There has been a slow change in film heroes over that last few decades. In the 1940’s all the way through the mid to late 1960’s heroes heard the call of duty and they answered it, bravely and willingly. They did what was right because it was right. That was all the motivation needed. There was no complicated and tortured narratives required for the plot to get them to do what needed doing.
That kind of hero has been replaced by the reluctant hero. The kind of guy who resists picking up the gun, putting on the mask, taking charge of the team or whatever it happens to be in that particular story. He resists it until either the need for revenge or the literal fate of the world compels him to do what we all know he needs to do. We all saw him do it in the trailers for the film, so we know that eventually enough people will die or enough jeopardy will be heaped on the people close to him that he will do what is required.
I honestly didn’t realize how firm a hold that archetype has had on almost every genre of film until I sat down and watched Pacific Rim tonight in a packed Imax theater.
I had read Devin Faraci’s brilliant review on BadAssDigest.com and he talks about it in some detail, but it didn’t completely register until I saw the film for myself. I saw how completely it goes in a different direction. It’s not a new direction either. It will feel brand new to a younger generation now, but it is actually a very old direction. It’s a return to the John Wayne, Lee Marvin, Gregory Peck kind of hero.
I had several conversations after the film, some with friends from this very web site and some with friends at the theatre. I asked the Projection Booth Manager, Justin Stocks, who I know and respect quite a lot if he had ever seen anything like that. His reply was simple. Has Anyone ever seen anything like that?
Obviously, this film deals with fifty-story high Robots, here called Jaeger’s that mankind has built to fight equally giant Monsters called Kaiju that have started to climb up out of an opening in the floor of the Pacific Ocean to rain down destruction on both cities and people alike. It draws inspiration from a lot of different places and sub-genres, but it is all put together in a brand new and stunningly fresh tapestry. In that respect, we have not seen anything quite like this.
On another level though, the human level, it does remind me of some films I remember seeing in my youth. I remember watching one film in particular. It was 1980’s The Big Red One, written and directed by Samuel Fuller. In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit that when I was 12 years-old, the thing that drew me (and my cousin, Brandon) to the film when it aired on HBO, was the fact that Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill was in it. In 1982, that fact alone was the reason I saw both this film and slightly dorky Corvette Summer more times than I am comfortable admitting.
Over numerous viewings though, it wasn’t Mark Hamill’s character that interested me. It was the character of the nameless Sergeant, played with stoic perfection by the great Lee Marvin. He was a man of few words. A man who did what needed to be done. He took care of his people, his boys in his platoon. He got the job done. He got it done because it had to be done. He didn’t start the war. He didn’t whine and complain about his lot in life, being stuck on an endless march across North Africa on the forgotten front of the war. No, he was a man. Not just a man, he was a Man. He did his duty because it had to be done and no amount of complaining was going to change that simple fact. He didn’t sit on one side of the room, staring at his gun and vowing never to pick it up. No, he just got on with getting it done.
Aside from the giant robots fighting the massive monsters, that is the element of Pacific Rim that is so fresh. It’s fresh because it’s been so very long since we’ve seen that kind of man, that kind of hero on-screen.
I have been a fan of Guillermo Del Toro since I saw his first American film, Mimic at a matinée one Saturday afternoon on a whim. Although far from his best work, it was still so original that it blew me away. I sadly didn’t see his next film, The Devil’s Backbone until several years after it’s release. Back in the dark-ages before Netflix instant streaming and other streaming sites, if a film wasn’t available at your local video store (remember those?) and you didn’t live near a specialty type store, there were sometimes some very large holes in your film viewing life.
Like most people, he didn’t really hit my radar until he took a half-way decent original film and made a blazingly awesome sequel with 2002’s Blade II. I enjoyed the first film for what it was, but in Del Toro’s hands, the character jumped several levels of bad ass in one quick leap. He has made a habit of doing that with property’s that no one has much faith in.
In 2004 he did what a lot of people said really couldn’t be done and made a big-screen hero out of a six and a half-foot tall, horned red demon called Hellboy. Like most people, I liked the film but thought it suffered from the problems that plague a lot of comic to screen adaptations, namely that they shoe-horned in a civilian to serve as our (the audience) guide/surrogate.
He remedied that problem with the far superior sequel, 2008’s Hellboy: The Golden Army. In that film, all the elements that were forced to fit around an outsider character who was the audience surrogate were finally able to take center stage where they belonged and it was beautiful to witness. That film moved at a break-neck pace but never felt rushed and there were awe-inspiring set-pieces that made you want to stand up and cheer. And again, all this in service to a central character who is a six and a half-foot tall, horned red demon. No mean feat to be sure.
