During the 132 minutes of Pacific Rim I failed to have a single thought - not always a bad thing

Director Guillermo del Toro has spoken with open passion about this ludicrous, ludicrous film. In fact, he's right: it's pretty good.

“Entertaining” has become a euphemism for “crap, but with pretty set-pieces": a pleading entreaty offered by sci-fi apologists to save face when discussing yet another underwhelming summer movie we were foolish enough to get excited about.

It becomes an ever weaker descriptor as the years go by, cheapening in value with every genre movie that doesn’t quite work. The rush of excitement when the BBFC card appears on screen deflates quicker and quicker each time, leaving only a distracted internal voice that gnaws on plot holes and wonders when it will all be over.

Sitting through Prometheus last year, and then World War Z and Star Trek earlier this summer, that voice was as loud as popcorn. I began seriously wondering whether satisfying genre movies were even possible anymore or whether – worse yet – my brain was burnt out on effects-driven movies, jaded to spectacle and doomed to overthink any piece of simple fun.

During the full 132 minutes of Pacific Rim, however, I don’t think I actually had any thoughts.

Before a single critical neuron could fire, the film grabbed my mental wrist like the ancient mariner and gruffly set out its pitch with a relentless opening montage. “Here” it said, “is a story about people getting in huge robots to have fights with monsters, and it’s going to be loud”. Leaving no time for me to digest this, it proceeded to launch into the most astonishing fight between a robot and a monster.

Then there was more, and more, and more. The film stuck with its preposterous internal logic with complete attention to detail, and was paced in such a way as to never really leave time for reflection.

Director Guillermo del Toro has spoken with open passion about this ludicrous, ludicrous film. His single-mindedness triumphed in the finished product. Rather than the lumpen, episodic structure so familiar from the design-by-committee approach to blockbusting, Pacific Rim successfully maintained a constant escalation of pitch.

The visual storytelling was superb, with fights choreographed and shot more in the manner of a sports movie than a typical effects-led effort. There was no shaky-cam, no loss of spatial awareness or sense of scale, and no confusing, staccato smash cuts to flailing metal of the kind that the Transformers movies were so rightly pilloried for.

The world of the film was relentlessly imaginative, from the way city streets were built around the skeletons of fallen monsters, to the alien skin parasites collected and sold by black marketeers, right down to the patches and insignia on the uniforms of the heroes (yes, heroes. Pacific Rim is not the kind of film that has ‘protagonists’).

Everything could have been generic and still have contributed to something that was just as marketable, but instead reeked of hours and hours of careful design. 

In fact, the only thing to give my suspension of disbelief a wobble was Burn Gorman’s demented parody of a bookish scientist. Even though his role was written with the same level of operatic lunacy as the rest of the film, it felt awkwardly off-the-shelf in a way that nothing else really did.

In general, the human drama in Pacific Rim was inevitably going to be its weak point. But everyone involved could act, and the attempt to tackle real emotion was far enough in advance of the genre standard to make it seem mean-spirited to make a meal of the issue.

Certainly, Idris Elba bellowing “we are cancelling the apocalypse” came pretty close to unpardonably silly, but after two hours of gigatonne punching, that level of cheesiness seemed genuinely necessary in a way that I can’t honestly explain after the fact.

And that is, essentially, where any conversation on this movie ends for me. I can’t necessarily explain how del Toro got away with it, nor do I feel any real need to understand why. I simply really, really enjoyed how it felt to be watching the film. As I understand it, that’s entertainment.

I am robot. A still from Pacific Rim.

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump