Monday, July 22, 2013

Pacific Rim - We As a People Picked Grown Ups 2 Over This?

OK, there's two reasons this entry took me a while to get to.

One is the obvious reason of delays from earlier this week, as well as my desire to get the two-film review of Robot Jox and G-Saviour out there first. Plus the subsequent two days of alcohol and abusive riffing spent recovering from the latter.

The other is, honestly, trying to work out my feelings about this movie without letting them get bogged down in the sheer frustration over how the film has been handled. Cause I'm gonna be honest - the fact this movie slipped and fell as hard as it has in the US is mind-boggling to me. I mean, in almost every other country it has been released in right now, the movie has been a success. The first weekend alone saw overseas sales surpass US ticket sales. This is even before factoring in that it still hasn't been released yet in Japan and China, two countries where it's already been projected to perform VERY well, with advance screenings drawing praise from industry people over there, including one of the founding fathers of giant robots, Go Nagai.

How did it do here? First weekend, it lost out to Adam Sandler's critically reviled Grown Ups 2. This weekend, it was even nearly outgunned by the much-maligned R.I.P.D., which itself opened ingloriously in sixth place on Friday.
Why did this happen? Well, there's been a lot of speculation and conspiracy theories about that, with theories ranging anywhere from a public relations hit campaign to plans to essentially undercut Legendary in light of their decision to break from Warner Bros. Whatever the reasons, one thing is pretty clear - WB decided to let this one twist in the wind while instead pumping their advertising manpower into Zack Snyder's somewhat shaky Man of Steel, and then afterward into the above-mentioned fumble R.I.P.D. Comparing the ad campaigns of the three films, it's really hard not to say WB just couldn't be bothered to properly promote PR, but was willing to put the effort into a film that was getting roasted as soon as the trailers hit.

So yeah, it took a while for me to get past the fact that, regardless of its own strengths or weaknesses (both of which we'll get to shortly) this movie's fate was already sealed by good old-fashioned studio politics-something I might not have minded that much were it at least being thrown over for a good movie. This is not one of those cases.

OK, I'm sorry, I just needed to get all of that out of my system. At least the overseas sales may still keep this movie afloat, but it's hard to look at the box office returns lately and question our cultural judgment.

ANYWAY, back to the movie.

Oh, one last prelude - I realize this has already been dispelled many, many, many times, but it bears repeating here. If you still think Pacific Rim was cribbing from Evangelion, I'm gonna give you a minute to either stow that, or promptly turn around a leave. I already derailed this enough with the fact that this movie got hosed because Warner Bros decided to, if I can be perfectly frank, make the dick move in this equation (yeah, you guys didn't pay the lion's share of the budget, but the fact is, the half-hearted marketing on your part since you don't have anything to lose here doesn't look good in the eyes of other prospective business partners.) ...and there I go again, point is, it's not a rip-off. Many of the things people claim it got from EVA, EVA itself borrowed from earlier works (Editor's note: Let's be real, most people making that claim have probably ONLY seen Eva). Welcome to modern storytelling, nothing is original, etc, etc.

"I don't understand it.  Whenever they used to do that move in the 70s, the arm always came back after."

Pacific Rim is something of a, now sadly rare, feature in the modern summer moviescape. In that this is one of the only blockbusters coming out this summer that isn't a sequel/remake/adaptation/etc of something else. I realize it seems odd to point this out, but there's a reason people keep coming back to this - because these kinds of films are sadly becoming endangered in favor of something with a pre-packaged marketing hook. I think this is one of the big reasons why I wanted to see this movie do well- the rebirth of the non-franchise blockbuster.

