Too much cake (or watching “Pacific Rim” 2013)Posted: August 4, 2013
Annie indulged me by accompanying me to see “Pacific Rim” (the film by Guillermo Del Toro) at the theater the other night. Why I wanted to see Pacific Rim was simple: dinosaurs fighting robots. But when the film was over, I left the theater feeling overstuffed — as if I had eaten too much cake. Sometimes you get exactly what you think you want and you end up feeling kind of sick at the end.
Pacific Rim is a film by Guillermo Del Toro where giant monsters (known as ‘Kaiju’) periodically crawl up out of a fissure/portal to another world in the bottom of the pacific ocean and attack coastal cities, much like Godzilla did in 1954. In order to defend themselves, the humans construct giant robots called ‘Jaegers’ which are piloted by pairs of humans who need to establish some kind of ‘mind bond’ with one another. The humans discover that the kaiju are being sent by aliens who are intent on taking over the earth. The pace and ferocity of the kaiju attacks increase and a smaller number of robots and robot pilot teams have to fight harder than ever to stem the tide. Idras Elba (Stringer Bell from The Wire), Ron Perleman (from just about anything) and that good looking guy who plays “Jacks” on Sons of Anarchy are in this movie along with a lot of other people.
Everything in ‘Pacific Rim’ is huge and loud and colorful and complicated. Hong Kong (where much of the action takes place) looks like the city from ‘Blade Runner’ with flashing billboards, lots of umbrellas and Asian people crowding around street vendors in narrow, dangerous streets. When the kaiju battle the robots, cargo ships get used as baseball bats, they knock over buildings like drunken men in a bar fight might knock over tables and chairs and the humans just need to scramble to get out of the way and hope the robot kills the kaiju before the city is completely destroyed. It is Greco-Roman wrestling and martial arts on a grand scale — each second of battle is accompanied by noisy, anarchic, glorious destruction.
I wanted to like it; I really did. I grew up on shows like ‘Ultraman’ and ‘Johnny Sokko and his Flying Robot.’ I loved the ‘Kaiju’ movies where actors in rubber dinosaur suits stomped on cars, knocked over buildings, waded through the ocean like it was a kiddy pool and swatted planes out of the sky. So why was I underwhelmed by ‘Pacific Rim’?
I suspect the biggest part of the problem is that I am no longer 9 years old. As a young sprat, I probably had an inexhaustible appetite for seeing cities get destroyed and screaming commuters running away in fear as the army, once again tasked with the impossible job of fighting Godzilla, rolls in to get squashed and stomped on until the monster gets bored and wades off into the ocean to sleep beneath the waves for another couple of years. The ‘kaiju’ movies of the fifties, sixties and seventies did not benefit from modern digital imaging; everything was done with models. You could usually see the fishing line that the toy airplanes were strung from as they buzzed around Godzilla’s head like mosquitoes. The ‘tanks’ which fired countless artillery shells at the monsters were clearly toy models. When Godzilla grabbed a commuter train in his mouth like bulldog grabbing a string of sausages, you could see that it was a model train. They would then cut to a crowd of Japanese salary men and housewives shrieking in terror and running for their lives. Like many children, I had a fascination with things that were very large and very small. Much of my fascination with Godzilla was probably based on the fact that I knew exactly how the illusion was created, and, dammit, it looked like a lot of fun. What kid wouldn’t like a movie that looked like the adults had made it with toys, fireworks and elaborate models of tall buildings? As an adult, I can imagine that I might watch Godzilla movies with a certain amount of nostalgia, but I doubt I could muster up the same level of enthusiasm if I had been an adult when I first saw those films on TV so many years ago.
In ‘Pacific Rim,’ on the other hand, the elaborate (and often visually overwhelming) effects didn’t make me think that the film makers were playing with scale as much. If memory serves, when Ishiro Honda made ‘Godzilla’ in 1954, he frequently placed the camera at a low angle… the camera was down there with the toy tanks as they rolled up to fire at Godzilla. The camera then switched to Godzilla’s point of view where he looked down at these tiny, annoying vehicles that were shooting at him. Godzilla, like King Kong, was sometimes seen looking through windows at the tiny humans hiding inside. The director was always reminding us of the size of the monster. In ‘Pacific Rim,’ thanks to modern technology, the camera circles the action like a fly buzzing around the room. A lot is gained (the ship that one of the robots uses as a club really looks like a ship — it doesn’t look like a 1/72 scale model ship) and stuff is always exploding, flying around, shattering or getting squashed, but something in the experience of watching a film about a very large monster that makes humans insignificantly small and weak is lost — when the kaiju and the robots of ‘Pacific Rim’ wrestle and punch each other, the crumbling buildings and squishing cars seem much more incidental, like the furniture in a room that gets knocked around while two normal sized humans are fighting. Although ‘Pacific Rim’ has better special effects, I didn’t find myself as aware of the scale of the monsters and robots, perhaps because our vantage point is not moored to the human scale that Honda attempted to covey in his much less technically sophisticated 1954 film.
The ‘story’ isn’t much. The human robot pilots have conflicts with one another. Indifferent government bureaucrats have cut robot funding in order to funnel all of the money into some government contractor’s ‘Kaiju wall’ bamboozle project (and we see a Kaiju promptly burst through the wall in Sydney, Australia — clearly walls are not going to keep the Kaiju out). Idras Elba/Stringer Bell is slowly dieing because he was the pilot of one of the earliest Jaeger robots and was exposed to too much radiation. ‘Jacks’ from “Sons of Anarchy” (I don’t remember his real or his Pacific Rim name) redeems himself and falls in love with an Asian woman who helps him pilot one of the robots to victory. There is some badly explained and not entirely clear sub-plot where a scientist geek discovers that he can ‘mind meld’ with the brains of the kaiju much like the robot pilots ‘mind meld’ with each other in order to control their giant machines. Ron Perleman steals the show as a blackmarket dealer in kaiju body parts who dresses like a 19th century pimp with golden armored shoes and has a fondness for butterfly knives. Even though these actors were entertaining, none of the human part of the movie was interesting enough to make me want to care.
Everyone and his brother/sister has probably seen this already. If you haven’t, it is worth seeing on the big screen simply because, well, it is such a goddamn spectacle that would probably lose too much if viewed on the small screen at home. Del Toro spent a gajillion dollars making this thing; if you want the full effect of all that CGI, you will probably have to go to the theater. If you go, bring a child along; they will enjoy it much more than you will and perhaps you can catch a ‘contact high’ off of that child’s enthusiasm.