Saturday, July 20, 2013

Epic World Building, Smarter Subtext -- Reflections on "Pacific Rim" (2013)

“It’s time to cancel the apocalypse!” Idris Elba’s General Pentecost cries out right before Pacific Rim’s spectacular third act takes off, and in many ways this is a battle cry for our times. Guillermo Del Toro’s global epic of monsters and robots is not only the best film of the year, so far, it is also the most politically and socially relevant.

More on that later…

Pacific Rim’s premise is simple. Giant monsters from another dimension, called Kaiju (named after the famous Japanese film genre involving men in rubber monster suits), are emerging from the sea to wreck havoc on major cities around the world. All world leaders put aside their petty differences to devise a way to fight back against the monsters – they create giant Jaegars, massive robots which need two mind-melded pilots. Unfortunately, the Kaiju are evolving and adapting to the Jaegars, and begin winning the war again. This prompts the international governments to withdraw funding from the Jaegar program, forcing it to go private.

Our hero in this tale is Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), a cocky hot shot of the Tom Cruise school of piloting, who loses both his mojo and taste for battle after a fight with a particularly massive Kaiju costs him the life of his brother. He spends his days working construction building a massive wall outside Hong Kong which authorities believe can stop the monsters. Raleigh is pulled back into the fight by the aforementioned General Pentecost, who needs him to get back in a Jaegar. Raleigh finds he has no other choice, and joins up with Pentecost’s rebellion group. There he meets the capable and eager Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), his new partner.

In the movie’s brilliant subplot, a scientist named Newton (Charlie Day), decides to experiment with the mind-melding technology on himself by melding with a piece of Kaiju brain. The result puts him on a mission to find a fresher brain in the slimy possession of black market trader Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman).

Like most action movies, the beats are predictable, but the difference between most and Pacific Rim is the pure invention on hand. Guillermo Del Toro’s name is synonymous with wild imagination after his Oscar winning work on Pan’s Labyrinth and his entries in the Hellboy series. He brings his total powers to this project, giving us the complete world design this side of A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Blade Runner, and – dare I say it – Star Wars. Not only are the Jaegars and Kaiju designed with attention to the tiniest details, but the world the characters live in feels fully formed and fleshed out. You can imagine people writing novels about other characters in this universe. There’s a history in this world behind the decorations on the shell of Jaegar Gipsy Danger, or in the development of the Kaiju part black market. Most action films feel like everything is happening on elaborate sets, but Pacific Rim feels like it is taking place in a real, authentic world.

If this was just a well-built world, that would be enough to make it a quality sci-fi/fantasy epic. Fortunately, Del Toro and screenwriter Travis Beachem have more on their minds than just watching robots and monsters fight. Pacific Rim is really about the abandonment of government, and the need for a leadership that can practice what it preaches.

Early in the film, Pentecost is informed by the joint coalition of world leaders that the Jaegar program will no longer be funded. There is a cold, calculated distance in this scene as the leaders are on computer monitors, away from the fight on the mainland. They have not fought and lost as Pentecost has, and do not feel the true weight of their decisions. There is no passion in their voices, only pragmatism that comes from being detached from what is happening on the front lines. Pentecost is forced to take the Jaegar program underground as a rebellion. Unlike a movie like Star Wars, in which the rebellion is against a totalitarian Empire, the rebellion in this film is against a passive-aggressive leadership collective. The message is this – with so much power and pride on the line, political leaders will only do what they can, not what they should, in order to solve problems in the benefit of the greater good.

It’s a nice stroke to name our General Pentecost, after the momentous day in the book of Acts, in which God brings a fire from heaven and gives the apostle Peter the ability to simultaneously speak in all tongues. In the movie, Pentecost is the only one who can bring all peoples, or all nationalities, together to fight this global menace. He is the face of true leadership, and it’s not surprising that even though he is not the film’s protagonist, he is its heart and soul. The fact that Idris Elba is such an outstanding actor only brings added weight to the role.

We need films like Pacific Rim right now, movies that can take their popcorn flick genetic code and modify it with something smarter and more potent. This film is a powerhouse, not just as an action film, but as a statement film.