Del Toro’s Pacific Rim is the best blockbuster in years

 
Simon Thomson
FILM
PACIFIC RIM
Cert 12a | By Simon Thomson
Five Stars

IF YOU’RE looking for a big budget action movie this summer, Pacific Rim blows everything out of the water. Spectacular in every sense, it shows a brutal war of attrition on a monumental scale, without ever losing the human perspective.

Bursting from a rift at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, come legions of monsters, called Kaiju, destroying coastal cities, and killing millions. Setting aside its differences, humanity responds by building robotic monsters of its own, 25-storey-tall war machines, called Jaegers, to fight the otherworldly invaders. Jaegers are driven by two pilots whose minds are connected by a neural bridge called “the drift”, and the closer the bond between the pilots, the better they fight. So – by the eternal laws of Hollywood storytelling – the fate of the world comes to rest with a washed-up former pilot and an emotionally scarred trainee.

Director Guillermo del Toro’s enthusiasm for the project leaps off the screen, evident in the loving detail of every robotic cog, and monstrous flange. The technical wizardry of the production is substantial, but always in service of the story. The careful marriage of cinematography and CGI lends an air of reality to what could otherwise have been cartoonish, and despite being converted to 3D in post-production, it is one of the few films in recent years that gains from the process, offering a truly immersive experience. The special effects are balanced by great performances from the lead trio: Charlie Hunnam (Sons of Anarchy) gives depth to a role that could easily have been a generic hero, while Rinko Kikuchi (Babel) conveys competence and vulnerability. Idris Elba (The Wire) is wonderfully shouty as their grizzled commander.

Some early reviews complained that Pacific Rim lacks subtlety, but how much subtlety can you expect from a film where giant robots bludgeon godzillas with supertankers? Perhaps the story is formulaic – part war movie, part buddy-cop film – and derivative of a half-century of Japanese pop-culture, but it’s so well executed that all is forgiven. A greater weakness is the film’s comedy characters, a pair of bickering scientists. Though Charlie Day’s scrappy Kaiju fanboy is likeable enough, Burn Gorman’s peevish characterisation is a grating stereotype that sits poorly alongside the rest of the cast. Neither deliver anything as funny as the incidental humour provided by the more serious characters.

Parallels between Pacific Rim and that other giant robot movie franchise, Transformers, are inevitable, but misleading. Del Toro consciously rejects the aesthetics of the car commercial and army recruitment video. Though Kaiju ravage cities, this is not the disaster porn to which we have become inured. The streets and buildings are emptied, the populace having fled to the relative safety of underground bunkers. Pacific Rim creates tension not by slaughtering anonymous masses, but by imperilling characters you know and care about. We can only hope that someone takes a copy of Pacific Rim to the next Transformers 4 production meeting, and that Michael Bay watches it, realises that his entire career has been a waste, and throws himself off a bridge.

Pacific Rim is a monster hit.

OPERA
VERDI’S MACBETH
Blackheath Halls | By Elsie Salinsky
Three Stars

NOW entering its eighth year, Blackheath Halls Community Opera continues to present a convincing case for bringing together enthusiastic locals and world-class professionals to create a satisfying alternative to the summer country house opera. Verdi’s Macbeth is an ambitious choice, not least because of the demands placed on the Lady Macbeth character. We are spoiled by Miriam Murphy, whose powerhouse talent is thrilling at close range. Her characterisation of the sinister protagonist was detailed and convincing. Unfortunately, Quentin Hayes’ Macbeth appeared rather wooden in comparison; flashes of charisma appearing only at his demise. Smaller roles taken by Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance students were well delivered, and the vast number of local singers, adults and children were able to show off their impeccable diction and musical timing to the fullest as the orchestra was sensibly placed far away from the performers and audience.

A fringe show of West End quality.

FILM
MONSTERS UNIVERSITY
Cert U | By Annabel Palmer
Four Stars

IN THE US, Monsters University secured Pixar its biggest opening since Toy Story 3 took $110.3m in 2010. 2001’s Monsters, Inc was Pixar at its absolute finest. A feat of storytelling and visual imagination, it saw best friends and scare experts Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James P Sullivan (John Goodman) deviate from their day jobs powering the city of Monstropolis in a wonderfully weird plot. But the duo weren’t always the best of friends. Monsters University (Pixar’s first prequel) takes us back to when a swotty Mike sets foot on campus as a scare major at Monsters University, and soon finds himself at loggerheads with the laid-back, arrogant Sulley. Why? Sulley has the raw talent but is too lazy to channel it; Mike has the dedication but lacks the ability.

When their college careers are put in jeopardy, the pair discover the only solution is to work together. Pixar’s message this time? There’s no “I” in team. Most of the jokes result in knowing smiles rather than the bellows of laughter provided by its predecessor, but it does have its moments. Sulley being lured into a cool nightclub is a high point. Another is a failed fraternity initiation. The warmth is still there, too. It doesn’t live up to the Toy Story sequels, but it will make you pray Pixar doesn’t wait another 12 years before putting Sulley and Mike on our screens again.

FILM
BLANCANIEVES
Cert 12a | By Alex Dymoke
Four Stars

THE clothes, the inky blackness, the heavy use of shadow – from the perspective of the 21st century, it’s difficult to shed silent movies of their vaudeville gothic quaintness. In Blancanieves, however, the novel presentation and the emotional power of the narrative do not battle for your attention – they harmonise perfectly. Set in 1920s Seville, the story is based on the fairytale Snow White (in Spanish, Blanca = white and nieves = snow). Maribel Verdu is commanding as the venal queen, hawk-like in her severity, while Macarena García is as sweet as a Seville orange as the mistreated Blancanieves.

Fiery southern Spain is a perfect match for the mimed melodrama of the silent format. Large-eyed senoritas whoop and swoon over the handsome matador waltzing with the bull in the ring. Writer-director Pablo Berger skilfully captures the vividness of the place despite the black and white camera.