7/23/2013

Pacific Rim: a review

Pacific Rim is probably the best bad movie I've seen in a while. By which I mean, it is not a movie that inspires you to actually bury your head in your hands, or to stare, appalled, through fanned fingers while thinking: what were you thinking? What were you thinking? Which is the effect a lot of recent 'blockbusters' like, say, Prometheus or the Star Trek reboot have had on me. That it's not actively bad is not the same thing, however, as saying it's necessarily great

There are two things that persuaded me to see this film: good reviews from sometimes surprising corners, and Guillermo Del Toro. Essentially, Del Toro did the best that could be done with the material, and with the plot and leading characters essentially demanded by a studio keeping a close eye on the returns. Financial necessity demands burly, not very bright leading characters, and a lot of monster-on-robot action. Anything else would likely have led to a box-office failure and less chance for Del Toro to gain the funding for the much more interesting and more personal projects that have so far made his career. And that's how I like to think of Pacific Rim: essentially a fundraiser for the movies Del Toro really wants to make. And that's fine. In that respect, the movie is more interesting for its implied politics than for its own story, what little there is of it. 

It says a great deal that three secondary characters prove far more interesting than the leads, who don't really need to do much more than stand on their mark and flex their muscles. I've seen it noted that the movie, unlike many of its type, actually has some character development, and while that's true, in the main it's only really sketched in. There's nothing there - in terms of the leads, at least - that you can't easily predict. That this has been noted as a positive attribute is not so much a reflection of the quality of the film's character development as it is a reflection of the lack of it in other, similar, big-budget CGI spectaculars. 

And, again, that's okay, because the world is full of hyper thirteen-year olds overdosing on sugar water and with a deep-seated need to see robots fighting monsters, and they deserve entertainment too. But it's in the details you can see the better, if considerably less profitable, movie that might have been made. 

Specifically, the two 'comedy' scientists, along with Ron Perlman's Hannibal Chau, are far more interesting than anyone else in the film. As I watched, I found myself imagining a far better movie: one in which the Kaiju (monsters) are simply an ongoing and occasional fact of life, with no immediate solution at hand to satisfy the Hollywood need for a climactic ending.  In this better movie, the two scientists, Geiszler and Gottlieb - particularly Geiszler, with his Kaiju tattoos, and Chau, the underworld kaiju organ dealer - are the leads. The monsters, to a very great extent, are in the background (in this movie in my head), and only glimpsed as the story leads our much more interesting 'secondary' characters through an adventure in many respects only tangentially related to the monsters. 

The fact is the movie only becomes genuinely interesting when it focuses on the culture that grows around the kaiju: whole districts of cities built around the remains of fallen monsters, and an entire black market industry dealing in kaiju skin, organs, bones and even parasites. The point where Chau is first seen, in a vast hidden marketplace of Kaiju organs, bones and teeth, is the one truly Del Toro moment of the movie. Every time we moved away from Chau and the scientists, I felt disappointed. I wanted to see more about this world, because it was fascinating. But every time it felt like we were about to discover more about a world that's learned to cope with the presence of skyscraper-sized rampaging monsters, we instead had to watch a robot and a monster hit each other a lot. 

And this is all why Pacific Rim is the best bad movie I've seen in a while. It's not really a bad movie, because it does precisely what it's intended to. It's disappointing, in the sense that I've seen very good reviews of it by people whose opinions I usually respect, so that's more of a personal thing. But oh, to see a film that focuses entirely on Chau, and his kaiju organs recovery team, and Geiszler and Gottlieb as his two most devoted customers...

(a side note: I again find it deeply interesting that once again, the heroes of the day are brooding Hollywood hulks with grim expressions, while the smartest guys in the room - Geiszler and Gottlieb, without whose combined brains humanity is entirely doomed - are treated as light comic relief. I'd hesitate to suggest it signals the end of Western Civilisation, but neither would I say it's a positive reflection on our culture.)
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