Review 11 – Pacific Rim

When I was just four years old, I had my first experience with robots, specifically, the Transformers.  These machines inadvertently crash-landed on Earth from Cybertron, and gained the ability to transform into Earthly vehicles.  Most importantly, they were awesome.  For a long time, I was convinced the coolest things in the world were robots.

Then along came Pokémon.  Whether it was the cheesy TV series, the addictive trading card game or the legitimately awesome videogame, the Pocket Monsters became an obsession for millions, and still are.

Put simply, two of the things I love the most are robots and monsters.  That’s why I was pretty excited about Pacific Rim, a movie in which the two beat the living daylights out of one another.  I’m pleased to report it does exactly what it says on the box, nothing more, nothing less.

Put simply, two of the things I love the most are robots and monsters.  That’s why I was pretty excited about Pacific Rim, a movie in which the two beat the living daylights out of one another.  I’m pleased to report it does exactly what it says on the box, nothing more, nothing less.

Pacific Rim is set on a version of Earth which has been invaded by monsters from another dimension called Kaiju. The opening to this dimension is, you guessed it, underwater at the Pacific Rim .  The logical response?  Fight them off by building colossal Jaegers, mechs armed to the robotic teeth with more weaponry than an entire nation’s army.  When the Kaiju begin adapting to advances in Jaeger technology and gain the upper hand in the war, Commanding Officer Pentecost (Idris Elba) calls on has-been Jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) and unproven rookie Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) to join the last line of defense in the legendary Jaeger Gypsy Danger.  It’s a classic reimagining of the old good vs evil battle, and I could have written it when I was seven.  There are no real twists or turns in the plot, and it’s a predictable exercise.

The major roles are acted quite well, but the characters are never developed enough to allow their actors to do anything other than go through the motions.  There are jock pilots, a softly spoken but strong-willed Japanese woman, a stern commanding officer with a heart of gold, a bully rival pilot who eventually comes around… you’ve seen it all before, and frankly you’ve probably seen it better. They’re not mind-numbingly dull, nor are they mind-bogglingly interesting – they’re simply present to string things along.  They succeeded in keeping me mildly interested while I waited for the next title fight between Jaeger and Kaiju.

The standout is Mana Ashida, who plays a young Mako Mori and convinces during a limited number of flashbacks.  With very few, if any, lines of dialogue, she manages to express more in a few minutes of screen time than her more experienced co-stars can in the entire film.  Aged 9, she’s already a pretty big deal in Japan, and could be one to watch out west too.

Characters… plot… pfft. I saw the trailer. I didn’t come in expecting dialogue that crackles like Reservoir Dogs, an ingenious non-linear narrative and characters who will stay with me for a lifetime like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Brando’s Corleone or even Eric Cartman.  If you are expecting these things, you clearly misunderstood the trailer and will be extremely disappointed.

Characters… plot… pfft. I saw the trailer. I didn’t come in expecting dialogue that crackles like Reservoir Dogs, an ingenious non-linear narrative and characters who will stay with me for a lifetime like Heath Ledger’s Joker, Brando’s Corleone or even Eric Cartman.  If you are expecting these things, you clearly misunderstood the trailer and will be extremely disappointed.

The reality is, these little diversions are never outstanding enough to distract from the metallic main course of the film, and that’s for the best.  What makes this film tick is the action, which is gloriously intense.  It makes most action films look like games of backyard cricket; what’s on offer here is ridiculously epic and up close & personal at the same time, with long-ranged weaponry taking a backseat to good old-fashioned fisticuffs.  Despite the sheer size of the combatants, I found myself wincing at the more aggressive kills and moves, which is a real credit to Mr Del Toro, who has a talent for visceral, fantastical combat in all shapes and forms, a talent developed in the wicked Hellboy movies and, to a lesser extent, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Special effects are stunning, with nightmarish visions of real world cities torn apart by monster attacks interspersed with wonderfully creative robot and Kaiju designs.  While the plot is somewhat derivative, Pacific Rim’s creative team has clearly put a lot of care into creating a rich universe on which to project a number of storylines.  Each Jaeger and Kaiju is part of a class/category and has a codename, the inner-workings of the two-pilot Jaeger system has potential to be fascinating, and the biology and homeworld of the Kaiju could carry a film in themselves.

The richness of this vision is a pro and a con though.  While I’m looking forward to what comes next in the world of Pacific Rim, it’s a bit of a shame it wasn’t more fleshed out here.  The movie is quite long as it is, but I would have gladly surrendered a half-arsed attempt at drama in favour of something that engrossed me further into the universe, like an analysis of the parasites which crawl on the Kaiju, more screen-time for other Jaegers and their pilots, or an insight into the reasoning behind the Kaiju’s desire to exterminate humanity.

I guess your enjoyment of Pacific Rim will correlate directly with your love of robots and/or monsters. It’s absolutely crucial to note that there are some moments that don’t involve things like a robot left-hooking a monster across the face with a shipping vessel, but these mediocre moments are few and far between.  When it comes down to it, Pacific Rim is fine popcorn entertainment.  The generic plot points and crepe-thin characters never outweigh the gargantuan battles, and the fact that Del Toro has managed to put together a compelling universe in the face of stilted dialogue and a pedestrian story is impressive too.