In between those two Hellboy adventures, Del Toro released what has been to this point his most critically adored film, 2006’s hauntingly beautiful Pan’s Labyrinth.
Pan’s Labyrinth is like a sweet fever dream. There are creatures roaming this film that are at once terrifying and seductive. Creatures that walk a razor-thin line between a dream and a nightmare, sometimes crossing back and forth in the course of a single scene.
I am running down a truncated list of his films because I think it will be important later. What does that mean? Hopefully it will make sense in just a few minutes.
As great a film as it was, Hellboy: The Golden Army was always going to be a film that appealed to a very select audience. It also had the mis-fortune of opening one week…one week…before the juggernaut that was The Dark Knight. It’s already limited audience latched onto the cultural tidal-wave of The Dark Knight and for the rest of the Summer, all other genre fare was almost completely forgotten.
It was Guillermo Del Toro’s sheer will, as well as the cache he had earned with Pan’s Labyrinth that got the second Hellboy film made and even though, with foreign box-office and dvd sales, the film actually made money, the studios and their bean counters were wary of sinking any massive budgets into anymore of Del Toro’s passion projects.
This became very clear when in 2010, after Months of pre-production and location scouting, as well as actual casting, Universal Pictures pulled the plug at the 11th hour on Del Toro’s long-in-gestation passion project, an adaptation of H.P Lovecraft’s ‘At the Mountains of Madness’.
After this set back, Del Toro was attached as co-writer and director of the The Lord of the Rings prequel films being made from The Hobbit. Then, after the bankruptcy of MGM kept the films from getting an official greenlight from the studio long enough for Del Toro to get restless and withdraw from the project, original LOTR co-writer and director Peter Jackson, who had planned to just produce and co-write these new films, stepped in and took the directors chair once again.
Over the past few years, Guillermo Del Toro has produced no less than 13 films, among them this Winters surprise horror hit, Mama, Kung Fu Panda, Splice, The Orphanage, and underrated horror re-make Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. While it has been nice to see Del Toro help bring a lot of up and coming filmmakers some added attention, the die-hard fans like myself have been awaiting what the man would finally choose as his next project as director.
The answer came without much fanfare. When he announced Pacific Rim, not a lot was known about the storyline. Del Toro, in his usual blustery and welcoming way, said it was going to be a film about Monsters rising out of the Pacific Ocean and causing havoc. As the Weeks turned into Months and casting was announced, we began to get a better picture of what we would be getting. At first I heard it was about giant Robot fighting giant Monsters and everyone couldn’t help but think of Transformers even against our will.
Operating as a kind of polar opposite of JJ Abrams and his infamous black box or black hole where absolutely no information at all about plot details or storylines gets out in hopes of saving everything, even the villain of the film (yes, I am still irritated by that) for opening night, Del Toro has been pretty open about what this film was going to be.
What is interesting though is, even though I knew the spine of the story going in, nothing at all was spoiled for me. Like everyone else, I have seen the trailers over the last few Months and I’ve been counting down the days until this opened. The trailers tell you the outline of the story to be sure.
Mankind thought that Alien life would come from the stars. Instead, it came from a crack in reality at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Massive, city wrecking Monsters, called Kaiju, climbed out and starting smashing everything. Conventional weapons worked, but they took too long. By the time the jets and tanks took down the Kaiju, it was 6 miles in-land. The Governments of the World set aside their differences and joined together and the Jaeger program was born. To fight Monsters, mankind built Monsters of their own. For a while it worked. The Jaeger’s beat down and killed the Kaiju’s. The Jaeger’s were too big to be piloted by one man, it took two, working together with their minds melded together in what is called the drift, where they share each others memories and thoughts and act as one. The pilots became like Rock Stars, with kids playing with toys of their favorite Jaeger’s as they battled in the backyard against toy Kaijus. Then slowly, the tide began to turn. The Kaiju’s started coming more often and they were getting bigger. They started to win against the Jaeger’s. One by One, the Jaeger’s began to fall and pilots began to die. The Governments lost faith in the Jaeger program and decided to put all their faith in building massive thousand foot tall walls, called life walls, along the coastlines of the Pacific nations in hopes of keeping the Kaiju out. They would cede ground and hope that the Monsters would leave them in peace. The leader of the Jaeger program, Stacker Pentecost, knows this is a futile hope and he is using the last of his men, and the last of the Jaeger’s still functioning to marshal together a last gambit. To take the war to the Kaiju. To cancel the apocalypse and close the crack at the bottom of the Pacific once and for all.
