Guillermo del Toro is the latest director to enter the summer 2013 tentpole sweepstakes, and the advance tracking on his gigantic monster spectacle “Pacific Rim” doesn’t bode well for an opening boffo enough to justify its $180 million cost. Del Toro is a gifted film artist applying his skills in service of a mammoth studio enterprise. That’s the Hollywood challenge: to mix art and commerce in a mainstream event movie that will pull in the hordes.
But this one is more like “Avatar,” an original (it sprang from the mind of writer Travis Beacham) not based on anything –unless Godzilla comes to mind. The title is not pre-branded. It’s not a sequel or a popular name. Warner Bros. is selling the concept of giant robots fighting giant monsters, which you need to see on the screen to see how cool they are. At least, for some of us.
At the IMAX 3-D screening in Century City last night, the audience seemed equally split between lovers and haters. This movie will have to build word-of-mouth to be successful. The question is whether it will play to the fanboy faithful (yes) or to a wider audience stateside (maybe) and around the world (definitely, especially in Asia). But that price tag just makes the math hard to fathom. Why green light something at that level?
I am among the many who wish that del Toro had stuck it out through the MGM bankruptcy and directed “The Hobbit”; instead of his fresh look at the world conjured by J.R.R. Tolkien, we got yet another Jackson take, in three parts.
Instead del Toro jumped back into a multitude of projects, learning more CG tricks as an advisor on “Rise of the Guardians,” and clearly had a blast designing and executing this gorgeous big-scale actioner. “Pacific Rim” is a straightforward dystopian war picture about how the world fights back against an assault of increasingly large sea monsters (Kaiju) from beneath the deep. Humankind pools its resources to build gargantuan human piloted fighter robots (Jaegers). (See our review roundup, interview with del Toro and director of photography Guillermo Navarro.)
The movie is well cast, from our attractive pilot heroes Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”) and Rinko Kikuchi (“Babel”) to their leader (powerful Idris Elba) and comic relief from black marketeer Ron Perlman (“Hellboy”) and nerd scientists Charlie Day (“Horrible Bosses”) and Burn Gorman (“The Hour”). The gender dynamics are exemplary: it’s taken for granted that women are capable warriors.
“The Matrix” makes the closest comparison for the visual sophistication and dynamism of this world, or Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner,” although del Toro relies too heavily on fight scenes staged on rainy nights. ILM delivers awards-worthy effects under the supervision of John Knoll; unlike Roland Emmerich’s “Godzilla,” the filmmakers know how to establish and reveal the epic scale of these battles. As you’d expect from del Toro (“Hellboy,” “Pan’s Labyrinth”), the designs and images of “Pacific Rim” are inventive and gorgeous, whether flying over Hong Kong or climbing the construction site of a giant wall. Certain images: three Jaegers striding across the ocean floor for a standoff with the Kaiju, and the film’s centerpiece, when a young Japanese girl encounters a giant monster one-on-one, are unforgettable.
Like many of these over-pixelated movies, from “Transformers” to “Star Trek,” eventually the clashing battles wear you down. Also hard to escape is the intensely layered sound design–which del Toro labored over, he told me proudly– which roars in your ears; eventually I had to cover them.
Still, I’d rather see the studios take a gamble on a cinematic artist’s original vision than something same old. Hopefully audiences will feel the same way.