Oh, ‘king Ghidorah, I loved PACIFIC RIM!

WARNING: Thar be spoliers!

Guillermo del Toro has been one of my favourite filmmakers for a long time. He brings a wide range of influences into his work, drawing deep from culture high and low. Well versed in art, mythology, history, literature and cinema, his films are visual delight. A grand cinematic alchemist, few can match him for the detail and artistry his work is infused with. Often, it’s important that filmmakers challenge their audiences. But a writer and director like del Toro makes films you wallow in, immerse, soak up and absorb. I find his oeuvre, his personality, his attitude such a joy and I pay close attention to everything that man is working on.

His output is split between smaller scale, more intimate Spanish language films and his larger, more pulpy, mainstream English language fare. I’m enthusiastic about both, but with a preference for his more intimate work. Most notable of all his films is Pan’s Labyrinth, which for me is the best film made in the last ten years. A beautifully wrought fusion of real life monsters and creatures from a dark fantasy otherworld, the film is a glorious, symbolist puzzle box. The story, set in the harsh, nightmarish realities of post war fascist Spain, concerns a young girl who escapes the ugly reality around her, retreating into a gorgeously realised dream world. It is a perfect film and I implore everyone to seek it out if they haven’t already caught it.

Beyond crafting some of my favourite films of all time, he’s also recording some of the best DVD commentaries I’ve ever heard. Give ‘em a spin, each one is is a gem, a brilliant mini film school on your TV!

Unfortunately, del Toro hasn’t directed in five years after a number of high profile film projects collapsed, such as The Hobbit and his dream project, At The Mountains Of Madness. Even landing Tom Cruise as a star and James Cameron as a producer couldn’t get that film a green light, thanks to nature of the source material and the economic crisis. It’s been too long since we’ve enjoyed his delicious, slightly insane take on cinema fantastique. So naturally, I was primed for his latest, gargantuan release.

PACIFIC RIM is his largest film to date and unsurprisingly, his most mainstream work. Unfortunately, it has met with mixed reviews and appears to have alluded the necessary figures to justify it’s $180 million budget. A shame, for beneath the skin of this simple, predictable, steel plated leviathan beats a gentle heart that romanticises human collaboration over conflict.

Plot wise, it’s fairly basic. Monsters (or Kaiju, as they’ve been christened in the story) have been rising from an inter-dimensional rift in the middle of the Pacific. When individual armies prove ineffective, the world unites and develops the Jaeger program. Jaegers are skyscraper sized robots piloted by a crew of two, connected to machine and each other via a neurological link. The films most interesting idea is the concept of the Drift, a process required to control these titanic metal beasts. The neurological load on one brain is too much for a single pilot to endure, so two pilots are mind melded together in the Drift to pilot a single Jaeger. Sharing memories and thoughts, two people become one, clanking forth to pulp the incursive alien behemoths. A success at first, the increasing size and frequency of the attacking Kaiju starts to take it’s toll. The elites and their quisling government lackeys hide behind giant walls, leaving the poor behind to be annihilated. Scrapping the Jaeger program, our glorious leaders want to focus the world’s dwindling resources on saving their interests instead of protecting the masses. Sound familiar?

Of course GDT is having a pop at the worlds current disastrous leadership, with their depressing failure to acknowledge the imminent threats of peak oil and climate change. But Pacific Rim also illustrates what happens when we work together, setting aside rivalries and prejudice.

Heading up the resistance against alien invasion and governmental indifference is Stacker Pentecost, the ‘last man standing’ (played by Idris Elba), Mako Mori (Rinkno Kikuchi), an unproven rookie with vengeance in her heart, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) as a troubled veteran, Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) as a scientist with a crazy theory and Hannibal Chau, a black market crook who peddles Kaiju aphrodisiacs (Ron Perlman, stealing every scene). Rather unfairly, the acting in this film has been criticised as being rather wooden, but I think the cast do the best with the material they have.

