July 12, 2013

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Ask any scifi fan, they’ll likely tell you this week’s big movie, Pacific Rim, is in their top five most anticipated releases of the year. If you don’t know about it already, you might be curious enough to read on, and to find out about it nowโ€ฆ

Plot: Giant robots fight giant monsters. The world is at stake. Oh, and it’s directed by Hellboy’s Guillermo del Toroโ€ฆLet me get one thing out of the way for the sake of the fanboys and girls. Yes. It is entertaining. Do go see it.

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For the rest of you, let me tell you a bit more about why you might want to choose robots fighting monsters in Imax this hot July weekend.

The reason to see this movie is the mind-blowing, beautiful, and inventive production design. Guillermo del Toro is known for the far broodier and darker, as exampled by The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth. Don’t be fooled, those who don’t know this director, into thinking he is just another Roland Emmerich. In creating the look of this movie, del Toro wanted to find influences in art, instead of older monster movies like Godzilla. He referenced the artist Goya and the art of George Bellow’s boxing paintings. As a consequence, there is a warm color palette used in the set decoration that recalls a World War II nostalgia, with its flying aces, airplane hangers and rusted metals. There is also a surprising blending of overpopulated, Blade Runner excess chic with Alien minimalism. The 9 monsters, or “kaiju” in the film, all have aspects of Japanese monster movies as inspiration, but their design is also based in real animal anatomy. The robots, or “jaegers”, have a specificity of designs as well, based in their origins. The American jaeger “Gypsy Danger”, for example, incorporates elements from New York’s famous art deco buildings, while the Russian “Cherno Alpha” is based on the Russian T-series military tanks.

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del Toro also hired Industrial Light and Magic to create effects. He envisioned an extremely romantic visual quality, which led to highly saturated color palettes in the battle scenes and in the ocean sequences. He used Hokusai’s The Great Wave off Kanagawa as a reference, wanting to bring colors and movement never before used in underwater technical effects.

The idea for Pacific Rim was to bring an idealistic, optimistic type of crisis story to younger viewers, where they would get a sense of drama, color, and action, without the darkness often present in intense action blockbusters. Indeed del Toro delivers a sense of fun without bad taste, and lots of action without excessive bloodletting. There is little or no cursing, and far less misogyny and testosterone-laden posturing than one might expect from this kind of action flick. There are, however, a few scenes of apocalyptic destruction that might be scary for children of any age, so parents must, as always, use their discretion.

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As to its weaknesses, there are characters with back stories and character arcs that are less than optimally fleshed out. Also, the script is little concerned with pithy or clever dialogue, staying focused on forward movement to keep the under two hour running time in check. Don’t look for too many memorable quotes. Expect instead various near-future versions of “Let’s DO this!”. On the other hand, kudos to the writers for creating several colorful and memorable secondary characters we, the audience, can enjoy, most notably Charlie Day and Burn Gorman as two mathematician/scientists and Ron Perlman, a del Toro mainstay, as kaiju black-marketeer Hannibal Chau. Perlman is a hoot, taffying out his scant screen time with another of his over-the-top portrayals.

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The leads, Sons of Anarchy’s Charlie Hunnam, actress Rinko Kikuchi, Oscar nominated for her supporting work in Babel, and Promethius’s woefully underutilized Idris Elba, all add color and depth to their roles as the jaeger pilots and commander. The casting of these slightly less recognizable actors puts the story more front and center, but they all perform with aplomb, and make the characters their own.

This is one of those movies that benefits from IMAX and 3D, both of which are used to full advantage. While ILM is no exception to all FX houses in Hollywood, which seem to make a muddled mess of all close ups in battle scenes, there are still enough mid and long-range camera shots to clarify which robot is beating up which monster, or vice versa.

About Pacific Rim, one thing is certain. For anyone who enjoyed Japanese monster movies or played with Rock-em Sock-em robots as a kid, this is the perfect mash-up of two childhood pastimes. For a high budget action movie featuring monsters, it is more visually beautiful than anyone would have any right to expect. For that reason, if ever you had the vaguest curiosity about it, by all means go enjoy this cacophonous pummel-fest, courtesy of the big scaly feet crushing Tokyo in slow motion trapped for many years in Guillermo del Toro’s imagination. He has carried all his childhood memories into the present, bringing them together with the best talents in Hollywood. We are the more entertained for it.