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Jonathan Romney on Pacific Rim: America vs the world? Big mistake

Take a smart director, a global audience and a terrified Hollywood, and you get… a huge mess

Go big or go extinct!” runs the tagline for the futuristic epic Pacific Rim. It reads awkwardly, like those phrases in fake English that used to embellish Japanese T-shirts and rucksacks. And it doesn’t make sense as advice – look what happened to the dinosaurs. Yet it’s a policy that Hollywood is taking very seriously, as it keeps on cranking out mega-scaled monoliths of action cinema, the studios seeming to regard anything on a more manageable size and budget as a fast ticket to dereliction.

It’s got to the point where even those well-known miniaturists  Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have complained that Hollywood is courting its own “implosion” by focusing on blockbusters. In terms of film as an art, it’s true – cinema’s capacity to dream is being hammered into the ground by monumental tent poles. But here’s the commercial logic: 80 per cent of Hollywood’s revenue now comes from abroad, with China as the world’s No 2 film market. This market insists on 3D action spectaculars, and that’s what it’s getting.

It may not be a problem per se if American films are becoming less American; an Asianisation of Hollywood cinema is inevitable in a globalised world. But what we’re seeing is not a matter of cultural enrichment. In Pacific Rim, we have a Mexican director making a Hollywood movie with specifically Asian (or cod-Asian) flavour aimed at an international market. The result: a film from nowhere, about nothing.

Reportedly costing $180m, Pacific Rim has an almost transcendentally simple and unoriginal premise – Giant Robots versus Giant Monsters (or to all intents and purposes, Transformers versus Godzilla and Her Gang). The director is Guillermo del Toro, whose filmography includes some wonderfully eerie Spanish chillers (Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, the sublime fairy tale nightmare Pan’s Labyrinth), and two superbly entertaining comic-strip adaptations, the Hellboy films.

But even smart, idiosyncratic directors can make dumb, impersonal movies. And Pacific Rim is the flashiest, clumsiest, most heavily armed in the salvo of Stupid Bombs that Hollywood has been bombarding us with.

It’s businesslike, though. An opening voiceover brings us up to scratch: “A fissure between two tectonic plates – a portal between two dimensions!” From it emerge giant monsters (known by the Japanese name kaiju) which have stomped three cities to dust within the film’s first 90 seconds: talk about cutting to the chase. To fight them, humanity builds a strain of mammoth robots called Jaegers, and that’s your exposition done.

A wafer of plot proposes that, in 2025, humanity faces a desperate Final Stand against the kaiju, and only the most intrepid Jaeger pilots can save us. Our telepathically bonded heroes are Jaegernaut-on-the-skids Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and shy-but-intrepid female Japanese trainee Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). Idris Elba plays their take-no-prisoners commander Stacker Pentecost, who doesn’t actually chomp a cigar or have steam pouring from his ears, but is the sort of irascible boss man who might. As a comedy duo of goofy boffins, Burn Gorman chews all  the scenery that isn’t digitally generated while Charlie Day enthusiastically gobbles the rest.

The hulking Ron Perlman (Hellboy) briefly appears in an eye patch, cheering things up no end.

If the characterisation is so entirely cartoonish – people don’t speak but bark, like Action Man toys with built-in voice boxes – it’s because Del Toro is deliberately making a live-action Japanese anime.

The humans are only here to fuel the robot/monster business, just as the pilots operate the Jaegers by getting inside and pedalling, like gym users on really difficult cross-trainers. But the film’s bloated gargantuanism raises problems. How do you make things on screen look ever bigger (given that you can’t get much bigger than an IMAX screen anyway)?

How do you make these robots look strikingly bigger than other popular giant robots? Only by making people smaller.

But the correlative of reducing people to miniscule ciphers is that, to maintain any human element at all, personality functions only in the most primitive form, as sentiment essentially, with each character provided with a rudimentary intimate backstory: Raleigh lost his brother, Mako her parents, Stacker is a softie at heart. The action sequences go from huge to huger, but the film’s supposed emotional pay-off is a single tear running down Mako’s cheek.

The film is co-scripted by Del Toro (with Travis Beacham), and he’s working with his usual cameraman Guillermo Navarro, but there’s precious little of his sensibility visible. You can detect the Del Toro signature in some smaller touches, though – the scuffed interiors, and the monster brains and organs in wobbly latex, such as a tongue festooned with blue light bulbs. The humour is infantile and the colours rainbow-brash, although at least that offers respite from the grey-toned solemnity of the Dark Knight/Man of Steel school. That aside, Pacific Rim is deafeningly, depressingly futile.

George Orwell’s 1984 contains the famous line: “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” Pacific Rim rewrites that as: “Imagine Godzilla stamping on the human imagination – forever...

... In 3D.” 

NEXT WEEK The World’s End, a satirical sci-fi comedy with beer mats


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