published Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Del Toro's 'Pacific Rim' resurrects the Kaiju film

The Gipsy Danger robot in a scene from "Pacific Rim."
The Gipsy Danger robot in a scene from "Pacific Rim."
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
REVIEW

'Pacific Rim' is skillful — and very noisy

It’s one of the saving graces of “Pacific Rim,” Guillermo del Toro’s new mega-budget monsters vs. robots extravaganza, that at a key juncture, it knows how to make fun of itself.

This welcome bit of comic relief amid all the crunching, smashing and groaning in 3-D comes just as the good guys — that would be the robots, or rather the humans operating the 25-story machines built to save humanity — have hit a snag. These massive, digitally controlled contraptions suddenly all fail at once.

But then — eureka! — someone points out that one rusty old robot is analog. And so, in a movie that has spent some $200 million to boast the very best in state-of-the-art tradecraft, an analog machine saves the day, at least temporarily. Ha! Holy retro technology.

It’s too bad that del Toro’s film, a throwback to the Japanese Kaiju monster films made famous by “Godzilla,” doesn’t have many more such deft moments. Though it’s made by an obviously gifted director and will likely please devotees of the genre, it ultimately feels very short on character and long on noise, noise, noise. Did we mention the crunching, smashing and groaning?

Happily, the plot is not convoluted (the script is by Travis Beacham and del Toro) and there’s at least one really cool concept, called “The Drift.” No, this doesn’t involve land formations.

It’s the mind-melding that occurs between the two pilots of each Jaeger — that’s what they call the mega-robots that humans have built to fight the monsters rising from the sea. Subjected to a pre-flight “neural handshake,” the pilots are suddenly sharing brains, the better to command their robot.

This leads to amusing dialogue, such as: “You know what I’m thinking?” Beat. “I’m in your brain!” That’s meant to be funny, but a later remark seems inadvertently so, when the hero balks at going back to battle: “I can’t have anyone in my head again!”

The real action begins some seven years into the Kaiju offensive (and circa 2020.) The Jaeger program, once successful, is failing. Global defense authorities decide to drop it and go for a giant coastal wall. Didn’t they see “World War Z?” Ask Brad Pitt: Walls don’t keep out zombies, and they won’t keep Kaiju out, either. It’s back to the Jaegers.

Enter jaded former pilot Raleigh Becket (a handsome but bland Charlie Hunnam). Raleigh lost his co-pilot and brother in a Jaeger fight, and is in no mind to share his, er, mind again. But humanity’s at stake.

His new co-pilot is a young Japanese woman named Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) with a serious beef against the Kaiju. Showy supporting parts are played by Idris Elba as the impressively named commander Stacker Pentecost; Charlie Day as a manic, nerdy scientist (but not as funny as he could be); and Ron Perlman as a shadowy Kaiju-parts dealer.

It takes a good hour for the real battle to get going. You’re glad when it does, but mostly, you wish the mind-melding concept had been mined more fully, especially since the scenes inside people’s minds show, too briefly, another, subtler side of del Toro’s talents. One arresting flashback to Mako’s youth almost seems to come from a different movie — like the dloeperloeirector’s powerful 2006 “Pan’s Labyrinth.” Too bad del Toro doesn’t share a bit more of that terrific side of his moviemaking mind with us here.

Rating: PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America “for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence throughout, and brief language”

Running time: 131 minutes

— The Associated Press

The appeal of “Pacific Rim” isn’t complicated.

Like the kind of boyhood fantasy that delights in flying men and relishes dreams of dinosaurs, “Pacific Rim,” the latest film from director Guillermo Del Toro, is predicated on the simple, childlike thrill of seeing big ol’ robots and big ol’ monsters slug it out.

But while summer spectacles have grown ever larger in recent years, the monster movie — the original city-smashing genre — has mostly ceded the multiplexes to superheroes and more apocalyptic disaster films. But 14 years after Roland Emmerich’s forgettable “Godzilla” remake, Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim” constitutes a large-scale attempt to bring Japan’s beloved Kaiju movies — their monster films, of which Ishiro Honda’s 1954 “Godzilla” is the most famous — to American shores.

