15 July 2013

First Impressions: Pacific Rim

There are a lot of strange things that rattle around my brain all the time. I was looking at one of those joke T-shirt websites that was full of Transformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Ghostbusters designs, and I really got thinking about what modern culture has contributed to that idea. Where are our iconic ironic T-shirts? What will our kids be jonesing on and buying online twenty or thirty years from now? The Big Modern movie is an adaptation - there already are Iron Man and Thor shirts out there. Where are all the great original movie ideas?

To be sure, things like Transformers and TMNT are really just based on toylines - but what are even the big toys nowadays that exist independent of movie or TV franchises? And that's to say, what property has the capability to elicit such longing nostalgia? Perhaps it's a futile effort - it's difficult to say what bits of culture will catch on and endure. Perhaps we should give up and resign ourselves to retreading the same cultural properties from the 80s over and over again.

Or we could just watch Pacific Rim (2013).

Go Go Power Jaegers!
Pacific Rim is the movie I've been waiting for all summer. It is certainly full of homage to the predecessors of its genre, but the Kaiju Monster Mash film has been long dormant and this brings a wholly original and thrilling experience to the big screen. No other film in the past decade has made me feel more like a kid again, devouring the surprisingly articulate and dense, yet accessible mythology (unlike Game of Thrones) until my tummy is sore. There is a tremendous amount of information packed into this flick, yet it moves swiftly, is engaging on almost every level, and provides one of the more entertaining rides at the box office yet this summer.

A film like Man of Steel (2013) is too concerned with the heady weight of its subject, slathering on layer after layer of self-importance and self-seriousness. The stakes in Pacific Rim are just as high, if not higher, but the film is able to have fun with itself and come down from the high and mighty forced iconography and deliver a genuinely thrilling and fun flick that yes, ends up being pretty damned iconic.

When I was a kid I was a total Godzilla junkie. I watched every terrible film the big green guy ever made, and even some of the four good ones. Actually, I haven't seen my favourite Godzilla film, Terror of Mechagodzilla (1975), in years. Like, probably close to twenty years. I wonder if that film is actually any good or not. I just dug Titanosaurus. Anyway, Pacific Rim brings me back to my roots and delivers more Giant Robot on Kaiju action than I could have ever hoped for. Needless to say, there are constant references to the Ol' Gojira Glory Days and even some more.

There isn't really a main Kaiju in this film, it's more a collective army that continually assaults humanity. At the same time, as ubiquitous as these attacks are, each one is pretty significant and deadly. Not many films open the first main fight with the main character getting his ass kicked. The film successfully keeps raising the bar - in a montage describing the success of the Jaeger (Giant Robot) program, it's clear that everyone has gotten cocky and confident in dealing with these beasts like it's no big deal. Of course, these are all Category I and II beasties. Once the III's and IV's start appearing, it's bad news bears for Idris Elba and the rest of his crack team of Rangers and technicians.
Del Toro was inspired to cast Charlie Day
after watching "Charlie Kelly: King of the Rats."
Let that awesomeness sink in.

Here's the one great thing about this flick that other old Godzilla films did so poorly: the human characters are actually cool and interesting and worth following and cheering for. The only memorable human in any Godzilla film is Steve Martin, and that's only because his name is freaking Steve Martin. The humans in Pacific Rim aren't an afterthought - they're a highlight. It helps that the cast features three actors from F/X shows, including a career-making performance from Charlie Day (It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and a Sons of Anarchy reunion from Ron Perlman and Charlie Hunnam, even though they don't share screentime in this flick. There's also surprisingly effective bits from Clifton Collins, Jr., who actually doesn't play a scumbag, and Burt Gorman, who is wildly off type from his small role in The Dark Knight Rises (2012).  Japanese actress Rinko Kikuchi (who yes, was in a Japanese film called Norwegian Wood [2010]), gives a nice tough yet vulnerable performance, but the big man here is clearly Elba.

Idris Elba needs to become a movie star. Like, a big-time A-List movie star. The dude is fearsome. Not only is he a total 180 from whatever the hell he was in Prometheus (2012), but he's perfect as the glue that keeps the rest of the cast and in-movie team from falling apart. There's all these moments of quiet rage, fatherly support, equal measures of rebellion, respect, and honor, along with a ton of badassery. He's a rock star. Now, why isn't he our Black Panther, yet?

The other big role here is the aforementioned Charlie Day. I can't remember the last time a basic cable actor was able to leverage the breakout character from a comedy show into a great big time Summer Blockbuster. That's probably because it's never happened before. Day knocks it out of the park. He shows an incredible amount of adoration for the Kaiju which becomes true fear when he meets one up close. He gives a great amount of levity and plays spectacularly off of Elba and Gorman. It's nice knowing that he can break out the Always Sunny niche, although he certainly does have a limited range, and an overused Melissa McCarthy-ization of the character would be unwelcome.

