26 July, 2013

"START WITH AN EARTHQUAKE AND END WITH A CLIMAX"




THEY MADE A MOVIE FOR ALL OF THE 12 YEAR OLDS IN THE WORLD
A review of Pacific Rim (2013)

Back in the day, around about 1940-something the term “blockbuster” was invented. As the Royal Air Force wasn't super concerned with film at the time, the word was attached to the biggest bombs they had. These things weighed at least two tons and, as you can imagine, were believed to be powerful enough to destroy an entire city block. Bad news for Jerry, but what a turn of phrase!

Pacific Rim is a blockbuster in the best way possible. It's a loud, monstrous thing that does exactly what it is intended to do and does exactly what we want it to. In a summer loaded with stillborn star vehicles and limp re-boots and a sequel that I guess only I liked, it's good to see that a blockbuster doesn't have to choose between being big and being good.

Pacific Rim works because it launches into its ideas with such sincerity that you never for a second pause to laugh at it or wonder about the feasibility of an intergalactic robot war. It isn't cynical or ironic in a way that you don't see in special effects movies very often any more. It doesn't apologize for being a movie about pretty people in giant robots duking it out with intergalactic monsters. You're worried about other things than how realistic this all is by the time the narrator finishes his first sentence.

It's Robot Jox* mashed up with Neon Genesis Evangelion through the lens a man who has clearly watched way too many WWII movies. In short, it's everything a twelve year old ever wanted to see in a movie It isn't what people think a 12 year old wants to see. It isn't what they are told that they want to see. It isn't what they end up seeing because nothing else looks good. This is the movie that every 12 year old ever wanted.

It's a film wrapped in a love and a care of a subject matter, but it also wants to make a good movie. It moves beyond tribute and pastiche and actually manages to become a movie that is fantastic on its own merits. It makes me want to go watch more movies, because it's a film that reminds you just how wonderful this medium can be. I think I should feel very silly saying this about a giant monster movie and yet I still feel like an idiot. I realize this is a problem with me. This clearly isn't a problem with Guillermo Del Toro, who seems to be about a confident of a hand behind the camera as there ever could be.

This is a movie that is as good as you remember Godzilla versus Biollante being.

OH WAIT, GROSS

Ugh. I just remembered that Jobs was one of the trailers before the movie. Jeezus does that looks like it's going to be a shit show.

The trailer contains the whole arc of the movie. The reveal of the iPad is meant to look like this epic, spellbinding moment, an event of human triumph over conformity expect that it's a multi-millionaire revealing a fucking gadget.

I blame The Social Network for this.

Not pictured: The dog's name.
THE SPIRIT OF THE BLITZ

On the very same flagship film program that Del Toro was interviewed in Simon Mayo mentioned that this film gave him the vibe of an old WWII flight movie and in a general sense it reminded him of the feeling the people of England had during the Blitz. Del Toro copped to as much. He said that he was obsessed with that era, but you don't need his quote on this, all you have to do is look at his filmography.

This idea is embedded in the very design of the movie.When describing the jaegars, he said that Cherno-Alpha was a walking T-Series tank. Now, that's like saying that he's a walking Sherman tank or a walking Spitfire or, I don't know, a walking M1 helmet. For those who don't know what any of that means, it means that Cherno Alpha is a kinetic icon. It's a walking monument.

The T-series tanks are one of the biggest factors leading to the USSR winning against the Nazis. While the German were busy having guys like Porsche mold and design their tanks, the Soviets were busy slapping together tanks in converted tractor factories. Besides the fact that the USSR had an unparalleled labor pool and a ruthless despot that was willing to smash them against whatever obstacle necessary, it was pieces of engineering like the T-34 that turned the tide against the Germans. Plus, a tank makes a much better icon than a commissar shooting deserters and their family because they fled the Hun.
The other big Soviet icon that stands out to me is the “Wall of Life” mentioned in the beginning of the film. This is a direct reference to the “Road of Life” that ran over Lake Ladoga during the Siege of Leningrad.

