“Pacific Rim”

Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:

pacific rim

The ad campaign features more cool images than the movie.

“Pacific Rim” comes across as a dream project for director Guillermo del Toro, his chance to blow his geek-visionary load while fireworks explode on the soundtrack. The concept is suitably awesome: giant robots battle giant monsters in an apocalyptic showdown. It’s strange, then, that the movie is so lacking in basic virtues, like verve and excitement.

Del Toro made his name with atmospheric creep-outs like “Cronos” and “The Devil’s Backbone,” and his flair for baroque design and organic yuckiness brought pulse to routine projects like “Mimic” and “Blade II.” But he’s not much of an action director, a fact made clear by his two “Hellboy” pictures, both of which fall apart as soon as they turn into big-canvas extravaganzas. Some filmmakers — del Toro’s friend Peter Jackson, Robert Zemeckis — find their voice in complexity; they’re natural-born jugglers. Del Toro, on the other hand, is best when he hones in: the most memorable bits in the “Hellboy” movies are those set in the heroes’ underground lair (a sort of geek Shangri-La), because the director is able to bring out the passion and tenderness inherent in the characters’ eccentricities (it’s clear that del Toro identifies with these freak outcasts). That kind of intimacy is vital to del Toro’s effectiveness: He’s essentially a miniaturist, a curator of details and curiosities. When broadened in scope his work retains the fetish for detail but loses the intensity of focus that made it seem so alive. It’s as though a piece of medieval marginalia had been copied to a mural at a scale so large the eye can’t take it in. When this happens del Toro’s movies turn to mush; you can almost feel the director flailing.

“Pacific Rim” is virtually all big-canvas, and much of it is a mess. The narrative, which centers on the efforts of a robo-pilot named Raleigh to prove himself to the brass (there are echoes of “Top Gun”), is both overly familiar and poorly engineered. Del Toro and co-screenwriter Travis Beacham blur the storyline with complications, and they end up detracting from the ding-a-ling appeal of the concept. A romance between Raleigh and his co-pilot, a wee Japanese woman who — too predictably — is a whiz at martial arts, is bloodless from the get-go (Maverick and Goose generated more heat), and a subplot in which a scientist attempts to mind-meld with the beasties has more weight in its build-up than in its payoff. I was grateful for Idris Elba, who plays the good-guy honcho; he has a sturdiness that keeps you oriented, even though his character’s motivations often seem to be hovering about his head like comic-book thought balloons. And Ron Perlman is amusing in a role that’s too small. (His name made me giggle: he’s called Hannibal Chau.) But it’s not enough to compensate for the hole at the movie’s center. As Raleigh, Charlie Hunnam has no cockiness or charm, leaving you with nothing to root for. And del Toro allows the actor to look foolish: When Hunnam wants to communicate bravado, he hooks his thumb behind his belt and does a self-conscious saunter. He looks like a bar douche preparing an approach.

For a movie dedicated to Ray Harryhausen and Ishiro Honda, the behemoths of “Pacific Rim” are strangely lacking in personality, something you’d never think to say of the Ymir or Godzilla. Del Toro doesn’t invite the eye to linger: the monsters are shown in a blur of bits and pieces, the robots mostly in crowded hangars as they’re tinkered on by futuristic garage mechanics. When the combatants galumph into action the images are shrouded in computer-assisted water and darkness, presumably to conserve on the effects budget. I spent the movie straining my eyes, trying in vain to appreciate the wonders that had been promised by the ad campaign. It doesn’t help that the editing is jumbled and close-in, failing to give these giants the breath and space they need to live in the imagination. At nearly every turn, “Pacific Rim” substitutes chaos for awe.

We’re twenty years into the CGI revolution. Is it possible the products of computer animation have become less satisfying? The dinos of “Jurassic Park,” created by practical effects gurus like Dennis Muren and Phil Tippet, were made in conscious emulation of Harryhausen’s style, his tinkerer-magician’s spirt. That T-Rex may have been compiled by a computer, but it had presence — it performed. Now effects are split up among digital factories (at least eight on “Pacific Rim”) and carried out by teams of computer jockeys who specialize in minutia (one might do skin textures, another hair). This has resulted in movie monsters that feel cranked out and impersonal — that lack soul.

Soullessness wouldn’t be fatal if del Toro had the visuospatial instincts necessary to give his sequences majesty and scale. That’s what made moments in Michael Bay’s “Transformers” films so jaw-dropping. Bay is a crass opportunist, but he has a gift for working big. And there’s nothing in “Pacific Rim” that can touch the best bits of “Dark of the Moon,” like the incredible skydiving sequence, or the scene in which a giant roboticized drain snake pulverizes a building in a cyclone of destruction. Bay is reviled by critics and large swathes of the filmgoing public because he makes movies that have the sensibility of big-budget beer commercials. Del Toro, by contrast, is beloved for his fanboy rhapsodizing and his sensitivity towards genre archetypes. But Bay’s giant robot movie accomplishes something del Toro’s doesn’t: it transforms pixels into genuine spectacle.

