Ginormous
- Scott R. Garceau (The Philippine Star) - July 17, 2013 - 12:00am

I wanted to hate Pacific Rim. The trailer alone made me want to skip Guillermo del Toro’s $190 million summer movie featuring robots braining giant lizards. (Don’t all summer movies cost $190 million to make these days? Talk about inflation.)

But somehow, it’s just not possible to totally hate this movie. Sure, it starts out loud and threatens to become very stupid, very fast. You dread the two hours to come of large things crashing into buildings (we’ve seen enough of that already this summer, what with Superman endlessly battling General Zod). Yet del Toro’s movie has something else going for it: a genuine affection for the Japanese monster movies he (we) grew up on, like Godzilla and Monster Zero and War of the Gargantuas, stuff in which guys in rubber suits wrestled around on scale model sets; plus it owes a lot to Japanese anime of the ‘60s, like Astro Boy and Tetsujin 28-go (which we knew as Gigantor in the US). And for Filipinos, it can’t help but remind them of Voltes V.

Let’s face it, the story is not much more complicated than 1973’s Godzilla vs. Megalon, in which an alien civilization living under the Pacific Ocean unleashes a giant monster in retaliation for all the nuclear testing conducted by humans above (Godzilla is called in to fight the alien monster); cross that with Godzilla vs. MechaGodzilla, in which the big lizard battles his robotic arch enemy, and you’ve got a handle on the complexity of this movie.

But it does look great, even if the actors are on the B-side of things (Charlie Hunnam as washed-up robot pilot Raleigh; Idris Elba as Stacker, head of the monster-fighting team; Rinko Kikuchi as Mako, a Japanese woman with exceptional fighting skills; none of them are as animated as the CGI monsters). The Asian cities under attack are neon-lit optical fantasies, rife with Blade Runner’s grimy “used future” look down at ground level; and the monsters themselves sport bioluminescent streaks and whimsical design — you can tell del Toro and his co-writer, Travis Beacham, had fun coming up with outlandish mutant creatures from the deep.

It’s the near future, and Earth has been invaded from within — a portal to another dimension lies somewhere beneath the Pacific Ocean, between tectonic plates, allowing hordes of gigantic monsters to clamber up and descend on human cities.

They’re nasty and ginormous, and at first humans respond bravely by developing super-huge robots which can be operated by a pair of pilots — the fighters share a neural connection, allowing them to operate like two halves of a brain and instruct the robot to throw a left hook or right jab. So far, that sounds a lot like the robot costumes in James Cameron’s Aliens, or even that Hugh Jackman robot movie Real Steel (itself seemingly inspired by the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots game a lot of us grew up playing). But the neural connection thing — a brain-sharing known as “drift” — is a good way to develop character and explore buried memories and back story — such as Mako’s early terror at being left alone in downtown Tokyo amid rampaging monsters.

The robots, called Jaegers (German for “hunter”), manage to keep pace with the Kaijus (Japanese for “monster”) for a while… but evolution seems to be favoring the creatures’ improvement, and before long Earth governments are running out of Jaegers, and people to pilot them. Who’s gonna save the world?

It’s not a spoiler to say that Raleigh and Mako make a good team, and that Charlie Day turns up as a scientist and “Kaiju groupie” who wants nothing more than to do a mind meld with one of the fallen monsters. Day provides laughs in what otherwise could have been a barren, gritted-teeth macho landscape. (Also worth a comic moment or two is Ron Perlman as Hannibal Chau, a black market dealer in Kaiju body parts.)

 

The fight scenes themselves, which might have been tremendously boring, are oddly satisfying. There’s that Voltes V thrill of humans operating very large robots capable of taking on tasks much larger than human scale; it’s a genuine kick in seeing the Kaijus splash around in the ocean, hell-bent on destruction, or the Jaegers being delivered via helicopter squads, then dumped feet-first into the waters, fists raised and ready to fight. On a basic level, there’s something about these scenes that’s not much different from watching Godzilla battle Ghidrah or any of those Toho Studios monsters, which were really just guys in rubber suits lumbering and wrestling around small-scale sets of trains and buildings and high-tension wires in slow motion. Pacific Rim conjures up the young thrill of watching those cheapo movies on Saturday mornings, yet manages to transcend those memories, adding excellent special effects and a few witty lines, even though it’s still about as intellectually challenging as pro wrestling.

Oddly, del Toro instructed his production team to avoid looking to those early Godzilla movies for inspiration; instead, he had them look at things like Goya’s “The Colossus” for visual scale, visceral boxing paintings by George Bellows, and massive waves inspired by Hosukai. It works: those influences come through in the massive scale of things, but one other trick del Toro has is to contrast the very large with the very small: in one scene, a father and young daughter trudge through an Alaskan coastline with a metal detector; up lumbers a huge Jaeger, and the disparity in their sizes is awe-inspiring; in another scene a huge Jaeger mecha hand plunges through an office building, stopping short of one of those steel ball pendulums, setting the desktop toy in motion. Or better yet, the scenes with Mana Ashida, the little girl who plays the young Mako, in which her tiny stature is set against the vast size of a monster crashing through the streets behind her. (Del Toro has always liked to explore the effects of horror on the young; in this case it makes Mako stronger.)

There’s even a mention or two of Manila in the movie, as though to tip its hat to Voltes V and all those martial law babies growing up, dreaming of operating their own personal mechas, saving the world or at least making it safe for the ‘90s.

 

ASTRO BOY AND TETSUJIN BLADE RUNNER CHARLIE DAY CHARLIE HUNNAM DEL TORO EM ROBOTS GODZILLA PACIFIC OCEAN PACIFIC RIM VOLTES V
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