Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pacific Rim

When I heard that Guillermo del Toro was making a giant monster/giant robot movie, I was really excited. Then, when I saw the first trailer, I found myself ambivalent. The visuals looked great, but there was no dialogue to speak of, only some really lame voiceover narration that seemed to be spoon-feeding the audience. Then I watched the trailer again, and thought, "Maybe the reason they used voiceover narration is that the dialogue in the movie is too contextual and substantive to be snipped together into a trailer that the editors think Joe Sixpack will understand." I crossed my fingers that the movie might have some smarts to it. Then people I knew started seeing it, and almost uniformly, they said things like, "If you want to see giant robots fighting giant monsters, you probably won't be disappointed in this movie." That didn't strike me as the most ringing endorsement.

So, while I still wanted to see the film, my expectations were for a passably good time and not much more.

Last night, I went to see Pacific Rim, and let me say this: there is a scene in this movie, just a fragment of a scene in fact, less than ten seconds long, that I would have paid the entire $10 ticket price to see.

And while the rest of the movie was not as mind-blowingly perfect as that scene, a great deal of it was still mind-blowing.

At this point in a review, there's usually a plot synopsis, so here it is:

Giant monsters start appearing, so to fight them, humanity builds giant robots.

Wait, no, that's the plot synopsis of the trailer, and the plot synopsis I expected based on everyone else I talked to who had seen the film. Let's try that again.

After losing his brother in one of the most pitched battles of the Kaiju War, Raleigh Becket hides from his past as an anonymous construction worker helping build the Wall -- a new system for defending the continents against giant monsters, intended to replace the giant robots that are now being decommissioned as relics. But (unsurprisingly) the world's politicians have foolishly misjudged the situation, and the Wall proves useless at stopping the monsters. Now only a handful of robots (called "jaegers") remain to stand between humanity and destruction, and Becket is the only person with experience piloting one of the models. When the commander of the jaeger program tries to recruit Becket, he initially refuses. He and his brother were mentally linked through their robot when the brother died, so Becket directly experienced his sibling's death, and doesn't ever want to have that happen again. But the commander convinces him, and he reluctantly rejoins the program.

Okay, so at this point, if the second synopsis doesn't sound strikingly more interesting than the first, you can probably give up on this movie. The added themes of family, loss, and disastrous politics are only the first of the layers that Pacific Rim adds on top of giant robots fighting giant monsters, and I've only covered the first few scenes of the film, but if you're not interested at this point, nothing I say about the compelling cast of characters, the careful development of the relationships between them, and the genuine emotion that the actors bring to the roles is likely to breach your resistance.

But if you're starting to think, "Hey, that does sound like there's a lot more to this movie that the trailers seemed to imply," then you're absolutely right.

The mental link between the jaeger pilots is not just a technological gimmick -- it's also a storytelling device, whereby we see riveting flashbacks of the characters' lives that make us understand where they have come from, who they are as people, and why they relate to the other characters as they do. The lame narration from the trailer is a cripplingly edited reduction of the movie's opening sequence, with all of the richest details excised. The only other dialogue from the trailer is part of a speech by the jaeger commander, Stacker Pentecost, and as with the edited narration, it leaves out all the context and all the best parts.

In short, this movie presents a richly imagined world full of its own technologies and social phenomena.  It presents its characters as people, and respects its audience enough to let the viewer infer years of life experience from a few carefully chosen, exquisitely conceived scenes. Guillermo del Toro pulls terrific performances from almost every member of the cast, and frames those performances onscreen with masterful composition and razor-perfect editing.

Of the movies I have seen this year, this one is perhaps the least spoiled by its trailers. It's full of people and settings and concepts you would never dream of from the previews, which basically just tell you that the movie is giant robots fighting giant monsters.

If you're any kind of action movie or sci-fi movie buff, I thoroughly recommend this film to you. And if you happen to also be a fan of giant monster movies or giant robot anime, then I can't believe you haven't already rushed out to see it.


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