Pacific Rim (2013)

2014 #62
Guillermo del Toro | 131 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Pacific RimThe names writers choose for their characters can sometimes tell you a lot about a movie. Pacific Rim is the kind of film that has characters called Raleigh Becket, Stacker Pentecost, and Hannibal Chau.

This is a film about giant monsters invading Earth, and we fight back with giant robots. It has the logic of the Japanese movies, anime and art that inspired it rather than any basis in the real world. Which is fine — del Toro has said it was aimed at 11-year-old boys (hence the “for over 13s” rating, of course), and it slots pretty neatly into that world. Which means it should also cater to a good many “adult” genre fans, which does make it flopping in America a little surprising. I suppose the lack of a recognisable brand name is a deciding factor in that market now.

Stand out features include blunt, functional, over-explanatory dialogue delivered in largely second-rate performances, but which at least carry us through the story solidly; and fights that are moderately exciting, but could do with zooming out to give a proper sense of scale, not to mention some variety in their primary black-and-blue colour palette. There’s a whole featurette on the Blu-ray about how hard they worked on conveying scale. Oh. Didn’t come across for me. OK, the giant robots didn’t move super fast, but it still felt quicker than I’d expect from something of that extreme size.

Perhaps the problem lies in how the film was obviously made for 3D — not because stuff’s poking out at you all the time, but because of shots that are clearly meant to have great depth, but where everything is in focus. For 2D it could probably do with a shallower depth of field, and maybe this is where the scale went awryRobot rescue — it was the 3D that added depth and height, and without that (or, as I said, an adjustment of focus to compensate) it’s all a bit… not flat, but not big either. That aside, it is beautifully shot, with excellent lighting.

Yet, for the easy criticisms, Pacific Rim largely entertains. Compared to most of the blockbuster fare targeting 11-year-old boys these days, it’s a positive triumph. Heck, compared to the other films for that age group that star giant robots, it’s Shakespeare. Similarly the music, by Game of Thrones’ Ramin Djawadi, is a little obvious but also suitably fist-pumping, which at least renders it easily enjoyable.

Goodness knows where the mooted animated series and confirmed sequel are going to go with the world that seems so wrapped-up here — but hey, at least this one told a complete, self-contained story. It might fall short of excellence in many areas, but it’s an exciting, fun thrill ride nonetheless.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004)

2009 #63
Kerry Conran | 102 mins | TV (HD) | PG / PG

Sky Captain and the World of TomorrowIf the Indiana Jones series was a bit more sci-fi (even than Crystal Skull, that is), it might be rather like this. First time writer-director Kerry Conran evokes ’40s cinema serials more thoroughly than Lucas or Spielberg ever dared with a globe-hopping tale of a mad scientist’s giant robots doing all sorts of damage in a quest for… well, that would spoil the ending.

In the telling, Sky Captain is every inch a Boy’s Own adventure, packing every facet of that genre of storytelling into its brisk running time. There’s secret bases, ray guns, giant robots, flying aircraft carriers, snow-bound Himalayan treks, creature-infested secret jungle islands, huge underground bases, space rockets, planes that are also submarines, tree bridges over impossibly deep gorges… If it’s part of the genre, it’s probably here, and all finally executed with ’00s-level special effects. In some respects it does move between set pieces and locations in an episodic fashion, but then that’s more a trait of the films it emulates — i.e. episodic serials — than a flaw in Conran’s plotting.

Still, some might view Sky Captain as little more than an exercise in filmmaking — it was one of the first movies to be shot entirely on blue-screen, around the same time as Sin City and a couple of others. There’s more to it than that, but it’s also hard to ignore the style this creates. The shooting process is far from perfect if one were trying to recreate real life, but here the whole look is so stylised that it hardly matters. The period setting is nicely evoked, combining myriad influences into an intricately realised retro-future style, coupled with a lovely sepia sheen over everything. It’s beautifully lit, while individual shots and editing are frequently reminiscent of a style from the ’40s (and earlier). Again, Conran is being deliberately evocative of films of the period, rather than a modern film set then; more La Antena than Star Wars.

Another much-discussed feat of technology is the resurrection of Sir Laurence Olivier as the film’s villain. Unfortunately, his brief appearance is underwhelming. Perhaps we’ve become too accustomed to modern technology resurrecting deceased actors for ‘new’ performances (not that it happens that often); but then again, what was done with Oliver Reed for Gladiator — four years before this — seemed more impressive than the small amount of hologram we see here, even though the digitally created shots were equally brief. It’s a shame, because using Olivier for this key role is quite neat, certainly better than casting a glorified extra. In fairness, then, it’s a part so small that very few appropriately-big names would agree to it, which perhaps permisses resurrecting Olivier after all

Among the real performances, the acting is a bit flat. Perhaps this is deliberately in-keeping with the emulated style, though Jude Law is always this bad so maybe not. Similar comments could be made of the screenplay, if one were being unkind. What it does manage is a good amount of humour — an essential part of the genre, as any Indiana Jones fan will tell you, but it’s by no means guaranteed in these over-serious times (thankfully, the likes of Star Trek and Transformers are occasionally breaking down this barrier to fun).

Breaking free of any self-imposed period constraints, Conran also produces a few exciting action sequences, such as a plane chase through the streets of New York. It’s incredibly hard to create spectacle these days, but Sky Captain occasionally manages it. There are also lots of fun little references to other things for the keen viewer to pick out. 1138 crops up, inevitably, but my favourite is some dialogue lifted from Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds.

Sky Captain is a healthy dose of retro-styled fun. Perhaps that makes it an acquired taste, but there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

4 out of 5

My review of the proof-of-concept short that inspired Sky Captain can be read here.