Playing out in the style of a WW2 era propaganda film (albeit one that extols humanism and internationalism over patriotism), the film is predictable, trope heavy, clichéd and full of characters with limited development. But Perlman is great and there were moments when Idris’s character really came alive (most notably with his “Two things” speech. Also, I loved the “don’t touch the cloth, moth!” look that he gave Charlie Hunnam’s character). It’s true that Charlie Day and Burn Gorman play a pair of cartoonish scientists, something that’s drawn a lot of flak from audiences and critics alike. But look at the character names, looks at the ludicrous world around the characters, look at the ridiculous monsters and the crazy robots! The whole film is a cartoon! Unlike any other blockbuster this year this film was FUN. It’s comfort food, but one that hopefully leaves seeds of thought about how we approach our relationship with people from different nations and cultures to our own, in order to face catastrophic, environment destroying “monsters at our door”. The film is well paced, especially the fine opening which motors along, covering a massive amount of world building in three minutes. Effectively, Pacific Rim is it’s own sequel, with the first tightly edited 180 seconds taking the place of a ‘first film’. By throwing us into the middle of the story, we get right into the action. No fat, no nonsense, just lean meat. Del Toro says he intended to make something pure, something that revelled in the positive, human spirit. For once, all his human characters, whilst imperfect and flawed, are heroes with a solid, decent core.

Even more unusual for del Toro are his monsters, depicted as unthinking forces of nature. In the past, we’ve had much to sympathise and even admire about his monsters, having long ago made a promise to the imaginary monsters haunting his childhood that he would always be their friend. His Kaiju seem very uninterested in anything even remotely resembling ‘friendship’. There’s no tragedy or complexity to these creatures, unlike the sad and troubled vampire in Chronos, looked after by a very understanding granddaughter (a young girl and her grandpire?). Then there’s the adolescent angst of Hellboy, or even Nomak from Blade II, who had the worst daddy issues ever. No, in Pacific Rim, these monsters exist purely to destroy.

Right or wrong, the filmmakers intended to evoke a tone from the movies of yesteryear. Whilst the screenplay is clearly lacking depth and the dialogue is often flavoured with a heavy dosage of fromage, is “We’re cancelling the apocalypse” (generally mocked in nearly every review I’ve seen) any worse than “We may not be able to save the world but we will avenge it” from Whedon’s Avengers?

The simplistic, old fashioned heroics of such clichéd characters should have been an absolute bore. I have to say I was caught up in the world the filmmakers created. Of course, the cast take top billing but it’s really the monsters and the machines that are the real stars, which is probably the main cause for the disconnect between the film and the general public. If you loved the death throws of the Stegosaurus in King Kong, or the indecision of ED 209 trying to get down those stairs in Robocop, you will love the character of the Kaijus and Jaegers as they slug it out in ocean, land and even space. Remember the actors performances in a Harryhausen flick? Nope, me neither. But you remember Medusa and that stupid clockwork owl. You remember those scorpions. You remember the bronze giant and you definitely remember those fucking skeletons! Pacific Rim serves it’s human cast far better than those films ever did…

The film has done well among the international geek nation (and will most likely sweep up in Japan, home of the Otaku), but a large bucket headed robot emoting anger by pumping its fists will probably sail over the heads of most people. I have to say I was rather partial to the real stars of the picture and if you can endure the flimsy cardboard characters in Star Wars, then I really see no reason why you would have a problem with the characterisation in this film. Starship Troopers is cut from the same cloth as Pacific Rim in terms of simple plot, echoes of WW2 and one dimensional characters, but whilst that was a brilliant satire on expansionism, militarism and fascism, Pacific Rim plays it dead straight. Perhaps a little too straight for a modern audience.

Below Pacific Rim’s beautifully designed surface surface, the film throws up some very progressive concepts. It’s a picture painted in bold strokes on a massive canvas, but the texture, the fine detail is fuel for the imagination, with a joyful, non ironic fetishisation of technology, a pure celebration of what human science, imagination and elbow grease is capable of. Also, it’s always a major plus for me when a film treats those at the top of the pyramid with utter contempt, and Guillermo is a director who’s often championed the merits of disobedience. After Pentecost’s superiors order him to shut down the Jaeger program, he responds by rejecting his military rank. We never see him in uniform again and he completely disassociates himself from the military, referring the Jaeger program as being a tool of “the resistance”. An impressive bit of storytelling which I really liked, dismissing the elite and their wall building.

