Sunday, July 14, 2013

Go Big or Go Extinct

Back in the early 80s, when I lived in Chicago, I became a regular Japanese animation geek. Initially, I was most drawn to Leiji Matsumoto's creations, such as SPACE CRUISER YAMATO, SPACE PIRATE CAPTAIN HARLOCK, GALAXY EXPRESS 999, QUEEN MILLENNIUM, and so forth, but during that period, there was an explosion of anime involving robot mecha -- MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM, SUPER DIMENSIONAL FORTRESS MACROSS, FANG OF THE SUN DOUGRAM, ORGUSS, and scads of others. Some of these, particularly the TV series MACROSS (which, combined with the series SOUTHERN CROSS and GENESIS CLIMBER MOSPEADA, found its way to our shores under the title ROBOTECH) and the movie MACROSS: DO YOU REMEMBER LOVE? turned me into a regular robot mecha fan boy.



Over the years, my interest in such things dwindled, but when word of PACIFIC RIM surfaced a while back, and I saw the images of hardware designs that weren't just anime-influenced but were in every respect Japanese science-fiction mecha, I had to sit up and take notice all over again. Add giant monsters to the formula, and the old dude is all fired up about going to the movies.




PACIFIC RIM is a straightforward, uncomplicated story about a giant monster invasion and humanity's desperate efforts to fight the marauding kaiju. Rather than outer space, these creatures are springing from a dimensional breach in the Pacific Ocean and wreaking havoc over the surface of the earth. The only weapons capable of destroying them are giant mechanical monster hunters, known as Jaegers, operated by pairs of pilots connected to the mecha via neural links. These are not just big rock-'em sock-'em robots but actual mobile suits that respond to the pilots' mental and physical input.



Brothers Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Yancy Becket (Diego Klattenhoff), piloting a Jaeger called Gypsy Danger, go into combat against a kaiju called Knifehead, which all but destroys the Jaeger and kills Yancy. Raleigh leaves the Jaeger force and for five years works on a construction team building a massive anti-kaiju wall along the coast. As one might expect, the wall proves ineffective, and Jaeger Force Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) calls Raleigh back for a last-ditch effort to destroy the dimensional breach itself. Raleigh is paired with a new pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who, at first, has certain difficulty adapting to the mecha's neural link. In the meantime, the kaiju assaults increase in frequency -- and the monsters themselves grow increasingly larger and more ferocious. Scientists Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day) and Herman Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), each working on separate approaches to conquer the kaiju, come up with an extreme plan that offers hope... but involves potentially unpleasant commerce with a notorious black marketeer named Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman), who has turned the kaiju attacks into a golden opportunity for himself.



Early in the film, I found myself absolutely not taken with the Becket brothers. They were the epitome of gung-ho naivete, spewing constant, trite attaboys to each other. It was inevitable that one of them wouldn't survive. However, as the film progresses, Raleigh's character becomes more appealing, particularly when he begins to interact with kaiju attack survivor Mako Mori. Mako shows herself to be a valiant fighter but a very vulnerable young woman. She and Becket develop a fair chemistry, both having unique strengths as well as frailties. There's an effective flashback chronicling the events that brought her to the present, the revelation about her relationship with Marshall Pentecost standing out as especially poignant. As Pentecost, no one could have been a better choice for the part than Idris Elba. He makes the perfect commanding officer: clinical, calculating, decisive, with just enough human warmth to make him sympathetic.



The scientists, Geiszler and Gottlieb, are a bit cartoony, played as much for laughs as to propel the story, but both prove ultimately engaging. Charlie Day as Geiszler brings to mind Rick Moranis in GHOSTBUSTERS, and his meeting with Hannibal Chau is both tense and funny -- side-splittingly so in a couple of instances. Ron Perlman as Chau chews up the scenery, the script, the monsters, everything, especially when explaining how he chose his name (it came from "his favorite historical military commander and Chinese restaurant in the United States").



Now, as for the monsters and the mecha....



The Jaegers themselves are the stuff of pure, classic anime, made as realistic as such things can be made in a live-action film. The designs, if not necessarily "believable," are functional within the scope of the movie, and quite beautifully so. Each robot has its own name -- such as Gypsy Danger, Crimson Typhoon, Kaiju Crusher, Coyote Tango -- much like a combat aircraft or naval vessel, and each comes equipped with its own unique weaponry.



The kaiju designs clearly hearken back to such Japanese monster franchises as ULTRAMAN and the GAMERA series. Although the generally decent CGI brings them to vibrant life, they are, on the whole, less impressive and certainly less memorable than the monsters from the original Godzilla series. Unfortunately, spectacular, lingering views of the beasts -- especially during the city attacks -- were few and far between. I've always enjoyed seeing daikaiju in all their glory, the camera views positioned to emphasize their size, their demeanors, their grandeur. While the direction and blocking of the scenes do give the monsters a certain organic authenticity, it's rather difficult to glean true pictures of them in their entireties. Think about the best of the Toho Godzilla films, and how many beautiful, panoramic scenes exist of Godzilla set against a doomed cityscape, allowing you to admire those familiar contours, the intricate back plates, the glaring reptilian gaze. While there's no shortage of spectacle with the Jaegers, I was hoping for an equal sense of the awesome with PACIFIC RIM's kaiju. To me, it's a noticeable but hardly critical flaw in the film.



Recently, Ms. B. and I have been watching the TV series PRISON BREAK on DVD, and I have quite admired composer Ramin Djawadi's scoring for the show. His work in PACIFIC RIM is effective, appropriately grand and often distinctive -- which is too rarely the case with so much modern film music. There's lots of deep, pulsing bass, electronic techno rhythms, and blaring, martial brass. Having an extensive library of daikaiju soundtrack albums on CD, I absolutely do look forward to adding the PACIFIC RIM soundtrack to the collection.



There have been a few non-Japanese giant monster films in the past couple of decades, but only a handful of them have been even a cut above mediocre. PACIFIC RIM may not be perfect by any stretch, but it's a damned good movie -- oftentimes impressive, consistently entertaining. While I am clearly a diehard daikaiju fan, I think PACIFIC RIM's excitement factor ought to be sufficient to engage muggles as well.
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