Saturday 3 August 2013

Letterboxd: PACIFIC RIM (2013) & THE WOLVERINE (2013)

Saturday 3 August 2013
Guillermo del Toro's name is attached to so many projects that it's just nice to see something escape development hell. PACIFIC RIM is his love letter to the decidedly Japanese Kaiju genre of giant monsters and the Mecha genre of robots. At heart it's a patently absurd and simple-minded monster movie, set in a future where gargantuan amphibious monsters emerged through an inter-dimensional portal beneath the ocean and began terrorizing the titular Pacific Rim environs. To defeat them, humanity created 'Jaegers'; similarly enormous robots controlled by two pilots whose brains are linked to overcome the troublesome mental burden.

One such pilot is Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), whose co-pilot brother was killed during a skirmish with a Kaiju. Having subsequently quit the program, he's hand-picked by Jaeger commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) five years later to end the ongoing attacks before the Jaegers are decommissioned in favour of a gigantic coastline wall, by closing the underwater portal once and for all.

PACIFIC RIM is a film designed for 14-year-old children at heart, but should appeal to most people who enjoy watching spectacle. Putting del Toro behind the camera ensures it has a visual clarity that puts Michael Bay's TRANSFORMERS franchise to shame, as the choreography of every 'monsters-versus-robots' brawl rarely dissolves into a visual racket of flailing limbs and close-up spinning metal. For that alone, PACIFIC RIM earns some respect because it would have been a punishing experience to sit through over two hours of incomprehensible fighting. Del Toro also ensures the characters remain at the forefront of things, by making you invest in the core characters and rivalries amongst the Jaeger crews. There's nothing particularly fresh and innovative about the human face of this movie, but the actors sell the cartoon-y material very well. Even the two bumbling scientists (played by America's Charlie Day and Britain's Burn Gorman) didn't irritate me as much as they might do others; perhaps because their OTT nature paralleled the ridiculousness of the wider situation, and you need some levity away from the grim-faced leads.

It's far from perfect, of course. BABEL Oscar-nominee Rinko Kikuchi is terrible as Hunnam's ostensible co-star, chirpy Jaeger pilot Mako, and has the indignity of being out-acted by the youngster playing her as a child (Mana Ashida). It's also a shame none of the melees (outside of those in brief flashbacks) take place in the daytime with clement weather, because there are occasions when the neon-lit darkness begins to feel it's only there to obscure flaws with the CGI. 1998's GODZILLA did the same thing, but surely 15-years is enough time for digital artists to have overcome the difficulties of making giant monsters in broad daylight look realistic. Maybe next year's American GODZILLA remake from Gareth Edwards will fare better in that respect.

When all's said and done, PACIFIC RIM does exactly what you want from a movie with its insane concept and manages to throw in some good developments along the way. The fact writers Travis Beacham and del Toro also made an effort to predict how society would change with skyscraper-sized beasts attempting to destroy the world on a weekly basis also made me happy, while the fact the Jaeger pilots have to "mind meld" to operate their machines lends itself to some fun imagery and keeps you invested on a human level when giant metal fists are slamming into scaly jaws. It's nowhere near del Toro's best, of course, but it's still something of a mystery such a huge crowd-pleaser trailed behind GROWN UPS 2 in the US and lost 57% of its gross in week-two.

While surpassing the execrable X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE, this adaptation of a beloved comic-book arc that took the popular mutant to Japan falls short of commendable intentions.

Hugh Jackman returns for his sixth outing as Logan (aka 'The Wolverine'), still managing to defy the ageing process 13-years after the first X-MEN launched him to super-stardom. It's been a decade since the events of X-MEN III: THE LAST STAND and Logan's retreated to the Canadian wilderness to live amongst the bears, until he's summoned to Tokyo by mutant clairvoyant Yukio (Rila Fukushima) to be reacquainted with a man called Yashida (Hiroyuki Sanada) whose life he saved during WWII when the Bomb dropped on Nagasaki. The terminally ill Yashida, now one of Japan's richest businessmen, wants to end Logan's suffering and isolation by acquiring his powers of rapid-healing (that prolongs his life by many decades), and in the process bestow on Logan the "gift" of a dignified death.

There's a lot to like about THE WOLVERINE; but in trying to avoid some of its predecessor's pitfalls, it falls prey to others. For an entry in the X-MEN franchise (which was marvellously revived by X-MEN: FIRST CLASS), it's disappointingly bereft of big action sequences and enjoyable mutant shenanigans. There was a period of time when I was beginning to suspect Japan doesn't have many mutants, as the film almost goes out of its way to avoid having to deal with its superhero trappings. Remove Wolverine's adamantium claws and give him a Walther PPK and it's almost a James Bond film with a few sci-fi flourishes.

It's also pretty slow-moving, which is initially quite appealing and certainly grounds the character and the emotional predicament of Yushido and his daughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto), who stands to inherit his enormous fortune, but there comes a point when the narrative begins to crawl. It doesn't help matters that a superb action sequence with Wolverine evading an enemy on the roof of a speeding Bullet Train is over in the blink of an eye, and the film never finds anything as creative and thrilling in its final act. In fact, THE WOLVERINE just gets progressively more generic and ends with a fun but perfunctory brawl between Wolverine and a giant adamantium 'Silver Samurai' robot. Considering the film also goes down the SUPERMAN II direction of having its hero lose his superpowers, it somehow doesn't feel particularly cathartic when Wolverine's powers are restored.

Oh, and the central romance between Wolverine and Mariko fails on most levels (not helped by a weird decision to have the ghost of his ex, Jean Grey, appear every half-hour), which cripples a lot of the emotional beats. You end up with a strange movie that starts off careful but confident, but starts dragging its heels and ultimately ends leaving you with mediocre memories. And that's just not good enough for a superhero movie that sends a volatile character like Wolverine to an alien culture like Japan, where there are ninjas to fight. How do you make that as frequently dull as THE WOLVERINE ultimately is? I have no idea, but director James Mangold (WALK THE LINE, 3:10 TO YUMA) doesn't manage to find the fun and takes matters far too seriously.

After two solo Wolverine films (each with different problems), maybe they prove this popular character simply works best as part of an ensemble. In which case: roll on next year's X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST... the end-credits teaser for which is arguably the most exciting thing about THE WOLVERINE.
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