It’s also interesting that the Jaegers require a bond between pilots to work. Control over your negative emotions is essential. This zen like mastery of anger and grief in order to connect with another is a key aspect of Jaeger piloting. In this film, the pursuit of the greater good requires a form of neurological socialism, one that requires empathy, trust communion and collaboration, putting the past behind us in order for our giant, planet saving robots to take a step forwards. The future is the only thing that counts in this world, our fears, prejudices and hatred fit only for an industrial sized recycling bin. And I may be mistaken, but there doesn’t seem to be any corporations in this world. Have all the vital energy, agricultural, medicinal and industrial corporations been renationalised? One can hope…

(One thing I did notice at the end, when the story has taken us to the other side of the portal and we see the Kaiju masters scurrying around. Did you notice the giant, planet sized eye thing in the background? Was this the real monster in the film? The ultimate power that directs the Kaiju-builders in their labours? Was this weird eye the 1% of this other universe? Were the Kaiju builders just the oppressed 99%? Or maybe it was just a weird planet/sun thing after all. I digress…)

Of course, if you actually stop and think about this ridiculous story the whole thing starts to fall apart. But that’s true of most blockbuster films, to be fair. Pacific Rim managed to keep my disbelief suspended throughout it’s running time, which is longer than most CGI blastathons can achieve with me on a normal trip to the cinema.

That said, I did have a few issues with that I couldn’t get past. I felt it was a big mistake to make the Kaiju who features in the saddest, most emotional part of the film to be a giant CRAB. Crabs never fail to be hilarious and it really took me out of the moment. The Kaiju should have been a terror to behold, perhaps given the unreliable nature of memories, (especially painful, deeply troubling ones) the creature could have been more of an abstract nightmare, a total horror, impossible for a childhood memory to reliably reconstruct in the Drift. This could have been an opportunity to do do something stylistically different to the rest of the film. Having a giant crab with clacking claws as the summation of all a characters pain, grief and anger didn’t really cut it for me.

Though I felt Del Toro’s editors (Peter Amundson and John Gilroy) keep the story tight and flowing just fine, I did feel Raleigh’s character was a bit of a void. We needed him to serve as the audiences introduction to the story and as story mechanic for us to get into Mako’s head (literally!). But I would have gladly sacrificed what little development Raleigh’s character had for more scenes between Mako and Pentecost, who were far more interesting to me as characters. My understanding is there was a 100 minutes(!) of scenes excised from the finished cut. I have to say, you do feel some of the gaps regarding Pentecost’s relationship with Mako. Less maybe more, but not for the exclusive benefit of lifting Raleigh’s serviceable, but dull character.

Another fault is the film peaks in the middle, a common problem among the cinematic behemoths nowadays. The battle in Hong Kong is amazing, inventive set piece after set piece, ending with a rather twisted denouement during a Kaiju autopsy that goes horribly wrong. Brilliant stuff, but sadly the best part of the film. The conclusion works well enough, but it never carries the same punch as the middle chapter. The Return Of The King had a similar problem, never recovering from the awe evoking battle of Minas Tirith. They really should have done four films, ending the third after that battle and allowing more run up, development and space to create a more intriguing finale. Instead, the film rushes to it’s rather disappointing final fight, leaving this viewer behind. That kind of disconnect is fatal and upon revisiting the film, I must confess I struggle to pass the middle act. Pacific Rim’s conclusion isn’t anywhere near this level of disappointment. But would it have killed them them to have Gypsy Danger smash the weird aliens home up when they cross the portal? To wreck a little payback, Godzilla style? Come on, these genocidal space fascists had it coming! I think we could be forgiven for enjoying a little mindless destruction, some poetic revenge. If I can enjoy melting Nazi’s at the end of Raiders, I could certainly enjoy this guilt free! Even better, perhaps the whole final fight between the surviving Jaegers and three Kaiju should have been on the other side of that portal, in that crazy, trippy, over saturated odd world? Instead, we get a fight obscured in the murk of the ocean floor. A shame.

