playing catch-up: pacific rim and elysium

So here I am, playing catch up with movies I watched last year but didn't have the time to write about.

Pacific Rim

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Pacific Rim is a rhythmically adept film, hitting every beat of the Hollywood action genre on time and in sequence. Hence, the square-jawed hero with a personal tragedy to overcome, a traumatized novice in need of confidence, the nerdy scientist who turns out to have been right all along, the inspirational speeches, the inevitable pummeling that precedes the resounding victory, and so on. Given the expense of making these visually-intensive films, it comes as no surprise that Hollywood prefers to play it safe for the sake of recouping their costs however much one would wish for narratives as dazzling as their presentation.

Nevertheless, the difference between this spectacle and the usual thumping is that Guillermo Del Toro is the one with the drum, and this is a director whose imagination and attention to detail in films like Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth earn him the cinematic rank of visionary. His love of fantasy and the unique niche inhabited by giant robots and monsters infuses every frame of this epic tale of humanity under siege, in which giant robots are created to combat an extra-dimensional monster menace. There’s a nostalgic element at play. Many scenes bring back beloved moments from childhood cartoons like Tranzor-Z, bringing forth gushing enthusiasm for every identifiable homage. And the film benefits immensely from Del Toro’s resistance to fetishistic militarism, as he discusses with the Toronto Star’s Peter Howell. His careful consideration about how to stage mass destruction – making sure to have people evacuate areas under attack by the monsters called Kaiju – distinguishes him from blunt directors like Zack Snyder and Michael. Where they display no awareness of their combatants’ collateral damage, Del Toro provides morally-aware spectacle. So go ahead and appreciate the large-scale property damage; there aren’t any people in those buildings.

It all comes to this: The production design, the kinetic direction, the cinematography – and it bears repeating, the love –all adds up to pure, unabashed fan-boy-and-girl, bounce-off-the-walls, rock-em sock-em giddiness that puts most other blockbusters to shame. Come on. Giant! Fucking! Robots! (And really monstrous monsters!) Also: Ron Perlman as a fashionably bad-ass black marketeer with the glorious name of Hannibal Chau.



Along with its predecessor, District 9, Neil Blomkamp’s sophomore film Elysium proves that it is possible to deliver intelligent yet accessible science fiction to audiences who generally reject anything other than a light sprinkling of speculative science in their adventures. And like District 9, Elysium is layered with topical politics in its story of a ravaged future Earth lorded over by isolationist elites who live aboard an orbiting space station.

But the film ultimately disappoints, however riveting it is to watch the ever-likeable Matt Damon portray a convict who, faced with a sealed fate after exposure to lethal radiation, accepts a job to infiltrate the wealthy elites’ space fortress. What begins as a thoughtful presentation on social and political inequality, amplified by technology to its logical extreme, eventually settles into a dodgy action movie that brings to mind, of all things, Iron Man. When faced with the choice of two villains for the film’s climax, Blomkamp chooses the lesser of the two to deliver a physical rather than polemical confrontation. A safe and entertaining choice, perhaps, but also timid and artless, as if afraid of making a statement with any more controversy than a bowl of porridge. Elysium is by no means disposable, but it is also not especially memorable.

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