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Saturday, July 27, 2013
Pacific Rim: Giant Vs. StrangeAt the beginning of Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro's take on city-destroying mayhem, the term kaiju is defined on screen as meaning "giant monster." In fact, the Japanese term actually means "strange creature," and was coined to describe a genre of Japanese movies featuring monsters who were strange and who were also very often gigantic.
Pacific Rim is almost certainly the greatest giant monster movie ever made, but it's not quite in the same genre as the kaiju films that inspired it.
The film opens up with admirably compact exposition. By the time the title card shows, we've already seen more and better giant monster action than found in the entirety of Roland Emmerich's detestable 1998 attempt to Americanize Godzilla. This far in, we've also learned why IMAX was a necessary invention. If you're seeing Pacific Rim in any other format than IMAX 3D, you're missing out on an incredible spectacle.
The premise is pretty simple. Giant monsters are invading through a dimensional rift in the bottom of the ocean, and humanity has built giant robots to beat them back. The robots are piloted by pairs of humans who are psychically linked in order to handle the complexity of the machines. The plot develops a bit beyond this, with contributions from wacky scientists, including Charlie Day upending his usual typecasting as an idiot in a restrained (for him) performance, and yet another a memorable gangster turn from Ron Perelman.
But the fundamental structure of the movie is giant showdowns. A series of simplistic but well-drawn characters drive the action, with basic but effective emotional hooks, buttressed by fine to great acting from stars Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi. The "humans" story is far, far better than that found in the the typical kaiju movie, and it invests viewers in the personal stakes, without rising to the level that it distracts from the main event.
And what a main event! Armed with IMAX and 3D, and a seat near the front of the theater, Pacific Rim delivers a size of experience -- and an experience of size -- that has literally never been seen before. I found myself craning my head back to look up at monsters and robots that were viscerally gigantic. As an aficionado of kaiju -- I've watched all 28 Godzilla movies, most of the other Toho kaiju movies, all of the Gamera movies, and Toho's live action TV series Zone Hunter -- I found myself grinning uncontrollably at various points in the movie, as the giant mayhem kept coming. As a spectacle, Pacific Rim is unbeatable. I might have tweaked a few things, but there's really nothing much to complain about here.
All of this begs the question, especially for a notorious fan such as myself: How does Pacific Rim compare to Godzilla in all his incarnations, and the many other kaiju who went before?
Oddly, there's an apples and oranges problem.
The kaiju genre is long and storied, but embedded powerfully within it is the centrality of the monsters themselves -- not simply as plot devices, but as characters with distinct features and usually distinct personalities. With a few exceptions -- the original Godzilla (1954), Mothra (1964) and Daimaijan (1966), for example, -- the humans are MacGuffins whose main purpose is to contextualize the monster.
Even when the human stories are powerful, as in the outstanding Gamera: Revenge of Iris, the personalities of the monsters are equally weighted. Viewers care about the monsters, not just their human opponents. The monsters are, ultimately, the protagonists in most kaiju movies. Although there are exceptions, such as the bizarre and notably non-giant Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963), by and large, the monsters are the stars and the characters for whom we reserve our affections. As testimony to this fact, only a tiny handful of the hundreds of human characters featured in 28 Godzilla movies have ever made more than one appearance (even though the actors sometimes come back in different roles).
Japanese kaiju have motivations, often very clear and specific ones with relevance to contemporary concerns such as the environment, nuclear weapons or geopolitics (as in the blatantly Japanese nationalist Godzilla in the 2001 film, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack). More often than not, Godzilla is angry about something, whether it's pollution (Godzilla vs. Hedorah). alien invaders (Godzilla vs. Monster Zero), attempts to manipulate him (Destroy All Monsters), or the desecration of his predecessor's bones (Tokyo S.O.S).
Kaiju carry a strange sort of moral authority, even when they're bad. But the kaiju of Pacific Rim are quite literally the tools of a fairly generic invasion whose authors are extremely vague and whose motives appear to be purely pragmatic.
Here, the monsters are a series of challenges to be overcome, more often glimpsed than seen, with fundamental designs reminiscent of some of the worse excesses of the Gamera series, although executed much better here. Pacific Rim is about the humans who fight monsters, not the monsters themselves. Although each is given a nickname, they can hardly be distinguished from each other except by virtue of size. They're massive and menacing, but generic. Similarly, the destruction they wreak is oddly underplayed, considering its blatantly apocalyptic overtones. We don't spend much time watching cities fall.
Instead, Pacific Rim is all about the battles. In this sense, it most closely resembles 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars, the very last Japanese installment from Godzilla's production company Toho. But even in that movie, the personalities of the monsters shine through (albeit mostly thanks to their familiarity from movies past). Pacific Rim delivers the most spectacular experience of a giant monster movie ever filmed, but the monsters themselves are ultimately forgettable.
Despite this, Pacific Rim succeeds on nearly every level. But it doesn't quite belong to the genre that spawned it. Its relevance for kaiju films stems primarily from the challenge it presents going forward. The new American Godzilla (2014) is squarely in Pacific Rim's sights. Before this movie, all director Gareth Edwards really had to accomplish was to suck less than Emmerich's 1998 travesty.
Now the new American take -- and for that matter, all future Japanese kaiju films -- must clear a much higher bar, and history is not full of success stories on the production values front. If they succeed, it could bring a renaissance for the kaiju genre, but if they fail, del Toro's affectionate tribute could mark the start of a dark period of retreat for the strange and beloved creatures who have blazed a destructive trail through Japan's cities for more than 50 years.
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ISIS: THE STATE
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