. It’s actually though shared experiences and understanding each other that these people can fight together.

LG: I also love how detailed this film is. This isn’t a film bound by realism, it isn’t trying to be a realistic Godzilla movie. But it does imagine what it might be like if a society had to deal with these attacks for twenty plus years. In the beginning of the film, we see the government deciding to abandon the Jaeger program and build a giant wall. Now I’m not going to read into it too much, but I do think there’s some sly humor here. We have a Mexican director making a thing about a wall to keeps aliens out. It’s a cute, clever little jab at how ineffectual that strategy is and at how alien invasion movies tend to use their aliens as stand-ins for “foreigners”.

MO: Oh, that’s clever. I didn’t notice that.

LG: And the only scene we see this in is in Alaska, a very Republican state. Again, don’t read into it, it’s just a joke. But it is the kind of detail that sets this film apart. Any other movie would probably not even think of something like this, let alone would it find the time to show the wall being built or give a sense of what it’s like building it. But Del Toro does. We see how dangerous it is and it does a wonderful job of showing the cost of living under this kind of a constant threat. In one short scene, we get the sense that economies have tumbled, and that society has had to rebuild itself in new and strange ways. But it isn’t a movie that wallows in despair. Instead, it finds new questions to answer and new details to dazzle us. I don’t know that too many people wondered what happens to giant monsters after they die, but we get a pretty good answer here. We get cites built around their skeletons, which is awesome, and we get to learn what the government does with the Kaiju organs and brains for experiments, not to mention what a black market dealer like Hannibal Chau (played wonderfully by Ron Perlman) does with them. They explain, at least in a very general way, how the new Jaegers work differently from old ones, and how some are analog where others are digital and some are nuclear powered.  It’s all gobbledygook, but it’s done with such care that we believe it. It’s real gobbledygook. The same thing goes for the Kaiju who have a well thought out biology.There’s no detail of this world that Del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beacham didn’t think of.

MO: I like that we get a sense of how the Kaijus do work. Del Toro believes that monsters are beautiful creatures, and they are here. But we also get a complicated view of monsters. (Spoilers) Where past Del Toro films viewed monsters as animals rather than evil creatures, here they’re perhaps evil, but they’re not just dumb animals. There’s a method to their destruction that’s perhaps not too complicated, but there’s an intelligence there. It’s something that could have been explored more, but we get enough here. If we got a sequel, we’d probably see more. There’s a little bit more to the monsters than usual.

LG: It’s kind of ridiculous to assume that creatures this large, with equally large brains, are stupid. Yes, I know that brain's don't necessarily work that way, but this is sci-fi logic.

MO: We also get a sense of being in the Jaeger experience. When Mako and Raleigh first mind-link (it’s called drifting here), there’s a wonderful blur of colors as we see some of their past experiences in a blue light that reminded me of Minority Report. It highlights how important it is to share past experiences with each other, and it’s beautiful just to behold. And I also love what happens when Mako can’t handle her past trauma, which her first mind-link makes her re-experience. It turns out that her family was killed in a Kaiju attack when she was a little girl, and we her get lost in that memory. It’s a little bit like Del Toro’s recreation of a past experience in Hellboy, and it’s a lot like how Christopher Walken sees the past in David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, which Del Toro is a huge fan of. We’re placed inside a memory, and Raleigh can observe, but he can’t change it, and he can’t convince Mako that it isn’t real. This is problematic because she’s connected to the Jaeger, and when she gets scared, the giant killer machine responds to her emotions. This was my favorite scene in the film- I was genuinely terrified not only by what she might do, but by the memory itself, which is like the “raptors in the kitchen” scene in Jurassic Park blown up to gigantic scale. And there’s a beautiful image of her carrying a little red shoe that’s wonderful. (End spoilers)

LG: The thing about this film is that it does outdo at least one aspect of the Godzilla series. You’ve seen more of those movies than I have, but I've never cared about the humans in those movies except for in the original. Especially if it’s the 1998 version. I don’t go to these movies for humans doing human things. I go for monsters smashing things. And it’s very interesting that in this, I do care about the human people doing human things. It really makes the movie. Some of the human drama is a bit clichéd, which is often true of Del Toro’s American films, but he does it so earnestly that it doesn’t really matter.

MO: Yeah, the fact that we get an Independence Day speech from Idris Elba or a hoary father-son story from the Australian characters might be clichéd, but it’s a fun cliché, damn it! It’s handled rather well. I was initially a little let down that the actual emotional arc with our protagonist, Raleigh, and our other lead, Mako, is solved about halfway or two-thirds of the way through when they are able to establish a mind-link. It’s a bit messy, structurally, I’ll admit. But at the same time, it kind of seems like they’re leads in name only. It’s more of an ensemble piece, because the other characters’ arcs take over after that. We get to see the Australian father-son duo (Max Martini and Robert Kazinsky, both great) work out their relationship.

LG: He’s a cocky alpha-male shithead, and the father admits that he loves him but doesn’t know whether he needs “a hug or a kick in the ass”. Them learning to work with others and admit their love for each other is a cliché, but it’s rather effective.

MO: I was even more involved in the relationship between Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as the diametrically-opposed scientists who find a way to blend their approaches- hard science with intuition- which ends up playing a major part in saving the day. I love where Idris Elba’s character winds up going, which ends up playing to Del Toro’s pet theme of self-sacrifice. There is more going on in terms of character than people gave it credit. It’s kind of like Jurassic Park: not as rich with character as some of its creators’ past blockbusters, but it’s more complicated than it looks on the surface.

