Friday, July 19, 2013

Pacific Rim Is Better Than You Think. Here's Why.

Summer movies are, by definition, the kind of thing that gets produced so that mass audiences can take a break from the screaming heat by sitting in a dark room and not talking to each other for at least ninety minutes. They're a refuge—from your children, from your officemates, from the outside world, from yourself—and so often, what we get presented with in the dog days of summer, are movies that are not great.

After my boyfriend took me to see Man of Steel, I put a temporary veto on his movie-choosing privileges—I hated that movie so, so much. And this summer is also offering paid advertising for Google in the form of The Internship; the widely panned Brad Pitt-as-globetrotting-handsome-person-in-peril World War Z; Johnny Depp in Native American drag in The Lone Ranger; and a bunch of other shoot-'em-up mind-melters that will be nowhere to be found come Oscar nominee announcement time. And I don't even want to mention the comedies, like Grown Ups 2, which, like....why?

Which is fine. Just as the weeks between American Thanksgiving and New Year's Day are for the Big Important Movies, the weeks between May 24 and Labour day are for the Big Dumb Movies.

This is why Pacific Rim was such a treat.

It's very much a part of the BDM cadre. Describing it to my mom, I said, "Basically, it's giant robots fighting underwater aliens." Which, basically, it is.

There was a long pause on the other end of the line before she asked, ", did you see this voluntarily?"

Here's the thing about Pacific Rim: it feels fresh. Maybe it's because it's not a sequel, prequel, remake, reboot, based on a book, based on a comic, or licensed from a Hasbro toy; it's an interesting and rare sensation to go into a movie not knowing anything about its world. That's not to say that Pacific Rim doesn't have strains of recognizable DNA in its veins—the kaiju (giant aliens) act a lot like Godzilla, while the jaegers (the giant robots that fight them) look a lot like several high-profile anime robots, and, if you squint, the Iron Giant.

And it's not a clear star vehicle, either, although everyone is delightful. Idris Elba (aka Luther aka Stringer Bell) is here, along with Oscar-nominated Rinko Kichuchi (and you know it's the darkest timeline for humanity because she's got a blue streak in her hair) and Charlie Hunnam and bunch of other beefcakes. And they're all really acting, not just swooping around cracking wise (ahem, Robert Downey Jr.).

Does it have problems? Sure. While I was thrilled that Kichuchi was depicted as a badass woman of colour who can hold her own and has her own backstory, it would have been nice to give her some more lines or a friend or two. And the robots vs. aliens thing is going to do nothing for people who aren't interested in sitting through an action flick. But it also makes a lot of interesting choices: while there's clearly a great connection between Kichuchi and Hunnam, the filmmakers didn't make it an explicit love story, which is rare. And, I think, better.

Most of all, it's fun. I like comic book movies as much as the next girl, but at a certain point, they don't feel fun anymore—they feel like an endless treadmill where another team-up is always forthcoming, minor characters are being promoted to anchor huge budgets, and there's no resolution. If we know there's going to be a sequel, there's no reason to give any real emotional payoff. These 300-million dollar films end up playing like another episode of Saturday morning cartoons: fun, flashy, and forever building, never releasing.

Pacific Rim, on the other hand, has some emotional resonance. And that makes it more fun. We see characters change. We watch worlds build, fall, and rebuild. We invest, we get payoff. We get a whole story. And it's annoying that this narrative model feels fresh and new, but it does. So please: go see it. Take the kids (it's PG!), sit in the A/C, and reward these guys for not being lazy. In a world where an Adam Sandler movie where nothing happens—and it's a sequel—can make over $40 million in box office, we need to carve out some space for an actual fun, well-made, ambitious action movie.