“One, don’t you ever touch me again. Two, don’t you ever touch me again.” – Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost
I was never a huge fan of the giant monster movies that played on TV when I was growing up. The few times I would happen upon one, surfing through the three or four channels we had back then, they just seemed cheesy. The creatures always looked exactly like what they were, some guy in a foam dinosaur suit, tearing up a knee-high, cardboard model of Tokyo. The actors may or may not have been fine; I was too young to care. The horrible dubbing of their voices, though, was distracting beyond words. Luckily, there was always a western on another channel that I could watch. More recently, I’ve not been very interested in the big-budget CGI summer action movies like Transformers. It’s probably my age showing, but the trailers for those films always seemed too big and loud an confusing to be enjoyable. Besides, who makes a film based on a cartoon based on a toy from over thirty years ago? I’m looking at you, Battleship. I have no aversion to visual effects per se (hell, my favorite movie of all time is Star Wars and I am a proud Prometheus defender), but I normally need a little more by way of character and plot to get me into the multiplex these days. It’s odd, then, that I was interested at all in seeing Guillermo del Toro‘s latest film, billed as a mashup of all those giant monster movies of the mid-twentieth century doing battle with giant, computer generated robots. But that’s exactly where I found myself on a recent Sunday afternoon.
To be completely fair, I wasn’t a hundred percent in my right mind. Just two weeks prior, I’d been diagnosed with large B-cell lymphoma and was set to start my first round of chemotherapy the next day. My wife and I decided to take in a matinee to get our minds off the monumental task before us. We wanted something light, but I wasn’t about to put more cash in Gore Verbinski‘s pocket* by seeing The Lone Ranger and I hadn’t seen Despicable Me, so its sequel was a non-starter. I knew I’d enjoyed del Toro’s Hellboy and had always planned to see Pan’s Labyrinth, so despite being a little trepidatious, I opted for the giant monster flick.
The story is a simple one. Giant, interdimensional monsters known as kaiju are emerging from the ocean to terrorize humanity. We respond by creating giant mechanized robots called jaegers that are controlled by two-person teams using a joined neural… Oh, never mind; nothing beyond that matters. It’s giant robots fighting giant monsters. To refer to the other plot points as cliches almost understates how shallow the plot really is. But this isn’t really a film about the subtle complexities of interpersonal relationships. It’s eye candy with just enough melodrama to keep things moving along. The actors involved do their best, but they’re hamstrung by the overly simplistic plot. There’s a love story between our main hero, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and rookie pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) that reads like it was written by a twelve year-old girl. Idris Elba (AWESOME as Stringer Bell on The Wire) does a serviceable job as veteran pilot Stacker Pentecost. Really. Even del Toro’s favorite jaw, Ron Perlman, has a minor role as the improbably-named kaiju-organ recycler, Hannibal Chau. Cataloging every aspect of the movie that was cheesy or smirk-inducing would be a monumental task. There is, to be sure, much here that could be mocked or derided.
And yet, somehow, I loved damn near every minute of it. Initially, I compared it favorably to Star Wars, and I stand by that statement. It wasn’t nearly as large of a cultural touchstone to be sure, but what else ever will be? It had that same sense of adventure, of a scrappy crew taking on a much more powerful enemy. For as cheesy as some of the melodrama was, I did find myself caring about the characters more than I have with more serious dramas. And the visual effects were omnipresent but fit well, never overshadowing the plot, which is saying something. It was, in a word, fun.
When I started writing this, I wondered if the theme of using technology to fight evil, unsightly monsters bent on human destruction had some relevance to my current health situation. It would have been easy to see the kaiju as a stand-in for the existential threat that cancer is and mankind’s use of the jaegers to destroy them as a form of monster-fighting chemotherapy. In retrospect, though, I don’t find the analogy apt. For one, I don’t think the writing here is deep or profound enough to warrant that level of introspection. Also, despite the fact that I try to jokingly insert the word “cancer” into nearly every conversation I have these days**, I don’t want to be the guy who eventually talks of nothing but blood counts, constipation, and all the other side effects of chemotherapy and radiation. I am more than my cancer diagnosis and I demand to not be treated like a walking corpse or PSA. With that in mind, I reject the very concept of this film as an anti-cancer, pro-technology, look-what-we-humans-are-capable-of allegory. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a giant, ape-like, inter-dimensional monster is just a giant, ape-like inter-dimensional monster.
I missed out on seeing this in the theater a second time, so I’m really looking forward to the BlueRay, even more so now that we have the 55-inch LCD in the living room. I will be needing to buy a stereo with a subwoofer, though. A movie this large won’t be the same using a television’s tiny (and tinny) built-in speakers. I feel like my enjoyment was contingent on the overwhelming scale of the battles. If you’re looking for a solid science fiction film with good visual effects, I highly recommend checking it out. Just don’t expect high art or anything groundbreaking. For that, I think I need to finally check out Pan’s Labyrinth.
* Full disclosure, I loved The Mexican (review to come), which Verbinski also directed, but I haven’t been interested in a thing he’s done since the first Pirates of the Caribbean film back in 2003.
** Last week, after my tastebuds were getting back to normal, I actually said to a coworker, “Rod, I have cancer,” as a way to justify my taking of the last sprinkled doughnut out of a box one of our vendors had brought. I’m not proud of that maneuver, but damn it was effective.