A bonus complaint, feeding from that last one. Are action sequences getting too long nowadays? In Pacific Rim, the battle of Hong Kong in the middle act is 25 minutes long! It didn’t overstay it’s welcome, like the dull thudathon that was Man Of Steels conclusion, but both these films suffered a lack of space for their characters to grow. Contrast this to Wrath of Khan. That’s a sci-fi film full of great moments and emotional beats that has an excellent script. But not a single action scene is longer than a few minutes. Emotional investment in characters is vital if you’re going to care about them getting blown up. We seem to have forgotten that visceral action on a screen is just noise if it isn’t anchored by character and emotion. Films need breathing space instead of 40 minutes of leaden characters slugging at each other, thank you very much Man Of Steel. Whilst Pacific Rim is only guilty of minor offences in this regard, the conclusions final punch would have more had more impact had the film taken a bit more time with its characters.

Whilst the film does carry a humanist heart, I do feel they could have pushed the racial, social and gender mix even more. The Russian and Chinese crews get very little screen time, and seem to be in the film only long enough to die. Also, where were the Indians? The Pakistanis? The South Americans? At least have them representing in the background, surely? Also, it’s a bit troubling that the only black character with a speaking part in the film dies. And why did the bow tie dude have to be an American? Could have been anyone in the world. A missed opportunity.

I also wished the film focused a lot more on the workers who build and maintain the Jaegers. Frankly, I was surprised this never happened, given the noble, let’s-all-pull-together intentions of the film, albeit one which is already pretty packed in terms of exposition, action and the minuscule amount character work it has. Perhaps it could be something as simple as using more close ups on the workers rather than longshots on the robots in the films various montage sequences? It’s something you will find in the WW2 propaganda films that del Toro drew his inspiration from, so their absence is a bit odd.

Even more troubling was the disproportionate gender balance, even with all the good intentions of the films progressive ethos. Where were the women building the wall, or working on the Jaegers for that matter? The world is at war, calling on every resource the planet has. Where were the 50% of the population who would have rolled up their sleeves to help? Britain was run by women during WW2, so why not have them better represented in the world of Pacific Rim? Especially given that you’re trying to evoke the spirit of the 1940’s. As for Jaeger pilots, if married couples, siblings, parents and their offspring make the best drift compatible pilots, then why so few women? Why no mother and daughter teams? Another missed opportunity! If they’d made the Australians a mother and daughter pairing, it would have solved this issue completely. What’s more, it would have enabled the film to pass the Bechdel test (http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/markkermode/posts/Screen-Test). Granted, not every film needs gender balance. I absolutely adore the masterpiece that is John Carpenters THE THING, which has an all male cast, but that’s a film about alienation, isolation and paranoia. Pacific Rim is about progress through unity. Not having an equal amount of female speaking parts, not being as racially diverse as it should be is very unfortunate. Also, the female lead was called a “brave little girl” at one point. Really? A brave woman, surely! Then there was the silly boob plate armour the female pilots had to wear. There’s absolutely no reason to put breasts on body armour, other than to say “Oh look, boobs!” Not only would it be incredibly uncomfortable, it would actually be far more dangerous (as it makes clear here: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/05/boob-plate-armor-would-kill-you). Ask Brienne of Tarth, she knows the score! I respect that breasty body armour is an Anime tradition, but then so is tentacle rape. Not everything in anime needs a direct correspondence…

But the character of Mako goes some way to offsetting some of my criticisms over the gender issues. One thing that did impress me was the total acceptance of Mako’s capabilities as a Jaeger pilot. The only one who doesn’t feel this way is Pentecost. He’s holding her back out of genuine fear that she wouldn’t be able to get past her revenge and anger. Pentecost is proven right, but it’s also quite clear that gender isn’t a factor in his reservations and of course she acquits herself brilliantly during her trial by acid spewing Kaiju.

