dir. Guillermo del Toro, 2013, USA
dir. James Wan, 2013, USA
Now playing in theaters everywhere is Pacific Rim, the eighth feature film by Mexican-born, Hollywood-based genre specialist Guillermo del Toro. While I admire all of del Toro’s movies to a greater or lesser extent (with the exception of Mimic, which I’ve never actually seen, mainly because I know he never had complete creative control over it — not even in the inevitable “director’s cut” issued recently on Blu-ray), it unfortunately seems inarguable to me that Pacific Rim is his least interesting work to date. While Pacific Rim is pretty good for what it is, “what it is” in this case, a robots vs. monsters extravaganza in the Transformers mold, is, like the song says, my idea of nothing to do. Sure, there’s plenty to recommend it: purely as an exercise in “world building,” I can appreciate any fictional universe with a mythology as elaborate and detailed as this: it takes place in a near-future where giant sea-monsters known as “kaiju” wreak havoc on earth, and a multinational government coalition has consequently created giant robots known as “jaegers” in order to combat them. Intriguingly, each jaeger must be piloted by two humans who are telepathically linked to one other (in order to share the “neural load”), a conceit that leads to the film’s niftiest visuals: rapid-fire montages in which each jaeger sees the other’s life in flashback. Also in Pacific Rim‘s favor: the fight scenes are spatially/temporally coherent and, del Toro being the humanist that he is, the film is refreshingly absent of cynicism (neither of which can be said about Transformers or most other contemporary blockbusters).
Having said all that . . . Pacific Rim is still too long, too loud and too cliche-ridden. The wooden lead characters, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Riko Kinkuchi), are jaeger pilots who embark on a requisite unconvincing love story and prove as uninteresting as the romantic leads in an MGM Marx brothers’ film. It becomes obvious pretty soon where del Toro’s real interest lies: with the nerdy scientist “frienemies” played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, and a shady black market organ dealer played with relish by del Toro mainstay Ron Perlman. But these characters are, unfortunately, too small a part of the movie overall. Del Toro’s most personal touches (Day’s character is described as a “kaiju groupie” and even has the beasts tattooed on his forearms) feel like little splashes of color here and there on an otherwise large, impersonal canvas. By contrast, in the massively underrated Hellboy II, del Toro’s previous feature, those touches were the whole show: there is nothing in Pacific Rim to rival Hellboy II‘s exhilaratingly eccentric troll-market sequence. Or its most outrageous lines of dialogue (“I’m not a baby, I’m a tumor!”). There’s nothing quite as sweet or goofy as Hellboy II‘s unexpected use of a Barry Manilow song. Or as poignant and strangely beautiful as the scene depicting the death of a giant plant monster. Or lots of other things. Instead we have big, dumb, loud battle scenes (including an unnecessary final battle that follows what feels like the film’s logical climax) between jaegers and kaiju that take place at night and in the rain so that even the creature design, usually a highlight in del Toro, is disappointingly obscured by darkness and murk. We also have an inordinate number of close-ups of Kinkuchi, obviously calculated to appeal to the all-important Asian market, and Idris Elba as a jaeger commander who delivers a rousing sound-bite version of Henry V‘s St. Crispin’s Day speech.
The somewhat sad truth is that if Guillermo del Toro had never been born, the movie Pacific Rim would have still been made, albeit co-written and directed by someone else. And it would have still been more or less the same film that I just saw. I would prefer it if del Toro, an imaginative visual stylist and a natural born filmmaker if there ever was one, would show me that which without him I would otherwise never have seen. When I saw del Toro introduce a screening of his 2001 Spanish ghost story The Devil’s Backbone at the Chicago International Film Festival few years back, he made the surprising confession that this little-seen film was, along with his much-lauded 2006 Spanish Civil War-set fantasy Pan’s Labyrinth, his own personal favorite of his works. (It’s worth noting that he said this in front of Ron Perlman, who has starred in virtually all of del Toro’s films except for those two movies.) If del Toro is willing to acknowledge that his Hollywood work is almost necessarily compromised, one wonders why he’s determined to play the Hollywood game for such high stakes (the budget for Pacific Rim was allegedly $180,000,000): is it to rebound from the negative press surrounding his failure to realize several other projects, including The Hobbit? Is it to prove himself a commercially viable director in the hopes of getting his long-cherished adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountain’s of Madness finally greenlit? Whatever the case, I’ve still got my fingers crossed for his next project, a horror film entitled Crimson Peak starring Jessica Chastain, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mia Wasikowska. Del Toro has described it as a deliberate attempt to do one of his “Spanish-language films in English.” Here’s hoping.
While one could certainly do much, much worse than choosing to see Pacific Rim from among this season’s popcorn movies, one could also do much better: my own pick for the Hollywood film of the summer is James Wan’s unexpectedly good and genuinely scary The Conjuring, now also playing in theaters everywhere. A haunted house scenario that improves upon Insidious, Wan’s formidable 2010 hit about “astral projection,” The Conjuring is yet another allegedly “true story” in the Exorcist/Amityville Horror mold that is nonetheless fully redeemed by the director’s richly atmospheric mise-en-scene. Wan and cinematographer John Leonetti use a constantly prowling camera to convey a palpable sense of creeping dread, and the Val Lewton-esque use of shadows and offscreen space is never less than masterful: gore is almost entirely absent and yet the audience with whom I saw it let out more than a few collective screams over the course of its two-hour running time. I personally felt scared, very scared, less than two minutes into the movie, during a short prologue involving an unbelievably creepy-looking doll that is surely one of the most unsettling props ever created for a horror film. And I continued to feel that way throughout (barring, of course, the cliched exorcism climax — can’t Hollywood find something other than Christian iconography to fight demonic possession with?). Adding to the credibility is a first-rate cast that includes Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston as the parents of the haunted family and Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga as their ghost-hunter doppelgangers, not to mention a level of period detail (the events take place in 1971) that approaches the Fincher-esque.