LG: The characters in Jurassic Park weren’t incredibly deep, but there is more going on intellectually than people gave it credit.

MO: Del Toro did cut out about an hour of character material. He said that we can’t pretend this is Ibsen with monsters and giant robots. We get sketches, and that’s all we really need.

LG: I think it's kind of amazing that the movie finds time to do as much as it does and does it in only 2 hours. That’s short for most blockbusters these days, which are bloated all the way to 2 ½ hours. It’s OK to have a long one when it’s deserved, but it’s getting automatic. This doesn’t stick around too long. It gets in, does what it’s doing, and gets out. It’s very lean, and it moves well.

MO: It moved so well, and it’s made with such boyish enthusiasm that it made me not care about the few problems I did have with it, whether it’s the structural problems with the protagonists, or the quasi-romance between Raleigh and Mako. It’s cute in the beginning, especially in a fight scene they have that determines how perfect they are for each other for a mind-link. It’s adorable.

LG: And (spoilers) the movie doesn’t force a romance on these characters. It could go there at some point, but at this point at the end of the world, it’s about them working together, not learning to fall in bed together.

MO: And that helps Mako stand out as more than just a guy-accessory, which is what Del Toro wanted to do. And it does serve the film’s central theme of teamwork by not having them fall in bed together. But my issue is that the romance is built up, and at the end, it looks like they’re going to have that moment to admit their love and kiss, but it doesn’t really go there. It felt to me like Del Toro was a little too afraid of making her a guy accessory that he kind of defeated what was left of their emotional arc.

LG: But their relationship at that point has transcended “will they or won’t they”. They’re co-combatants, they’re siblings in arms, and they’re literally in each other’s minds. Remember that this film associates the co-pilot relationship with family roles. I'm not saying that they can't go there in a future movie, but not going there in this film is a very deliberate statement on Del Toro's part.

MO: I agree that it works intellectually and thematically. It serves the film’s key theme of learning to work together and trust each other. But by the end it sacrifices a bit of an emotional peak. (end spoilers)

LG: But we squeeze a lot more emotion out of this movie than I thought was possible.

MO: Yeah, this is really just a minor qualm. The film did make me forget most of my complaints. All but one really. There’s one teeny-tiny one that we can’t overlook. Almost every performance in this film is wonderful- Perlman is fun, Day and Gorman make a great comic-relief/heart of the film, Elba gives the gravitas, Kikuchi is great. Charlie Hunnam…

LG:…he’s…not the worst actor in the world. I haven’t seen him in anything else before, but he's not great here. He’s particularly deadly when asked to narrate.

MO: The exposition in the beginning of the film works rather well, considering that they have to get a lot of information out at once, because it’s played with a bunch of monsters attacking the world. The only problem is his narration, which is deadening. And it’s not just because he’s a British actor doing a terrible, terrible American accent. That’s not the issue. He has no charm or charisma in this thing. The best thing I can say about this performance is that he’s not Sam Worthington. He’s boring, but he doesn’t look sleepy the whole time.

LG: He’s much better than Sam Worthington, but we all are.

MO: We needed a light up in the smile kind of guy. Chris Pine was busy with Star Trek Into Darkness, but if we could just get a guy with that kind of charm we’d be fine. Some of my friends complained that it’s not the most interesting character anyway, which is true. Almost by default, he’s the least interesting character.

LG: I love Pine, but I don't think his brand of cockiness would fit here. The film almost needs a quieter character to contrast all the loudness of everything else. We need stoic and haunted isn’t up to the task. It’s very unusual for Del Toro to cast someone so bland in the lead. I know he’s wanted to work with Hunnam for a while, but it doesn’t work.

MO: I’ve seen him in a few other things. I only saw the pilot of Sons of Anarchy, which I thought he was fine in, but again, not the most interesting character in the show. And I remember liking him in Cold Mountain, but it’s been years since I’ve seen it. I don’t know what happened. He didn’t work here.

LG: But that’s about the worst thing I can say about this movie. Hopefully, maybe, by the skin of their teeth, we’ll get enough to see a sequel.

MO: I think this thing is going to be a success, I think there will be a word-of-mouth for it that might make it stick around. A lot of people are walking out of this thing thrilled.

LG: Kids are going to love this.

MO: They will, and I think there is more to chew on than people are giving it credit. It’s not as rich as, say, Hellboy II or obviously Pan’s Labyrinth, but it’s not intellectually bankrupt.  Most of all, though, it’s an absolute blast. I had a reaction of pure childlike joy.

LG: In a summer of heavy blockbusters trying to be dark and serious, this is a movie that really wants to entertain to the fullest extent possible. It's a mega-budget film without cynicism or pretension and that’s becoming increasingly rare. Now, I’m of two minds when grading this film. If I were reviewing this on its own in the context of the Roundtable, I’d give it an A because it’s a top-notch summer blockbuster. In the context of his other films, I’d give it a B. I’ll split the difference and give it a high B+.

MO: I’m giving it a pretty unreserved A-. It’s the most joyful experience I’ve had in a theatre in I don’t know how long.

LG: Go see this fucking thing!

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