Monday, 14 October 2013

"Today we face the monsters that are at our door and bring the fight to them. Today, we are cancelling the apocalypse!"

To master a Jaeger, the skyscraper tall, nuclear powered robots built to defend Earth from the Kaijus (huge creatures with fluorescent blood, enormous horned heads and the sole intention of wiping out mankind), it takes two daring pilots neurologically linked via a mysterious technology known as The Drift. Indeed, before they can so much as dim the headlights on the Crimson Typhoon, Striker Eureka or Gipsy Danger, three of the pimped-up iron giants on show, the intertwined heroes must first be 'Drift compatible'. While it is never made entirely clear what this means, to enjoy Guillermo del Toro's super-sized vision, it may well help to be Drift compatible yourself. In other words, get on Pacific Rim's wavelength and there is a primal gratification in its blunt remit of very big metal things fighting very big scaly things in order to prevent an apocalypse. It's as if del Toro has reverse-imagined his movie from how awestruck boys might stage mock battles between toy lines. This is a spectacular brute of a film where size rather than technique matters.

In fact, the director is again mining his childhood for inspiration, tapping the vein of Japanese monsters versus robots shows like Ultraman and The Space Giants, imported on the cheap to pick up the slack on Mexican TV. The DNA of their older brother, Godzilla, is self-evident, but del Toro would insist his new film also splices in the genealogy of mythical sea creatures and Francisco Goya's unearthly masterpiece, The Colossus. Whilst the creatures may lack some Pan's Labyrinth (2006) poetry, there's a Harryhausen-like pulp majesty to their stately wrestles with the Jaegars. The marketing department arguably adding the visceral mechanics of Michael Bay's Transformers movies, and the state of the art spectacle of todays video games.

As lumbering mechanised automatons, 25 storeys tall, the Jaegers essentially wrestle their awful foes (a possible lucha libre Mexican influence) – although they also boast retractable swords and spinning saws – in a succession of ground shaking scraps. The putative plot has the robots battering their way towards the glowing deep-sea rift created by the Kaijus in order to slam it shut.

This primitive dynamic, however ludicrous (missiles from a safe distance anyone?), provides a physical rush made doubly vivid by the unsteadying effect of 3D. Not to mention IMAX. But like many current science fiction visions liberated by CG, the geography of destruction is hard to follow. You get a barrage of sensation, scaled against crumbling cityscapes, but are ultimately left guessing how one battle is won and another lost.

That said, this is a different model of FX engorged blockbusting. One that's steeped in affection and sincerity and doesn't go in for jarringly crass stereotypes or slapstick. With del Toro's trademark sight gags and the sheer childlike delight in which he builds this land of fantastical giants - you don't really mind not knowing which robot the severed arm that just flew across the screen belongs to.

Unfortunate then that within their cockpit heads, our heroes enact hooks and jabs like deranged puppeteers. As thinly drawn as their teatime TV ancestors, these are heroes as mechanical as the robots they pilot, pre-programmed with personal issues (mainly dead relatives), too easily overcome. The performances get no further than their overcharged names: Charlie Hunnam is the gravel voiced maverick Raleigh Becket. Idris Elba, as the unit's commander Stacker Pentecost, stomps out dialogue so wooden and portentous, you fear the apocalypse may be over by the time he's finished. Only Babel (2006) Academy Award® nominee Rinko Kikuchi, appears to bring any heart to proceedings as his troubled, greenhorn co-pilot Mako Mori.

If you come to this movie seeking the dreamy Gothic play and human passions of del Toro's back catalogue, you will undoubtedly be confounded. Perhaps, after the stalled years on The Hobbit and At The Mountains Of Madness, he just needed to get a film under his belt, and the juvenile exuberance of the opportunity swept him along. The film isn't entirely bereft of the director's hallmarks though. The Jaeger depot, located in a neon-soaked Hong Kong, is a cavernous citadel mixing high tech gizmos with vast clockwork apparatus. Surely designs once meant for the dwarvish forges of The Hobbit. Lucky charm Ron Perlman makes us all nostalgic for the swampy superhero subversion of Hellboy as a surly, one-eyed black market dealer in Kaiju body parts (their bone dust makes a powerful aphrodisiac apparently). And in the sight of a prostate Jaeger washed up on a snowy beach like a fallen Titan from Greek mythology, you catch a glimpse of the other del Toro, the artist still linked and compatible.

Could audiences be suffering from cataclysm fatigue? Exhausted by the thought of another city pulverised – Pacific Rim's street size street fights arrive after an unending parade of city smashing antics this summer. Possibly, but this is a cheekier brand of Armageddon – del Toro is giving scope to a boyhood lust for mayhem, the multi-million-dollar equivalent of kicking over sandcastles and torturing insects. There is something infectiously juvenile in that. Catch his Drift and you might just have a brawl.

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