Its story is, admittedly, fairly basic - in the not-too-distant future, the Earth finds itself being attacked by giant monsters known as kaiju (one of the many little ways this film tips its had to giant robot and monster tales of yesteryear.) These creatures, emerging from a rift in the Pacific ocean codenamed The Breach, have left humanity reeling from their first attacks. Between their hard-to-kill nature and toxic blood, conventional arms have proven problematic to stop them. As an alternative, mankind has started the Jaeger program - giant robots designed to combat the kaiju. It works for a while. When the movie itself begins proper, however, the situation has changed. The kaiju have gotten stronger, smarter, etc, and mankind's jaegers have had a hard time keeping up. With the program facing shutdown in favor of simply walling off the problem ("If we don't see it, it's not there!"), the program's commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba, one of the highlights of the cast) is pooling all of his efforts into one last assault on the Breach. With his funds cut, he's pulling every option he has left, including bringing in the film's protagonist - former jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam.) Having lost his brother/partner in an earlier encounter, Raleigh finds himself somewhat hesitant to get back into the fight, but eventually finds his new partner in the form of a young, determined new pilot (Rinko Kikuchi, doing a decent job with beating some stereotyping her character could have fallen into.)

There is a part of me that wonders if this was designed partially to say 'Your move, video game designers.'

The story itself, as you can guess from the recap, is admittedly somewhat archetypical in some regards. Honestly, that's not too much of a problem in this case per se. Sometimes, a simple story works. In this case, it's helped along by one particular asset - the worldbuilding. Thanks to the setting director Guillermo Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham have come up with, there's enough interesting ideas to play around with to make a rather by-the-numbers story feel considerably more interesting to watch, especially thanks to how they explore concepts like the way jaegers are piloted (the two pilots share a collective conscious at the controls known as the drift.) Further to this end, they are able to explore a bit of how the rest of the world has learned to cope with kaiju and the threat bearing down on them, from bunkers to rationing. Probably one of the more standout elements of the world-building in this regard comes care of the Pan-Pacific Defense Corps' two main scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, playing off each other in a way that floats between rivalry and bickering like an old married couple,) and to this end, a visit to a black market for kaiju organs (overseen by Ron Perlman, in a role that, while brief, is actually pretty entertaining in his own right.) We get a sense of a world that is actually lived in, rather than simply a backdrop.

It really says something for Perlman that he is probably one of the only actors that could really pull off this look well.
For a bonus, look up the promo video he made advertising kaiju organs and their medicinal benefits.

In some ways, that actually provides a good lead-in to discuss the drawbacks on this movie. One of the biggest being that it feels like there isn't enough to it. Not that I mean it's too short, mind you. At over two hours, it's a pretty healthy length for a blockbuster. What I mean is, we're given this fairly interesting setting, but there's many elements in it that feel underdeveloped or not really explored at all - most particularly in the case of the Chinese and Russian jaeger teams. For having two rather impressive jaegers and fighting styles, they're barely even featured within the movie (the Chinese team is only identified by a collective name, and neither team has dialogue outside of combat.) This in particular becomes a pronounced problem with the second act of the movie - when much is made of friction between the American and Australian Jaeger teams - more specifically the younger Australian pilot, Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) believing the outdated Gipsy Danger and its unreliable pilots are a hindrance to the operation.  Despite these concerns, neither the Chinese nor Russian teams seem to have much to say on the matter, despite the fact such a circumstance would be a great window for developing the other teams and their different mindsets.  This may be a result of scenes being cut for time, but without knowing anything for certain on the matter, it remains a weakness here.  Likewise, even our main characters, though we get some discussion of their background, still feel like they have more to them than we got to exploring. It's the kind of thing that has me hoping maybe the overseas success will be enough that they won't completely abandon this as a franchise, since there is still a lot left really unexplored as far as this film goes. So this could turn into a strength, but just on the basis of its own movie, it's something of a hindrance. I'm not sure I can really call this missed potential, since in this case, it never so much feels squandered as much as they don't really focus on it. It's frustrating, but not in the same sense as feeling like they completely misused it.

Let's be honest - who didn't want to see more of this fighting style?  That's not sarcasm, I really do feel like we got short-changed on this guy.

Alongside this, there are some points in the plot that do feel a bit problematic on thinking them through (I won't go too in-depth into this, since the ones that really irked me here do get into spoilers.) Likewise, some of the characterization can be seen as hit or miss in some cases. Most particularly there's been debates over Kikuchi's character who, I can admit, is the subject of few problematic bits within the film, namely her dynamic with Stacker. On the other hand, her character has the biggest arc of the film, and as a character is judged by her skills, rather than gender, and is shows herself to be more than capable in combat. It says something kind of sad for the industry that, despite problems, she still feels like a considerable improvement over many of the other female leads we've gotten this summer.

