Saturday, 13 July 2013

Pacific Rim; Sons of Anarchy do not unite to destroy all monsters

Pacific Rim cost $180 million, and looks it in every way possible. On the one hand, it's every bit as splendid looking as you'd expect of $180 megabucks spent by Guillermo del Toro; on the other hand, it's every bit as humdrum and uninvolving as you'd expect of a movie with that amount of money on the line. There's a recurring line about government initiatives; "Something has to be done, and this is something, so we're doing it." and I'm slowly coming to realise that for effects driven movies there's a slightly different line. "These are the things that we can put on the screen with computers, and someone's going to have to come up with a plot which will let us put those things on the screen." It doesn't, apparently, need to be much of a plot; just anything at all to fill the bits in between the expensive set pieces. And so it is with Pacific Rim, an impressive looking blockbuster with nothing much to say.

I had been looking forward to this movie since I first started to hear about it. Giant Robots! Meh, maybe. Fighting sea monsters! Meh, again. Directed by Guillermo del Toro! Oh, wait, hang on, what did you say this thing was going to be about? Pan's Labyrinth was the first good movie I wrote about on this blog, and indeed one of the reasons that the blog took its current turn to an endless self-indulgent meditation on how I waste my time looking at other people's work, rather than being mostly about painting and cameras. (It would probably be more about painting and cameras if I could find an easier way to put photos into the blog). Del Toro has gone all Hollywood since then, but Hellboys 1 and 2 were still pretty impressive stuff for me, keeping that balance between the fantastical and the humane which had made Pan's Labyrinth such a standout. If anyone could pull off a giant robot movie as a real movie about people, it would be - I thought - Guillermo.

So, now I know it can't be done. It's definitely a movie, and it's definitely got giant robots in it, together with a whole bunch of other del Toro tics like Ron Perlman and adorable girls in terrible peril and mad scientists and ramshackle machinery and wonderfully imagined monsters, but it doesn't really pack any emotional punch at all. I spent most of the front half of things thinking about how the robots didn't make any sense (and also about every time I see Charlie Hunnam, he's delivering voice-over soliloquies about lost family members). Then  Ron Perlman popped up, and John and I simultaneously said "Finally", and started hoping that the movie was going to find a better gear. No, not really, and so we spent most of the rest of it hoping Ron would come back (he does, briefly, in a credits joke we didn't wait around for, so let that be your top tip from today's entry; there's a credits gag you might want to wait for).

The film looks great, and the monsters look great, and if you're into giant robots, the giant robots will probably impress the heck out of you. But if you allow yourself the luxury of thinking for a second about what's going on, it starts to fall apart very quickly. Which is why it doesn't work as a movie. It's giant robots fighting sea monsters so plainly it's complete tosh from start to finish, and the audience can't afford to think too deeply. What's actually supposed to happen - the great unspoken contract between the audience and the movie is that either the spectacle will be too overwhelming to give you a moment to breathe, or the characters will be so engaging that you won't care that what they're doing doesn't make a bit of sense. Most big movies blow that, and that was why I thought del Toro might break the jinx. Though really, having read hisvampirebooks, I'm not quite sure why I was still thinking that. It's a pretty mechanical plot; the last remaining elites of the human resistance in their giant robot suits must save the world, and everything in the end will rest on a disgraced maverick and his ageing mentor, plus lots of self sacrifice and wacky comedy-relief scientist shenanigans. If you don't like robots, watch Independence Day instead; it's pretty much the same plot, just as stupid, and somehow more enjoyable. 

I could never really buy into Pacific Rim's robots. They're so huge and complicated, you need two people to pilot them, and they have to be mentally linked to do exactly the same movements at exactly the same time. On the one hand, this sounds like the kind of thing a writer cooks up so that he can have some way of giving his characters something to talk about and someone to say it to, and on the other hand - well, where do I start? You've got technology which can somehow couple two human brains into sync both with each other and yet you still need them to wave their arms and legs around physically to make the robot move? All the robot operators spend their time flailing around spastically in enormous control rooms looking like Jedward trying to play xBox with a Kinect, except that at least a Kinect can pick up your arm and leg movements with infra red sensors, while futuristic age robot technology has vast mechanical waldos fastened to the operators to magnify their movements. And they're all wearing armour, even though they're inside a hundred-metre metal colossus which ought to make armour for the crew completely pointless. Logically, they ought to be directly linked to the robot through the same mind reading technology that supposedly links the crews together, and cocooned perfectly still in a million layers of shock gel to cushion them against the relentless jolting of the monster punch-ups. But that wouldn't have looked cool….

I couldn't get away from that one. Giant robots are ridiculous anyway, so I was ready to put up with all kinds of nonsense (including; 100-metre metal colossus explicitly made out "of iron, no alloys", but can be carried around by helicopters; radio communication between Hong Kong and the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and through a transdimensional rift in space and time; armed guards everywhere despite the fact that there was absolutely no evidence of any threat which armed guards could have handled…), but somehow it was the stupid control system which broke my ability to lean back and enjoy the movie.

Which is a shame. There's good stuff. It's nice that the movie stands alone, with no need for another one; the backstory of how the war against the monsters started is sketched in efficiently before the credits , and the movie's ending rules out any kind of sequel. And the main action isn't about blowing up the world; it's more interested in showing us what the world is like after a dozen years of combat. Predictably enough, that's at its best when del Toro takes a break from robot action and takes the movie into a slum in Hong Kong which is built in the remains of one of the monsters; the time we spent with Ron Perlman and the mad scientists scavenging for monster body parts is vintage del Toro, full of messy organics and real suspense with real characters. There's more of a sense of threat and hazard in those scenes than there is in the huge sprawling robot on monster brawls which dominate the movie (all of which happen at night and in the rain, which makes them feel terribly samey and hard to follow).  

Disappointingly, Charlie Hunnam and Ron Perlman get no screen time together, so we didn't get any kind of a Sons of Anarchy reunion. I know my readers will think that's the greatest single weakness of the whole movie.

PS: This just showed up on Cracked, and I agree that it would have made a much better movie - I also think that it would have made it a much more del Toro movie, since Pan’s Labyrinth is a movie with a girl right at the heart of things.

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