Truckers (and sailors and pilots) ran all day and night, braving thin ice and German defenses to relieve the besieged people of Leningrad during their nine-hundred days of Nazi encirclement.

In one scene, in our hero (I just realized that I don't know his name. You know the one, he was in Undeclared), has a wall of photos in his room. There is his brother and kaiju and whatever else that makes up his past but, my eye went to the one I know, the one I knew was the point of the scene: The Motherland Calls. The statue was built as a memorial to the defense of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest, longest battles in history. It's an icon to the spirit of the USSR and to anyone else who had their back up against the wall because of an incredible evil.

These seemingly little touches are what makes the film greater than the sum of its parts. It's the little references like this that show that Del Toro knows what he's doing and that he has an affection for it, and that he doesn't need to cram it down your throat. It's all there on film, all you need to do is look for it. But you can also just look at the alien dinosaurs gets punched and that's cool too.

Oh, also it's probably named after a nuclear disaster and has a cooling tower for a head. So, you know, subtext.
I WISH EBERT WAS ALIVE

Part of me has come to accept genre movies, to legitimately accept stupid, silly things. As much as I love “serious” movies, that doesn't mean that I have to then dislike something else. This is not a zero sum game and Roger Ebert was the expert balancing fine art with fine froth.

I watched the Seventh Seal probably because of him. I love The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as much as I do now because he loved it so much. I watched The Proposition and read Blood Meridian because of him. And I love explosions because he said that's okay. And I also hate explosions in equal measure because he said that's okay, too. It's all okay. I don't have to choose.

He has a list on Criterion of some of his Great Movie and on the other hand he actually enjoyed Speed 2: Cruise Control. He wasn't ever a rube, though. Some of his most enjoyable work was when he used his Pulitzer as a blugeon to shame sod-bustingly stupid films like they were paying for it. Quietly, though, Ebert's strength to me was how well he could sell you on his opinion, no matter how much you actually disagreed with it, you'd read his review and go "Well, I can see that."

Mark Kermode, my favorite living film critic, is your excitable friend at a party talking to you about HOW HAVE YOU NEVER LISTENED TO JESUS OF COOL, whereas Ebert was a guy just talking to you across two cups of coffee at a diner. By the end of the conversation, which he would be leading the whole time, despite your best efforts, you'd walk out either agreeing with him or having been coached into knowing better than you once did. He had an underlying decency in him that a lot of people just cannot muster. That goes for everyone, not just film critics.

I honestly wish he could have seen this movie. I honestly wish I could have read what he said about this. Whether I agreed with him or not, I know he would have been right in his own way. Really, though, as much as I used him as a recommendation guide or a taste maker or anything else, I really want to hear that I am right. I love this movie. And I wish that he could have loved this movie too.

I don't know if that's incredibly sappy or incredibly self-centered or just plain dumb. All I know is that considering how so much of this week has gone, I think we could use more of the good people and Roger Ebert was most certainly one of them.

I MADE THIS ROBOT WAR FOR YOU

Pacific Rim works on its own as a film and one of the main reasons it does so is that it is pulling from a much larger body of works than the mere monster movie. World War II as a genre and as a moment in history obviously weighs heavy in this movie's influences, but so does Japanese anime and the Japanese monster movie (I mean, it takes the word "kaiju" from the eponymous genre. So,yeah, duh).

There's something slightly odd about that because the original animes and giant robot movies that this movie is inspired by comes out of the consequences of World War II.

The Japanese were living in the shadow of some existential terror that they couldn't exactly put a name to. Nobody wanted to make a movie about how their new friends the Americans bombed the shit out of them. I'm also sure that nobody wanted to watch that sort of movie. I mean, we did the same thing, but we had the pleasure of having won, at least.