That tells you the basic storyline. It tells you where you will be dropped into this World once the lights go down and the actions starts, but in a strange way it doesn’t really tell you anything at all. This isn’t a film built on plot twists and an amazing sleight of hand by the screenwriter. The one mis-step in the marketing for this film has been them not selling the characters. This isn’t a Transformers film where the characters are all so thin you can almost see through them on-screen. Those movies don’t have characters, they have several perplexed and brain-dead people who interact with a series of ever more stupid people who do and say the most inane things and continue to act against every instinct a sane person would have simply because the filmmaker needs to move around the human chess pieces so they can get from chaotic set-piece to chaotic set-piece.
It is sad that we, as intelligent human beings, settle for that slop. There is more human emotion, awe-inspiring wonder and jaw dropping spectacle in the first 15 minutes of Pacific Rim then there has been in 3 movies and a combined 450 minutes or 7 1/2 hours of Transformers films we have been subjected to every other year since 2007. And at that point, we are still in the prologue of this film.
Guillermo Del Toro understands this very basic and fundamental fact. In order for you to get caught up in the pure wonder of the spectacle and get carried away by the gee-wiz amazement of it all, you must have actual, relatable Human characters to take that journey with. You have to be invested in their survival. When I was young, the blaster and the Falcon were just cool things, The guy I was in awe of was Han Solo. Yes, the lightsabre battle was awesome to a young kid, but as I sat in the dark theatre, the person I feared was Darth Vader. When we were kids, we wanted to BE Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Lando and the rest. C-3PO and R2-D2 weren’t cool effects, they were Droids. They were Characters that we lived and breathed. The saga of Star Wars was the saga of people we cared about. Me and my Cousins didn’t spend five-minutes thinking about how cool the CGI was or how real that Tie-Fighter or X-Wing fighter looked and how well they matted into the shot.
No, we cared about the Rebellion. We cared how they fared against the evil Galactic Empire. This simple fact was something I knew intellectually but hadn’t really considered on a conscious level in quite a while. Thank the movie gods Guillermo Del Toro knows this and builds the entire scope of this film around it.
Let’s take a look at the cast, shall we? I will start with the true center piece character of this film: Stacker Pentecost, played with levels of bad ass that I forgot were even possible by Idris Elba. He is the Lee Marvin character here. He is the leader of the Jaeger program and he is true north on the moral compass of the film. What does that mean? I mean he is the one who is right. When he says it, it is true. When he says someone isn’t ready for a mission, they are not. When he see’s what he needs to see and makes the call that they are ready, then they are and we as the audience know that all is right and well.
I was a fan of Independence Day when it came out and it is a film I still hold a lot of affection for. I do remember friends who also loved the film making gentle fun of the famous This is our Independence Day! speech made by Bill Pullman at the beginning of the films 3rd act. It is a very good speech and it almost pulls a cheer out of the audience. There is a similar speech at the start of the 3rd act here given by Idris Elba and I can assure you, no one will be mocking this one, not even in affectionate jest.
Something the film does brilliantly is bring the world of the film to life. I have made several references to Star Wars and they are very apt, because just as that film gave a you a world fully formed from the first frame, the same is done here. I gave you the basic framework of the story and plot above and the reason I did and don’t feel it is a spoiler is that all of that information is delivered on-screen in the first ten-minutes of screen time. The film doesn’t follow the traditional set-up of a movie like this. We don’t start with the first attack and follow the inception of the Jaeger program and watch it all unfold.
The film begins a decade or so after the first attack and resistance by the human race. We see in just a few stunning sequences at the beginning how the first attacks happened and he hear, in voice-over, about how the Jaeger’s were built and we see pieces of several battles, almost like a “Previously on…” intro to a show.
During the first major extended battle we meet our second hero, Raleigh Becket played by Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) who is co-pilot of 1st Generation Jaeger Gipsy Danger guarding the coastline of Alaska. They are sent in to battle a Kaiju that just came up and is heading towards the coast. He is co-pilot with his Brother, Yancy and they, in classic tradition, are just a little too cocky and the mission goes wrong. The Kaiju is defeated but it is at great personal cost. I’m sure you can read between the lines.
We jump ahead five-years and the story starts in earnest as Stacker Pentecost tracks down a now retired Becket and asks him to come back to the Jaeger program. The situation is dire and they need all the help they can get. What is so refreshing here is that, once the situation is explained, Becket accepts that he must do the right thing and joins the fight.
In almost any other film like this, that result would be the same but first there would be complete refusal and dismissal of the call. This would be followed by a scene where he was in a bar drinking and trying to forget the past. He would meet someone by accident who had lost someone to a Kaiju and wished they could Do something more and then he would see another tv news report about how bad the situation was and then, after wasting ten or fifteen minutes of screen time, Becket would go to meet Pentecost just as he was about to leave the area forever and accept his role in what is to come.