The acting is, actually kind of half and half. Like I said before, Elba's turn as the base commander, for primarily being a begrudging authority figure, gives the role a pretty strong presence just by virtue of being there. Hunnam, in a bit more of a clean-cut turn from his regular role on Sons of Anarchy, is a bit basic, but does well for a role that, admittedly, isn't particularly deeply written. Likewise, while I still have some issues with how Kikuchi's role is written, I can't really fault her for still doing the best she can with the material. The one other standout in the cast being Max Martini as one of the other veteran pilots of the base, senior Australian pilot Herc Hansen.   Martini is kind of understated in the role, but honestly, he still manages to make for some good moments as a father to a son who even he admits, in his own words, he 'can't tell if he needs a hug or a kick in the ass.' Probably one of the best moments for getting an emotional performance actually goes to him as the movie builds to its climax and everyone is preparing for their final mission. I won't say any further beyond saying, again, he take a fairly basic scene and really sells it well. Otherwise, like said above, many of the supporting cast actually all play off each other well enough to stand out on their own without really hijacking the movie. The one other standout among them being Clifton Colins Jr, taking a character that could have simply been a talking head and instead giving him some extra bits of interaction, both in flashback, and in the present to show us a character who's grown and changed with the project.

"We've been over this a dozen times now.  No, I don't know what the Hell happened with the script to Prometheus. Nor will I try to justify the plotholes.  It was a good idea when we all signed on, then it went all LOST on us. Now will you stop reminding me of it?"

The direction of the overall movie, meanwhile, helps further make the most of the basic material. While this isn't going to be remembered on quite the same tier as Pan's Labyrinth or The Devil's Backbone, Del Toro handles the material with a suitable touch, getting a good sense of what the movie pays tribute to without feeling overly referential or making the proverbial 'wink and a nudge' style of shout-out that can get old in a film fast. Further, he makes good on the point that was always meant to be the film's biggest draw - the fights. Rather than feeling like just straight-up destruction porn (something blockbusters have made into an industry all its own,) the movie still focuses primarily on the giant fighters throwing down. Rather than offering us terrified and fleeing citizens (something which is almost becoming like shock value nowadays) these are people who've already gotten used to the system enough to take to shelters. It's a minor point, but one that really does help set this off from other blockbusters a bit more this season. Finally, and another asset of how this film plays out, is the soundtrack composed by Ramin Djawadi. For a name that's not quite achieved the same status as many of the big name composers in film nowadays, I'm actually pleased with how Djawadi's work has come along - between this, his work on the first Iron Man, and the continuing work on Game of Thrones, he's fast proving himself to be a strong contender for music. In this case particularly, his score adds some extra energy to the fights that is a very nice bonus.

All in all, and in spite of the flaws discussed earlier, I do still have to hand this to Del Toro - I had fun with this movie. A lot of fun. In fact, so far this is the most satisfied I've been with a movie this summer. Again, it's not perfect, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel like there were some things it could have improved on. Despite that though, I still felt pleased with this final product, rather than wondering what the Hell they were thinking with some of the changes on the likes of Man of Steel or Star Trek: Into Darkness. That fun element, in a lot of ways, is probably one of the things that helps the movie the most here - for all its faults, it's not a movie that's trying to be high art or make a profound social statement. Del Toro just wanted to make something of an all-around universal adventure story about mankind using giant robots to fight monsters. Simple, to the point, and in that regard, it still manages to do its job well, warts and all.

I'm not sure if the overseas success will be able to change Hollywood's mind on how to say this film went over (though it has still gotten some pretty notable word of mouth to this point) but I have to say, even with the shortcomings, I'm still very glad that they made the attempt. I'm not sure if we'll see any more from this world in the future - but based on the sampling we got from this, I would be keen to see what they can do with more opportunities and a chance to work out the bugs in this.

Whew...that went...much longer than I expected. Pretty surprising for a film that I had earlier said is actually pretty straightforward in its narrative.

Well, that puts us almost back up to standard again. Next will come the (overdue) second entry for Summer Reading (...oh come on now, I know some of you are checking those out!)

Till then.

"Always remember, son.  In a fight between the main robot and a giant monster, ALWAYS bet on the robot..."

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