When planning a huge, expensive summer blockbuster, the tone that you usually do not want to strike is “weird.”
Directed by: Guillermo del Toro
Written by: Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro
Starring: Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi
Which is how “Pacific Rim,” the unapologetically weird new movie from Guillermo del Toro, is even more of a miracle than originally anticipated.
I was trying to figure out how to accurately explain how the weirdness manifests itself in “Pacific Rim”, which is about a future where giant space monsters rise out of the sea through a dimensional rift to exterminate humanity. Because the basic plot is actually pretty standard (in fact, one of my qualms about this movie is that the third act is pretty much ripped off from “Independence Day.”) But there are just so many choices in this movie that don’t make sense:
the casting of relatively unknown Charlie Hunnam as the star (Sons of Anarchy- I assume it’s because the director is friends with Ron Perlman); the inexplicable presence of Charlie Day, who’s playing a slightly geekier version of the weirdo he plays on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”; Idris Elba, who probably should be playing Othello in the West End but instead has decided to build himself an empire of sci-fi speechmaking post-“Wire.” It looks like “Godzilla” vs. “Transformer” and it’s in 3D, and has a huge budget but it’s somehow not based on a comic book, and it’s dark and dreamlike while still being unbelievably detailed like a Neil Gaiman story, and it actually approximates something akin to a risk for the production company.
Writing that, I just now realized what the weirdness is- it’s the simple fact that I’m so inured to what a summer movie should look like and feel like, my sad American brain can’t comprehend how this movie was actually made.
But weird, it turns out, is great. It’s fun. A lot of fun, a swooping, positively overwhelming aesthetic experience that you must (must!) see in 3D and in IMAX. In the first scene, Hunnam, a “jaeger ranger” explains where and when we are: the monsters (called kaiju, which is Japanese for ‘beast’) began appearing and destroying cities. Humanity rose up and came together to create giant robots called jaegers to fight them, staffed by two rangers who become the “brain” of the robot.
There are people in this movie (including the lovely and subdued Rinko Kikuchi as Hunnam’s rookie co-pilot), but what you really care about are del Toro’s magnificent creations in the kaiju and the jaegers. The kaiju look like astonishly evolved dinosaurs, textured and fully-realized to make you viscerally understand how terrifying they are. The jaegers are wonderful precisely because you can kind of see how they could be built- they seem plausible, with their nuclear reactor hearts and neural centers were the two rangers plug themselves in and become the machine.
And then they fight. Oh, sweet Jesus, they fight, with pounding, unrelenting, rainy battle sequences that are probably overlong but who cares? I swear to God, the moment one of those insane dinosaur monsters spreads its gigantic, unexpected wings and takes off in the Hong Kong rain, carrying the ridiculous CGI transformer in its talons, I gasped. And applauded. Like a little kid. At one point near the beginning, a jaeger falls and is torn apart by the kaiju and it is profoundly, absurdly upsetting to watch. The carnage is bloodless but immediate and strangely personal. I’m still not quite sure how del Toro accomplished it.
Del Toro, above all, above everything else, has the spirit and primitive joy of a kid watching a monster movie. There’s something pure about it, the obvious love he has for his creations. It’s different than Michael Bay, whose movies are capitalist explosion-porn, or Ridley Scott, whose primary concern is creating something that film academics will pour over. There is no cynicism in del Toro’s work, no post-modern malaise. Dude just really likes Japanese monster movies, so he decided to make one. He also wisely eschews any easy political statements that could be made in this forum; a point is made that the monsters are able to come to our planet in part due to terraforming from the greenhouse effect, but it’s a fast revelation and not something that’s ruminated on beyond that scene.
In other words, it’s like no other summer blockbuster I’ve ever seen, and yet somehow it is the quintessential blockbuster. It is fast and furious, delightful and dark, based on every movie ever made and all its own. It’s meant to be seen on the biggest screen you can find, with 3D glasses, a giant bag of popcorn and 32 ounces of Mountain Dew. Go. Pay whatever they ask. You won’t see its like again.