So what did they do? Atomic monsters. Giant robots. These things were meant to be entertainment, first and foremost, but they were also a way to tell a story about a time that no one really wanted to talk about, at least not directly. And they're not alone. We made The Day the Earth Stood still. Jack Finney made Invasion of the Body Snatchers. In that way Pacific Rim carries on the allegorical energy of those works, as well as the aesthetic energy. It carries on in the tradition not only of Japanese science fiction, but big idea science fiction in general. In that way, it's more of a traditional science fiction film than is Star Trek No Colon Into Darkness.

Beyond Gigantor, the particular anime that I am reminded of is "Cannon Fodder," one of the shorts in the film Memories.The world of "Cannon Fodder" is very basic: The life of every citizen is geared towards producing, servicing, and firing shells. That is it. Go to sleep. Wake up. Work on the cannons. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. There is nothing else. There isn't even an enemy that we know of, there's just this Gormanghast/Airstrip-One-like city-state that solely exists to maintain a tradition for the sake of itself.

When I saw a bunch of dudes in jumpsuits flying down ladders I figured out that I was watching Cannon Town realized in live action. And I'm not sure if that's intentional or not. I'm sure it is intentional. Guillermo Del Toro is a pretty sharp guy, I'll give him at least partial credit.

Pacific Rim, notably, is not a dystopia and it's not an allegory. It's a messed up world with a lot of serious, horrible problems, but it isn't a world that has given up on itself. It isn't a place that hates its people. It is still a place worth fighting for and a place in which you can invest your emotions. The world of Pacific Rim, its Wall of Life and its high death toll and all is a place worth calling home. It's a place that is worth fighting for.


SPOILER: THE REAL MONSTER IS MAN

The title of this entry is taken from something I heard listening to Mark Kermode. He was quoting Mark Robinson speaking on his movie Earthquake. I can't think of a better way to describe the pacing and tone of Pacific Rim than that.So, good work, Dr. Kermode. Thanks for taking that away from me.

For whatever flaws Pacific Rim may have, you can't fault it for its ambitions. It is an attempt to do something new, even if it is heavily based on the works of the past and as far as world building goes, Del Toro might be on par with Ridley Scott. Besides all of the set dressing and the references directed at a time and place that only jerks like me are that interested, what remains is what a blockbuster should be (besides, of course, the massive financial success. You know. That ol' thing).

If I had written this a few months ago, I think I would have tried to position this film as a genre movie that delivered. And it is that. Saying that "I got what I wanted out of it" makes it sound like it's a whore or something. It makes it sound like it is a trifle. It's more than that, though, because the more I think about it and the more I look around, I realize that making a good genre film is fucking hard. It takes a lot of time, talent, and energy to spin something like robots and monsters into a worthwhile feature and Del Toro certainly has that.

Top to bottom, from stratosphere to oceanic trench, Pacific Rim is a delight. Go see it in the theaters. Go see it now. This is the kind of city destroying spectacle that should be encouraged.

Wasn't that bumper music for Love Line? I think it was. . . 
*I watched Robot Jox on TV way back in (YEAR) and again on a rented video, so I'm not mentioning it solely because Red Letter Media had a go at it, but I am definitely mentioning it because Red Letter Media had a go at it and that's what I like to do. I was into Robo Jox before it was uncool.

SIDE NOTE: Here's another perspective worth reading on. As much as criticism is about rolling around in your own words and feeling satisfied, I think this bit of writing gets to something we (I) forget about sometimes, which is that movies are meant to be watched. Film is a visual medium and as much as I think I could wax on about that for a really long time, I'd be missing the point. What the above article points out is that Pacific Rim, and film in a broader sense, is as much about conveying story and information on a visual and kinetic level as it is about telling you things through language. The best example of this that I can think of (especially when it comes to sci-fi) is 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is as primal of film story telling as you can get, as well as probably being one of the most sophisticated pieces of art in this particular visual medium. Go read that thing.

  James Kislingbury is a writer, podcaster, and an enemy pilot. You can follow him on twitter.