Finally, regarding the Sons of Anarchy, Hunnam does a nice job here, although I feel like he's the Garrett Hedlund of this film - pretty excellent, but ultimately not that groundbreaking. There was no reason that Hedlund shouldn't have had a career after TRON: Legacy (2010), but there was also no reason he should have had one. Hunnam is about the same here. Perlman is assuredly here from his great relationship with Guillermo del Toro after the Hellboy films and he absolutely chews the scenery as his over-the-top character should. It's excellent.

So, onto the Jaegers and Kaiju. There is more mythology covered in this film than any in recent memory, and if you didn't catch it all in the theater, there is a tremendously detailed wiki that seems to have been set-up pretty damn quickly. There is assuredly more there than I can cover here, but here are a bunch of things I noticed:

The extra-dimensional origins from the Breach in the middle of the Pacific Ocean was a perfect pulp origin that also works the way most modern movies do in explaining and rationalizing events that older films were content with just happening. We didn't really need a reason for Godzilla and the rest of his cronies to rise out of the ocean waves, even though he was either a radiated lizard or dinosaur. But these things rise from the ocean because of a huge interdimensional breach at the bottom of the sea. Works for me.
"Wait, we had a fucking SWORD this whole time?"

The Kaiju with the most screen time in the flick is Otachi, which starts off a lot like Clover (or even Anguirus, you could argue), but then totally goes Rodan as it sprouts wings and lifts Gipsy Danger into the stratosphere. In keeping with the more biological rather than radioactive roots, no Kaiji has crazy things like fire breath or micro-oxygen rays, but it was also nice to see at least some blue stuff come out of Otachi's mouth - a virulent acid that really fucks up Cherno Alpha's day. Speaking of crazy extra abilities, Leatherback, the fat and clumsy Kaiju (which is probably the biggest Godzilla reference of them all...) does have a huge electromagnetic pulse ability, that looks exactly like Godzilla's Rage Move from Godzilla: Destroy All Monsters Melee. There's also the giant crab Kaiju Onibaba, who is just about exactly like Ebirah from Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster (1966). Would it be too much for a Mothra analogy? Probably.

There are also two clear references to Godzilla vs. Super Mechagodzilla II (1993), the first being the location of a second Kaiju brain, like the one Godzilla has in his spine (and yes, that is never referenced prior to this movie, or since). The other is the presence of Gipsy Danger's Chest Burster Energy Weapon that it unleashes on Slattern, which is really similar to Mechagodzilla II's plasma grenade. I was also pumped to see Gipsy rear up a rocket punch, which gave me flashbacks to Big O.

I really want to know how they came up with names for all these guys. Are the Kaiju named like incoming storms? They seem to be equal parts Japanese (Onibaba, Otachi, Raiju), English (Trespasser, Knifehead, Bladehead, Leatherback) and I don't know (Scunner, Slattern). Although I guess those are words that I have never heard before. Oh jeez. As for the Jaegers, it seems as if each has two names that just need to be really really damn awesome. According to this list, we even missed out on some epic brawlers like Puma Real, Nova Hyperion, and Mammoth Apostle. There are actually a good amount of Spanish names here, clearly from the Panama City and Lima Shatterdomes. It'd be nice to see some more action on the East Rim, but as Guillermo del Toro sadly said, SOME things in the film, like the Mexican Jaeger, Matador Fury, just had to be cut. At least we got a really accurate Russian Robot, which may as well be named the Tsar Jaeger - big, old, and strong as hell. That's about right.

So how about that sequel? One of the better things about this movie is that it wasn't based on any sequel or property, and it also wrapped up pretty damn nicely. The mythology is actually so deep and dense that despite the fact that I (clearly) loved the hell out of this thing, a sequel doesn't really feel necessary. After all, they closed the Breach, how could the Monsters come back?

There are a million equally pulpy ways to end that question, but more importantly, what will they do for Round 2? It's unclear whether or not there will even be a sequel based on its domestic returns, although it's played nicely overseas, and the buzz has been positive as hell. This site posits some interesting ideas, including the concept of humans controlling the Kaiju, and the Evil Extradimensional Overlords controlling the Jaegers. So whatevs.

The best thing about this movie may be the fact that well, this is all set to go down like...next month. That's right, August 11, 2013 is the date of the first Kaiju attack. It's some great timing for a theatrical release. Until then, let's keep cancelling the apocalypse and enjoy the first really culturally great big Blockbuster of the year.

I'm also clearly on board for Great Lakes Rim (2015), which would feature the cities of Thunder Bay, Duluth, Milwaukee, Chicago, Grand Rapids, Detroit, Windsor, London, Cleveland, Erie, Buffalo, Hamilton, Toronto, and Rochester banding together to fight off the Kaiju that emerges from a big breach in the Hudson. Perfect.

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