Visually, “Pacific Rim” is most notable for its use of light and color: del Toro and his team have given the film a look that is consistent throughout the story’s settings, from the heroes’ militarized hangar to the streets of a “Blade Runner”-inspired Hong Kong. Here the movie’s darkness is effective: the glowing neon lights and the monsters’ bioluminescence create the impression of a nighttime world alight with hidden marvels (it’s like the deep-sea exploration footage familiar from nature documentaries). But there’s a downside to this kind of fussiness: the digitally shot film has been so tweaked through color-grading that its teal-orange palette is oppressive. It’s there in shot after shot; I couldn’t get it out of my consciousness. Digital technology was supposed to open up new possibilities for the look and design of movies, and in many ways it has. But it’s also resulted in a depressing sameness. Like their CGI monsters, the look of summer blockbusters is both technologically impressive and devoid of something essential, something perhaps related to the hard-to-pin-down set of qualities that gave traditional film its complexity and suggestiveness. Is it possible we’re witnessing the auto-tuning of movies?

The best thing in “Pacific Rim” might be the prologue, which fills in the picture’s back story with big, semi-satirical strokes that made me think of Paul Verhoeven. Here the movie is light on its feet, knowingly tongue-in-cheek, and smart. We even get a great “holy shit” image of a monster dismantling the Golden Gate Bridge (it’s an homage to Harryhausen). This sequence made me yearn for a “Pacific Rim” more in line with del Toro’s strengths — one that isn’t trying so hard to rock your world. Maybe we’ll see it in the prequel.

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About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Computers, Movies, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to “Pacific Rim”

  1. The fights were just repetitive and boring. Giant robots vs. monsters from the deep should not be dull, but there’s only so many times I can watch a monster get punched in the head before I lose interest.

    Del Toro should have drawn some inspiration from wrestling, where lumbering giants are made to look athletic and powerful. Later in the movie, I got excited when a jaeger holds a kaiju overhead, perfectly placed for a backbreaker, only to have my hopes dashed by the actual outcome, a halfhearted flinging away of the monster.

    Don’t get me started on how little understanding of a true military war machine was included in the screenplay, either.

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  2. Sasha says:

    Mmmm. Idris Elba.

    Looking forward to him playing Nelson Mandela.

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  3. agnostic says:

    The main failure visually seems to be the lack of scale contrast between the machines and their environment. You just see them surrounded by ocean, ginormous skyscrapers, other bigass robots, etc. It’s as if you’re watching a boring nature doc on Giganto World, where everything is kind of like here, only much bigger.

    Big does not equal sublime, it’s big in contrast to a spec that we identify with. A spec that looks threatened by the big thing. Could be people frantically running away, smaller-scale buildings that the big thing is crushing beneath its feet, or whatever else. To look menacing, it has to tower over many of the things that we consider normal or big in scale.

    And those smaller things being threatened have to look convincing if we are to identify with their vulnerability. Offensively fake CGI cars, houses, and people don’t make us feel threatened along with them — it just looks like a big dumb video game playing itself on the screen.

    We also need, at least for a few shots, a low camera angle that’s pointed steeply upward at the big thing. The steep angles implies how tall the thing is, as well as how close it is to us on the ground. It gives the scene an immediacy that cannot be achieved with faraway shallow-angle shots where the camera is also 50 feet off the ground (albeit to shoot a robot that’s 200 feet tall).

    This is like Big Scary Monster 101 stuff, yet you hardly see it in movies of the past 20 years. Even an ’80s movie that was mostly a comedy, but that also blended in sci-fi, could pull this off — namely, the Stay Puft marshmallow man scene from Ghostbusters. And it didn’t cost half a billion dollars to make (only $30 million, or around $60 million in 21st century dollars).

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  4. agnostic says:

    Here’s the establishing shot of how big the Stay Puft thing is compared to street lights, cars, and real-life people:

    And the rest of the scene, including the steeply angled shots as he crushes a church and walks over the camera:

    At the end, there’s a nice reversal of the low-angle shot, when a high-angle shot shows them blasting the sucker away with their proton streams angled downward while they command the high ground.

    I also think the cutting back and forth between menacing shots of Stay Puft and close-up shots of the Ghostbusters forming a huddle works to keep us from becoming desensitized to how huge the monster is. If the scene plays out with no changes in scale, then we only get that enough “woah” when we first see it, but would become accustomed to it. Interspersing keeps reminding us that there’s this gigantic thing steadily marching toward the human-scale heroes.

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    • Sasha says:

      True story: I went to primary school two blocks from 55 Central Park West, the haunted building in Ghostbusters. I used to walk past it to get to my bus stop. One day the streets were clogged with the usual ephemera that accompanies location filming: crowds, crews, lights, trailers, barricades, and so forth. But also strewn throughout the set was something else, something I’d never thought to be part of the filmmaking process and which frankly puzzled me:
      Huge chunks of burnt marshmallow.

      When I finally saw the finished film, it all made sense at last. 😉

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  5. I liked Del Toro’s early movies a lot and wish he’d get back to that kind of filmmaking. I watched the initial “Hellboy” and found it really dispiriting. He seems like a genuine intellectual/critic/fan and god knows “Hellboy” wasn’t bad. There’s real intelligence and appreciation in it, and it’s probably Ron Perlman’s role of a lifetime. Mostly though I couldn’t have cared less about the movie. All that said, I have no taste for this kind of CGI/comic-book stuff anyway, so what I think (and how I react) doesn’t and shouldn’t really count for much.

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  7. Tex says:

    I thought the design of the Kaijus themselves were terrific. A genuine, freaky, malevolent presence, particularly Tresspasser (the first one), and Onibaba (the giant crab-thing in the Asian girl flashback).

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  8. Tex says:

    And yes, Hellboy was a bag of ass

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