Saturday, February 07, 2015

Seen It (Again): Pacific Rim (2013)

My son and I went to see Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim when it was released two summers ago, and, like many, we left the theater disappointed. We had entered with high expectations of a modern Godzilla-type movie and walked out let down. As a both a fan of Toho's Godzilla movies in youth and a parent who had shared these beloved films with his son, I was hoping for a theatrical experience over which to bond. In retrospect, much of our criticism lay with the performance of the male lead as well as the difficulty in processing the multiple visual and sound stimuli being thrown at us.

This kaiju let down did not, however, dissuade me from continuing to watch, and in some case re-watch for the umpteenth time, classic giant monster movies. In the months since seeing Pacific Rim, I have rewatched a number of relatively "modern" Japanese-produced kaiju movies from both Toho (including Godzilla: Final Wars (2004)) and Daiei (the mid-Nineties Gamera trilogy) Motion Picture Studios. While I enjoyed each of these films, with so many tonal similarities with Pacific Rim, I began to think that maybe I had been wrong in my dismissal of del Toro's giant monster movie.

This past Monday our school had a snow day, and I took advantage of the morning to re-watch Pacific Rim. The original from 1954 and the most recent American adaptation, Godzilla (2014), not withstanding, Godzilla films have never really been about serious actors and serious issues. My Godzilla was the ping-pong ball-eyed hero of Japan (1973's Godzilla vs. Megalon will always be my personal gold standard) who regularly bonded with orphans and latch-key kids while battling an assortment of mutated animals, aliens and pollutants. While the too-serious Godzilla (2014) definitely forgot that (as well as the epic battles), my hazy recollection of Pacific Rim was that it had been less about serious issues and more about simple, giant monsters and robots fighting.

My Godzilla, circa 1974.
Upon further review, Pacific Rim really did get much more right than wrong, and was a surprisingly more rewarding film experience on our 40" flat-screen than in the movie theater. Among the things I had noticed initially as negatives but appreciated later as plusses, were the flat human characters that peopled the movie. Truth is, while Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Beckett will never be mistaken for Laurence Olivier, or even Mel Gibson, he did effectively fill the role of bland, plot-mover quite nicely. Nobody remembers the lead actors in Godzilla movies, a universal truth which Hunnam illustrates fully. (Fortunately, for those not inclined to accept the old kaiju tropes, most of the other actors such as Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi didn't get that memo and are surprisingly charismatic and engaging despite bringing to life broadly written characters.)

I would also suggests that the story itself is far more ambitious than given credit. Rather than setting his "giant monster movie" within an easily recognizable world, del Toro and credited co-writer Travis Beachum opt to create a modern, post-origin world already effected by the emergence of its primary threat. While Godzilla did indeed battle aliens from Planet X very early in his filmography, the primary settings always represented a presented day Japan aesthetic (Godzilla Final Wars being the most obvious departure with it's airborne battle ships and G-Force).

The bottom line: Pacific Rim is much more entertaining than I originally gave it credit for and is that unique movie that improves with repeated viewings... at least to this old school kaiju fan.

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