Big Mouths Strike Again
One of the less-commented-upon topics arising after the release of Prometheus last year was the fact that it finally killed off Guillermo del Toro's projected, long-gestating adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness, simply because the two were apparently so similar in terms of narrative and tone. The Lovecraft movie had been in development hell for a while simply because the director and studio couldn't agree on a budget and certification, but prior to this del Toro had been attached to direct the Hobbit movies, an undertaking he left following another lengthy production delay.
Really shockingly bad luck for a man who, when on his game, can be one of the best directors in the world. Am the only one who would rather have seen At the Mountains of Madness than Prometheus, and del Toro's Hobbit than Peter Jackson's? Hey ho. Now, however, he has finally got a movie made: his take on an effects-driven summer blockbuster, in the form of Pacific Rim.
Now, Pacific Rim is a bit of an oddity on a number of levels. First of all, it's a big summer movie that isn't a sequel, a remake, or an adaptation of a comic, computer game, or TV series. This is not to say that this isn't a colossally derivative film, however, which brings us to our second point. Hollywood studios are currently going to great lengths to make their movies attractive to foreign viewers – hence World War Z being rewritten and reshot to avoid offending Russian and Chinese audiences, and Iron Man 3 having extra scenes added to its Chinese release. China is, as they say, where it's at, and all the studios are trying to crack this new market. Except the makers of Pacific Rim, of course, who have opted to make a film more heavily steeped in the pop culture of Japan than any other release I can recall.
The bulk of the movie is set in the year 2025. For more than a decade the nations around the Pacific have been under attack by giant monsters emerging from a crack between dimensions at the bottom of the ocean. Conventional weapons have proven ineffective against these kaiju (as they have rather cutely been christened), with giant robotic fighting machines piloted by cybernetically-linked crews having been developed instead.
But an inexorable upsurge in the frequency and savagery of kaiju attacks means that even the giant robots are failing to stem the tide. The nations of the world have cut funding to the scheme and are instead placing their faith in the construction of a giant wall around the Pacific Ocean which should hopefully keep the monsters contained (I wouldn't think too hard about this bit of the plot).
Anyway, the chief of the giant robot defence force (Idris Elba) is refusing to let his project be shut down without having one last go at solving the kaiju problem permanently. To this end he is assembling all the surviving robots and crews in Hong Kong, with a view to launching a counterattack against the monsters at their point of origin. Amongst his pilots is Charlie Hunnam (whose career started, as I recall, with a different sort of rim-related activity in Queer As Folk), a veteran maverick dragged out of retirement for this one last mission. The problem is that his last co-pilot is dead, and he needs a partner to help him drive his robot. Perhaps Elba's youthful ward, played by the totemo kawaii Rinko Kikuchi, has a few suggestions...
There is, perhaps, a whiff of H.P. Lovecraft about Pacific Rim's other-dimensional intruders (for giant monster read Great Old One), but it is very obvious what the inspiration for this movie was: Japanese comics, TV shows, and movies from the 1950s onwards, primarily the Godzilla and Gamera series and their legions of imitators (although the shade of Gerry Anderson may be looking benevolently down upon some aspects of the production). To say that the giant monster genre is somewhat lacking in critical respectability is probably a bit of an understatement, and even the involvement of a director like del Toro is unlikely to provoke much of a reappraisal. Nevertheless, there is surely a primal, innocent joy to be derived from prolonged battle sequences in which gargantuan monsters and robots repeatedly punch each other in the mouth, and the best moments of Pacific Rim deliver this in spades.
That said, it's a bit disappointing that the first half of the movie is largely a monster-free zone, being much more concerned with the robots and their pilots and the back-stories of the various characters. There is nothing very cutting-edge going on here – as far as the plot and characterisations are concerned, Pacific Rim is painted in broad, crowd-pleasing strokes, featuring a bunch of people who are easy to understand and empathise with, and some straightforward problems and conflicts (solid performances from virtually the entire cast help). One might even say it's straightforward to the point of being cartoony, particularly where the comic relief boffins are concerned – and there certainly seems to be a degree of national stereotyping going on with some of the characters (the Chinese are aloof and inscrutable, the Russians cold and imperious, and the Australians loud and brash).
That said, I detect something of an influence from Gareth Edwards' Monsters in the presentation of the casual little details of a world in which attacks by giant monsters have become a fact of life. As you'd expect from del Toro, this is a story taking place in a fully-developed world, and one which I could happily have spent a little more time exploring the fringes of (Ron Perlman inevitably pops up in a juicy cameo as a black marketeer in monster remains).
But this is an adventure story, not a mood piece like Monsters (I'm dying to see what Edwards does with Godzilla himself this time next year), and soon enough there is robot-on-monster action aplenty filling the screen. Personally I found the various kaiju a little bit samey and lacking in personality compared to the likes of Anguillas, Gigan, Gyaos, and their other famous inspirations, but there are sound plot reasons for this and the action itself is spectacular.
Now, the issue of how to film giant monster battles for a modern audience is one with which various directors have grappled over the last couple of decades. The early-90s Godzilla movies stuck to the traditional style and just filmed the monsters full-length – this was, of course, back in the days of suitamation when properly integrating a monster into a scene with 'real' (i.e., non-miniature) elements was impossibly expensive. Even the 90s Gamera movies were slow to depart from this, their main innovation (other than the use of CGI) being to experiment with shooting the monsters from much closer and from a lower angle.
The 1998 American Godzilla is not a well-loved movie, with even Godzilla's Japanese paymasters at Toho making some rather cruel swipes at it in their own films – but it does seem to have been rather influential in number of ways – firstly, of course, it has a fully-CGId monster, but it's also largely shot from a human's perspective rather than a monster's (more low-angle filming) and it isn't afraid to clutter and obscure the screen during an action sequence. All the classic Japanese monster movies seemed to happen on nice sunny days in relatively wide-open spaces where you could see what was going on – Roland Emmerich's film largely occurs on dark and stormy nights, and frequently all you see is a giant foot or eye appearing from out of frame.
Del Toro appears to have been influenced by this, as all his major monster sequences take place at night, in the middle of storms, under water, and so on, and it is sometimes a little bit difficult to make out who is doing what to whom and how. There are tantalising glimpses of monster attacks on San Francisco and Sydney taking place in broad daylight, which look stunning, but they're very brief. For the rest of the time the action occurs in a neon-lit semi-darkness, giving it something of the look of a video game.
I've spent quite a lot of time talking in detail about the history of staging monster battles and how Pacific Rim's set pieces compare – and this is, quite simply, because they are the sine qua non of the movie, just as they are that of the genre which inspired it. Does del Toro get them quite right? Well – sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes the action is just a little bit too murky and frenetic to really be as coherent and exciting as it could be. But set against that, the Hong Kong battle that concludes the second act of the film is stunning, and stands up against anything from Shusuke Kaneko's Gamera trilogy or the very best of the Godzilla films.
That said, this is still a film about enormous robots and giant monsters repeatedly punching each other in the mouth – a fun, vivid, smart and witty one, with the outstanding battle sequence mentioned above, but still not necessarily a film which will appeal to you if you're not a monster movie fan to begin with. It is a homage as much as an original film, but it's an intelligent one that's taken some pains to have a coherent story and reasonable characterisations underpinning the non-stop special effects. It's not deep, but neither is it completely vapid. I can’t quite shake the feeling that Pacific Rim is a decent stab at realising a brilliant concept for a movie, rather than a brilliant movie full stop, but I still liked it very much indeed; I hope it does well.