“Monsters have always spoken to a part of me that is really, really essential,” Del Toro, the Mexican director of the Oscar-nominated “Pan’s Labyrinth,” said in a recent interview. “All of my life, I felt out of place. The tragedy of every monster in every movie is that they are out of place. That’s the essential plight of monsters.”

In the 3-D “Pacific Rim,” which Warner Bros. will release Friday, July 12, the 25-story-high Kaiju emanate (as is tradition) from the sea one by one, each uniquely grotesque beasts. To combat these monsters and defend the coastlines of the Pacific, equally giant robots called Jaegers are built, each controlled by two brain-connected pilots.

Since he was a child, Del Toro has compulsively drawn monsters, beginning with sketches of the Creature from “Creature From the Black Lagoon” and the Phantom from “Phantom of the Opera.” He’s still an obsessive drawer (he has a book of drawings for every movie he makes), but creating the creatures and robots of “Pacific Rim” meant working in an entirely different scale.

While the Kaiju films of Toho studios were a formative influence on Del Toro, he boxed up his DVDs before starting work on “Pacific Rim,” intent on making a movie that wasn’t a mere homage. Instead, he took inspiration less from Japanese monster films than paintings like Goya’s “The Colossus” (which depicts a passing muscular giant, with fists raised, surrounded by clouds) and George Bellows’ visceral boxing paintings of hulking combatants.

“I wanted to bring the awe and spectacle of when you watch something so big that the scale is inhuman,” says Del Toro. “I kept thinking of the Goya painting because it seemed detached from ethical judgment. It’s so beyond human. It’s like watching a tornado and a hurricane clash.”

Del Toro speaks majestically about monsters and robots, which might sound comical if he wasn’t so earnestly heartfelt. With “Pacific Rim,” he sought the operatic grandeur of Goya and Bellows, attempting to capture what he calls “a beautiful monster pageantry.” Battles would take place in the middle of the sea, with swirling storms and torrents of water. At Comic-Con last year, Del Toro gleefully labeled his movie “robot porn.”

“Guillermo’s approach is to just show his passion,” says visual-effects supervisor John Knoll, the chief creative officer of Industrial Light and Magic. “When everyone on the crew sees how much Guillermo loves this stuff, how much it means to him, the enthusiasm is contagious.”

Del Toro, also a producer and co-screenwriter, worked closely with the effects team at ILM to create the battle sequences between the giant robots and creatures that make up much of the film. It was a particularly challenging project because of the scale involved, in addition to the frequent presence of water — long a computer-graphics headache.

“We sort of know how to make things look really big: You slow them down, there are other visual cues you can give it to say this thing is 250 feet tall,” says animation director Hal Hickel. “But if everything is moving very slowly, that could potentially be boring. You don’t want everything to look like it’s in a slow motion. The trick for us was to move things in a way that suggested their gigantic size and felt kind of realistic-ish, but at the same time was exciting to watch.”

The Kaiju film was birthed as a kind of fire-breathing metaphor for nuclear atrocity, with “Godzilla” coming nine years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In 2011, a new kind of nuclear nightmare occurred with the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown following the devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Work on “Pacific Rim” had already commenced before that disaster, but it’s possible a new chapter in the Kaiju film has begun. Legendary Pictures, which produced “Pacific Rim,” is also prepping a new “Godzilla” for 2014, to be released by Warner Bros. There’s also an adaptation of the 1970s Japanese giant robot animated series “Gaiking” in the works.

Knoll says the Kaiju movie is seeing a resurgence.

“They were great, cheesy fun,” says Knoll. “Here was something that was a bit of a love letter to those kinds of films. It was something that really hadn’t been done in the West in any significant way. But it’s something that’s been an enduring part of Japanese culture.”

Legendary is hoping that “Pacific Rim” spawns an enduring franchise, an aspiration some have questioned since the $200 million film was reportedly tracking somewhat poorly with preview audiences.

Will moviegoers embrace Del Toro’s grand Kaiju-robot showdown?

Del Toro says, “What I would love is for a generation of kids to have access to these sort of truly, truly escapist adventure movies.”

There is not such a thing as reprehensible violence in a Kaiju movie. They are so absolutely anomalous to our reality. You’re not going to see an imitation Kaiju attack because a Kaiju saw a movie and decided to attack a mall. It is so guilt-free.”

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