Further to this, the film was thankfully devoid of a romantic conclusion. Don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of romance in my films, just the same as anyone. But not every story needs to be capped with a kiss! It’s especially jarring when executives feel they have to crowbar a romance into a film to please the women in the audience. What pig headed chauvinism! That kiss at the end of Man Of Steel? Between two characters that had zero chemistry together? Completely out of place. Whilst I understand perfectly well that procreation is vital to the continuation of our species, does every sodding film have to force its leading male and leading female into pairing up? What message does that send to young women? You’re only complete if you have a man in your life? What a way to insult half of your potential audience… The platonic and respectful hug between Mako and Raleigh did feel earned, and was a perfectly acceptable place to exit the story. Del Toro has stated he wanted to create a character in Mako for his daughters to look up to, one who wasn’t defined just as a love interest. An excellent notion, but one that makes the silly boob plate armour seem even more unfortunate. I did feel Mako’s peephole spying felt out of character as well, like it was added at the behest of the studio to sow the seeds of a future relationship. If there’s a sequel, I hope they keep the relationship platonic. I fear they won’t.

While I feel there is a far better film that could have come out of this, I’m pretty amazed at the one we do have. The film cast a strange spell over me, even beyond the progressive message of the film. I’m not a fan of blockbusters and I find CGI to be a bit of a bore, to be honest. I adore the craft and skill needed to pull of the unreal, the impossible, the unbelievable using practical effects, but the plastic, uncanny valley of computer generated dolly’s is normally not for me. The big battle in Avengers bored the shit out of me, and I never felt any of the Lord Of The Rings films had an ending as good as the practical effects heavy sword ‘em up of the first film. With Pacific Rim, whilst I did feel a little disinterested in places, the beautiful, painterly renderings of machine and monster often made my heart soar! Furthermore, the camera is mostly STATIC. Shakeycam is still a popular choice, despite it’s horrible, composition ruining and spatial geography destroying effect on modern films. Take note, Synder et all…

The script has received a generous share of the criticism levelled at this film. Whilst they do have a point, it’s clear the intention was to make a simple, totally unambiguous film. I feel they went too far with the simplicity, but I found enough in the film for me to get past that. Besides, building giant robots to fight giant monsters who’ve been shot through a gap in reality to colonise our world made much more sense than anything that happened in Prometheus. How anyone can give that film a pass is beyond me. But in the spirit of universal harmony expressed by Pacific Rim, I suppose I should accept that the world takes all sorts. Including those who liked Prometheus.

Pacific Rim is exactly the kind of progressive mass entertainment we desperately need to offset the militarism, xenophobia and jingoism that mars so much of our blockbuster summer films. It’s is a sweet, sincere, beautifully constructed film with humanism in it’s atomic core. Our real world problems will require a co-ordinated and united effort, standing with each other, not behind a coloured rag on a stick, pointing our guns at each other like bloodthirsty morons. I don’t believe a film like Pacific Rim will change anyone’s mind, but it might start them thinking. The world wrecking beasts we desperately need to tackle? Climate change, long dismissed by a failed political system and of course, the Kaiju-like, out of control, casino backing, unregulated cabals of the financial world. These are the garganoauts we have to grapple with, to wrestle into the dust.

Pacific Rim is clearly made out of love by fans of pulp story telling and genre. It really feels like the usual committee of managers, statistical analysts and accounts weren’t invited to the story meetings. Whilst I was in the cinema I enjoyed every ridiculous moment. Oh, and I never even mentioned the awesome score by Ramin Djawadi. Brilliant stuff with an occasional side helping of Tom Morello’s weird and choppy guitar scratchings! There’s no denying I had issues with the script, but it’s been a very long time since a film of this size stayed with me beyond the cinema doors. A simple tale of unstoppable optimism, set within a fantastically detailed and beautifully rendered world, that has its heart and politics in the right place. For that alone, the film is a triumph and I salute Guillermo del Toro!

Bravo maestro!

Note –  If I sequel goes ahead, I’m throwing these names out to GDT if he’s looking for an appropriate nomenclature for a British Jaeger. Here’s my list:

Wicker Man – shit against fire breathing Kaiju.
Kettle Pounder
Prince Albert – with special hose tucking action…
Saucy Everett
Dangerous Kray
Compo-Mannering
Steel Wellington
Paddington Bear
Katie Price

I’m not expecting him to knock on my door down any time soon…

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