Wednesday, October 16, 2013

I'm way behind #6: Pacific Rim (Guillermo del Toro)

I'm still four months behind in my posts, so I'd better take a cue from Tom Waits and get behind the mule.
A handful of times a year, someone I don't know that well will ask me if I've seen some new Hollywood blockbuster or if I'm looking forward to seeing some new Hollywood blockbuster, and I usually give this person the polite but honest answer that Hollywood blockbusters aren't my thing. I don't go into my whole spiel about how the last 15 years of Hollywood product has been a dreary, depressing slog to sit through, how entertainment and craftsmanship have been replaced by CGI, homogeneity, noise, spatial incoherence, monochromatic color palettes, bloated running times, franchises, sequels, remakes, films that are nothing but bombastic climaxes, and motherfucking superheroes up the wazoo, how these films are empty, soul-deadening experiences that bludgeon their viewers into apathetic comas, how actual fun has been replaced by the idea of fun, a fun in quotes, a fun substitute made of thin colorless paste. I just smile politely and say, "Blockbusters aren't really my thing." Somehow, I get the same look I get when I tell people I don't like sports, that subtle look that says, "Oh, you're one of those guys. You hate fun, and I feel a little sorry for you." Sometimes, they even tell me I need to lighten up.
But I don't hate fun. Honest, I don't. I love many crowd-pleasing, mainstream Hollywood films, from '30s screwball comedies to '80s and early-'90s action movies. But I find the recent Hollywood blockbusters so depressing, so dreary, so not fun that I'm baffled and confused by their continuing popularity. For rare blockbusters like Iron Man or Spider-Man that actually capture some of that childlike wonder and light entertainment uplift, you get 40 billion depressing pieces of shit that make you want to hang yourself. You may want to check my math, but you get the idea.
I don't see many big Hollywood movies in the theater, especially tentpole summer action spectacular extravaganzas with kid's meal tie-ins, but there are some rare exceptions. Pacific Rim is one. (It probably underperformed in the United States because I was interested in seeing it. Sorry, everyone.) I'm a fan of Guillermo del Toro. I trust him. I love the way the creatures in his films look. I love the care he takes with the framing of his shots and the intricate design of his settings. His films are actually fun, and he's one of those rare guys who can bounce from small canvases to huge ones, from personal independent projects to big studio movies, with his talent and personality intact. We lost Peter Jackson down the hobbit-hole, but del Toro is still, mostly, here.
Much like the battles between the giant robots and giant monsters that make up the bulk of the film's running time, Pacific Rim sees the del Toro of old battling the form and structure of the modern blockbuster. It's an uneasy and not always successful marriage, but del Toro comes out ahead in the end. The film's weaknesses are very much a sign of the current blockbuster times. Unlike in his other films (I'm excepting his for-hire direction of Blade 2), del Toro's characters here are underdeveloped and thin, a few of the battle sequences have the cameras in so tight to the action that it's hard to tell what's going on, and it's a loud and noisy film full of climactic scenes. Nevertheless, there's a human heartbeat thumping underneath all the blockbuster trappings. The monsters are, once again, fantastic, as in every del Toro movie, and the robots are also meticulously designed to elicit childlike glee. Though I have quibbles with some of the camera placement during the big fights, each battle has moments of visceral, kinetic action that most blockbusters lack. Most of the jokes land where they're supposed to. The cast is unusual for a big sci-fi action movie, made up of cult TV actors Idris Elba, Charlie Day, and Charlie Hunnam, Japanese art-film star Rinko Kikuchi, and the mighty Ron Perlman, a del Toro regular. Perlman, in particular, gets some great moments, and his black market operation has some of the best set design in the whole film. The CGI actually looks good and is integrated pretty seamlessly into the frame, but I still would have loved to see an '80s-style foam and latex handmade edition of this thing. Still, you're left with the feeling that cast and director are having a great deal of fun, and that spirit is infectious.
I'm always going to prefer the Cronos/Devil's Backbone/Pan's Labyrinth del Toro to the Pacific Rim del Toro, and I think I prefer the first Hellboy as a better example of mainstream del Toro, but Pacific Rim gave me something the vast majority of recent Hollywood blockbusters haven't -- a good time, and that's worth something in this sour, divided, alienated present.

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