In short, if you liked what you saw in the trailer, as I did, you will enjoy this movie, and you’ll probably want more in the future.  If not, bring a pair of noise-cancelling headphones and a book, because you’re in for over two hours of bullshit.  You’ve been warned.

 

Pacific Rim is a Category 4 Kaiju out of a Category 5.

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Review 6: Star Trek – Into Darkness

In 2009 JJ Abrams did what I thought was impossible: he made Star Trek cool.

Now some might argue that Star Trek was always cool.  Others would argue that those people who enjoy Star Trek are not cool.  But there were very few people who disliked JJ Abrams’ take on this classic sci-fi icon, whether you were a longtime Trekkie, a Star Wars fan boy, or pretty much anyone else for that matter.  He gave a 21st century coat of paint to a four-decade-old franchise, and made a damn good film while he was at it.  When the inevitable sequel Into Darkness was announced, I wondered whether he could keep his vision in warp flight, or if he would succumb to the gravitational pull of “sequel syndrome” and join the Star Wars prequels in their black hole of mediocrity?

Into Darkness opens with the Enterprise team on an observation mission, tasked with observing the indigenous species of a planet.  Their prime directive, which cannot be violated under any circumstances, is to not be seen.  When a volcano eruption threatens to wipe out the planet, the team decides to detonate a device within the volcano in order to save the species from extinction.  While they succeed, you guessed it, they’re seen, resulting in Captain Kirk’s (Christopher Pine) demotion and Commander Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) reassignment.  But when former Starfleet agent John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) commits a pair of deadly terrorist attacks, the Enterprise team is reformed by Admiral Marcus (Peter Weller, or as I like to call him, Robocop), and given orders to track Harrison to the Klingon homeworld of Kronos, and eliminate him using 72 prototype torpedoes.

Much like film one in this revamped series, Into Darkness isn’t exactly reinventing the energy pattern beam teleportation machine here.  This is straight up adventure sci-fi.  As such, it suffers by resorting to a few plot devices that have been done to death.  “Villain getting kidnapped deliberately” is probably the most blatant.  I won’t spoil anything else for you, and I won’t have to; the film does it by signposting particular plot points much too obviously.  Rather than little cat’s eyes on the road that could lead the audience down a number of roads, they’ve put big bloody flashing neon signs down: “THIS IS WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT!!!”

But it’s still a ripping ride.  It’s like looking at a rollercoaster before you get on, thinking to yourself “wow, that would be an absolute ripsnorter”, then getting on said rollercoaster and realising at the end that yes, it was an absolute ripsnorter.  Special effects are expectedly awesome, with some truly exhilarating action sequences melded in with a few moments of downtime, which for the most part break up the pace pretty effectively.  The soundtrack is an expert blend of new and old.  There’s a couple of fan-pleasing cameos from the Klingons and old mate Leonard Nimoy, who reprises his role as Spock Prime, albeit very briefly.  And the performances are largely excellent. 

Pine nails the womanising, swaggering, reckless yet emotionally volatile Kirk, taking him from the headstrong upstart he was in Star Trek to the flawed, selfless, ball of rage hero he is here.  Quinto clearly relishes his role as the borderline-robotic Spock, but also convinces when his character shows glimpses of humanity.  In fact, for me some of Spock’s moments of tenderness are the most affecting scenes of the film.  Pegg is outstanding as Scotty, showing that he’s more than just comic relief, although he is DEFINITELY comic relief.

There is a distinct lack of female input here.  Uhura (Zoe Saldana) chips in with a few lines about her relationship with Spock.  And Dr. Carol (Alice Eve) is decent, but seems to be more of a device used to further the plot (analyse something here, negotiate there, impart wisdom elsewhere), rather than a fully-fleshed out character unto herself.  And the outrageously gratuitous shot of her toned figure in her undergarments?  Pretty uncreative way to lighten the mood, and it won’t exactly win over many female fans sitting on the star fence.

It’s Mr. Cumberbatch who steals the show.  His delivery is like delicious chocolate for the ears, if the chocolate had extremely sharp shards of glass embedded in it.  His voice is simultaneously menacing and eloquent and he’s got a death stare that would make Medusa turn in fear.  He’s a far more nuanced character than Eric Bana’s incessantly angry Nero from Star Trek.  Cumberbatch’s John Harrison is a supremely pissed-off, hyper intelligent supersoldier harbouring sadness as deep as his hatred for Starfleet, and he’s a breath of fresh air.  Sci-fi filmmakers take note.

On the whole, what we have here is an exquisite sci-fi pie.  It’s presented well and pretty much all the ingredients are quality.  Sure, it’s just an apple pie.  You kind of know where it’s going to go, but you enjoy it nonetheless.  With a little extra time in the oven, maybe another twist to ensure even cooking or some unexpected elements to add a bit of extra spark, this would’ve been a perfect sci-fi pie.  But that just makes me more excited for the third instalment.  And as a Star Wars fan, waiting for Abrams’ continuation in that universe just got all the more unbearable.

Into Darkness is every bit as good as the preceding film, and I give it a four-year mission on the Starship Enterprise to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before… out of five.