You are probably nodding your head as you read this and thinking back to a film or nine where this very scenario was played out. That is from the era of the reluctant hero that I talked about at the beginning of this. Thankfully, Del Toro isn’t interested in testing our patience here so we get to see, for the first time in a looong time, a classic hero moment on-screen. The hero takes the job and accepts his part in it and we can get onto the rest of the story.
Once we get to the Shatterdome, a place just outside of Hong Kong where the last several Jaeger’s are housed in what has to be the single largest skyscraper sized hanger ever seen on film, we meet the rest of our cast. I’m not going to name-check each actor, but I will say that we get a wide assortment of races, sexes and ages in the pilots that are gathered. Each remaining Jaeger’s are piloted by a unique group. There are the Russians who have platinum blonde hair, as well as Japanese pilots who wear blood-red uniforms and look like they stepped out of an anime. Some would say that they are stereotypes and I wouldn’t argue that, but I would also say they are heightened versions of the kinds of people you see in these kinds of films.
They are each designed to make an impression quickly and to stand out enough that when the battles begin, you know who is who. We also meet the scientist who simply must be in these kinds of films. They are played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman. Charlie Day plays the somewhat wacky Newt who has some radical ideas about how to fight the invading Kaiju and Burn Gorman plays what I am guessing is supposed to be the more conventional and straight-laced scientist but in Del Toro’s hands, he looks like he stepped right off the set of Re-Animator. That is a compliment by the way.
The last member of the cast I will talk about is the lovely Rinko Kikuchi who plays Pentecost’s right hand assistant, Mako. With the light blue that colors the tips of her pitch-black hair, she also looks like she stepped out of an anime. Of any character in the film, I would say it is hers that comes closest to playing into the male fantasy (some would say fetish) of an anime character. She does have a past with Pentecost and maybe a future with Becket if she can convince Pentecost to let het step into the light and embrace her destiny.
I am keeping this all vague enough that if you don’t look at any pictures on-line from the film and don’t watch any of the trailers, there will be some interesting surprises coming in the final act of the film. As I have stated though, this isn’t a film that hinges on plot twists. It is, at its heart, a very old-fashioned kind of movie. I will give Del Toro credit though, even though we know as modern blockbuster audiences, that the ending in never in doubt, he does make you sweat.
There are real stakes here. There is weight and consequences to each battle in the film. Where the Transformer films felt fake, this feels real. What do I mean? Yes, the effects in Transformers are cutting edge and state of the art. The robots look amazing and they are in most cases, the most human characters in those films, but there was a built-in artifice. We knew they would prevail and so we could sit back and just take in the spectacle of it all.
Here, even though we know that the good-guys will pull out the victory in the end, Del Toro stages the action in such a way that we are kept off-balance. We feel each punch. When the Jaeger’s jump and slam into a Kaiju, we feel the impact. He also keeps the battle clean and clear. There is no shaky-cam effect here, we watch the battles and know at all times what is happening where and to whom. He puts us right on-top of the action, below the action looking up and gives us at times an almost POV view of the battles, but it is always clear and concise. All of the battles have a beginning, middle and an end. They have layers. The battle sequences in this film should and will be studied by action directors for years to come. They will stand as the standard for how it should be done.
There is drama, humor and at times, fear for characters you have come to love. This is a complete world. Devin Faraci said in his review that you feel as though, if you went down any alley in this film you would find living breathing characters you could watch a complete film about. It’s true. I would watch a film about any of the pilots and their Jaeger’s in the movie. I would watch a whole movie about the beginning of the story when the rift in the Ocean opened and the first Kaiju climbed out and started wrecking havoc.
It feels like we’ve only seen a piece of this world. One part of the story. In a perfect world there will be many more adventures in the world of Pacific Rim. The movie eschews a cliffhanger ending. It tells a complete story but there could always be more stories told.
I hope Guillermo Del Toro gets a chance to tell a few of them. If he chooses to of course. Based on the love you can feel in every frame of this miracle of a movie, I am betting he would love that chance as well.
Just see it. Don’t think about it, don’t say you’ll watch it at home on dvd. If you love being floored and blown away by sheer wonder. Just go and see this movie on the biggest screen possible. Opening against Grown Ups 2, this film already has an up hill climb. Buy a ticket and score one for the geeks and sci-fi fans.
I promise you, you will not be sorry you did.
5 stars out of 5. Perfect.
.Until next time, Keep the Projector Threaded.