Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim: Kaiju vs. Jaegers

At least, they do not destroy New York City.  For an apocalyptic film that constitutes real restraint.  The bad news is it is only a matter of time before all of mankind finds itself on the business end of the next major extinction event in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (trailer here), which opens today nationwide.

In the not too distant future, way down in Deep Thirteen . . . a mysterious alien race has begun rising through a breach in the Earth crust, sending gigantic monsters up to ravage Pacific coastal population centers.  They become known as “Kaiju” in honor of the great Japanese genre monster movies.  To combat this threat, the frontline nations joined forces to create giant Iron Man-like fighter-crafts they call “Jaegers” (the German word for hunters).  For a while, the Jaegers were taking care of business, but the Kaiju evolved, becoming bigger, stronger, and harder to kill.

Nobody understands this better than Raleigh Beckett.  Siblings like Beckett and his brother Yancey were often recruited as Jaeger pilots, because they are highly “drift compatible,” meaning they can form a strong neural bond with each other to control their massive fighting machines.  Unfortunately, when Yancey dies in battle his surviving brother shares the experience.  Shortsightedly, the Jaeger Project is discontinued in favor of a public works boondoggle of a barrier wall.  When that predictably fails, Beckett’s former commanding officer Stacker Pentecost rounds up all the mouth-balled Jaegers and a motley crew of pilots for a last stand.

There are the odd environmental implications to Rim, but frankly the film only mentions the ozone depletion mumbo-jumbo explanation in passing.  Of course, in old school Kaiju movies, the atomic bomb was always responsible for creating the monsters.  Ironically, a nuclear warhead might represent humanity’s salvation in Rim, if Pentecost’s team can slip one past the goalie, deep enough down the breach.

Even if it is an effects driven tent-pole, most cineastes will be interested in any film starring Idris Elba and Oscar nominee Rinko Kikuchi.  As one would expect, Elba is one of the very few name actors who has sufficient presence and masculinity to pull off the gruff on the outside, but slightly less gruff on the inside Stacker Pentecost (by the way, is del Toro’s Ronco character name-generating machine still under warranty?). 

Yet, the real breakout star is Kikuchi, who exhibits both acute sensitivity and legit action cred as rookie Jaeger pilot Mako Mori.  Charlie Hunnam is basically adequate as the out-for-redemption Raleigh Beckett, but that constitutes a significant improvement from his embarrassing turn in the laughable atheism advocacy potboiler, The Ledge.  Mana Ashida also deserves great credit for her tremendous green screen work as the young Mori, but viewers will start to absolutely despise del Toro for making her look so terrified.

Obviously, Pacific Rim is inspired by Kaiju classics, like the Godzilla and Daimajin franchises, but in terms of tone, the film feels more closely akin to anime, with its battling bots and angst-ridden crews.  In fact, the Jaegers bear a distinct resemblance to the Eva units in the Evangelion series. Frankly, a cheesy j-pop theme song would have come as a welcome relief from Ramin Djawadi’s ridiculously ominous score.

The visual effects are suitably impressive, particularly when rendering a sense of the enormous mass and scale of the Jaegers and creatures.  Still, it is too dark overall, never really giving viewers a good daytime shot of the Kaiju.  You start to wonder if they are allergic to Vitamin D.  As usual, the 3D adds little to the experience.

Frankly, the 3D surcharge might just price Rim out of a recommendation.  Kikuchi and Elba are excellent and the concept of a big budget, updated take on the Kaiju genre is pretty cool.  However, the script is rather workaday and a little of the bickering scientists’ comic relief goes a long, long way.  For Kaiju fans looking to beat the heat, Pacific Rim opens today (7/12) nationwide, including the Regal Union Square in New York (screening both the 3D and glorious 2D versions).