"Where's the goat?"
After Lex (Ariana Richards)—who was around my age at the time—asked that question in Jurassic Park, nothing was the same. It was the summer of 1993, and blockbuster master Steven Spielberg's $63 million adaptation of Michael Crichton's novel was blowing everyone's mind. Jurassic Park's first act established the on-screen magic by explaining how the dinosaurs were created, and showing a bunch of harmless, plant-eating Stegosaurus creatures grazing—those prehistoric giants that I'd been reading about obsessively all throughout grade school were suddenly real, in the flesh, right before my eyes. It was incredible.
But then that goat showed up in the Tyrannosaurus Rex pit, leading into that major setpiece where the king of the dinos makes its grand entrance. The goat's leg slaps against the jeep's windshield, answering Lex's question. The beast's claw—no CGI here, just puppetry—scratches down the "Danger: 10,000 Volts" sign on the fence. The camera pans upward, revealing the T-Rex's enormous head, scarfing down the rest of the goat like it was potato chip. Dinner finished, the creature glances at the camera, at you.
I couldn't believe my eyes.
Growing up with dinosaur books stacked near my bed, my then-11-year-old self had never imagined that I'd see a living, moving Tyrannosaurus Rex. But there it was, on the big screen, sprinting after a jeep, the "objects in mirror are closer than they appear" forever becoming a sign of dinosaurs rather than something to do with cars. Thanks to director Spielberg and visual effects mastermind Stan Winston, it looked so real, like life. Credit those believable movements and its authentic-looking, scaly physical frame to the filmmakers' admirable creative decision to go with puppets and handmade, animate objects in conjunction with CGI.
The thrilling blend of fear, excitement, and disbelief I felt must have been similar to how audiences reacted to the sight of King Kong way back in 1933, oblivious to the fact that what they were seeing wasn't an 18-foot-tall gorilla but, rather, an 18-inch action figure. Even if they did know how the RKO Radio Pictures production achieved its giant-beast wizardry, it didn't matter—like moviegoers in '93, watching that T-Rex tear shit up and those Velociraptors hunt down frightened humans, all that mattered was what was on the screen. The wonderment outweighed the process.
Heading into acclaimed genre director Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim, I was hoping for a similar experience. We're talking about a movie in which Godzilla-sized alien monsters (known as the Kaiju) and man-operated, skyscraper-height robots (or Jaegers) beat the crap out of each other. This is the cinematic equivalent of bath time with your favorite action figures. And, as the advertisements and trailers have promised, Pacific Rim delivers a large helping of Kaiju-on-Jaeger smack-downs. Each bout goes for broke, tearing apart city buildings and using the ocean as a watery wrestling ring. During one standout battle, set in Hong Kong, one Jaeger grabs a massive ocean liner and swings it around like it's a baseball bat.
These battles are all executed with some of the best special effects to come around in years, surpassing the Transformers movies with its CGI fluidity, while also besting Michael Bay's franchise—with which the far superior Pacific Rim will inevitably be compared for a long, long time—in the story department. Guillermo del Toro's film, to a lesser degree than his best, smaller efforts (The Devil's Backbone, Pan's Labyrinth), focuses on character development for the majority of its running time; some of this is cheeseball (one cliché subplot involves a one-dimensional alpha male trying to prove himself to daddy), but at least Del Toro cared enough about his audience to give them more than Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Jaegers.
I dug Pacific Rim quite a bit, but, two weeks after seeing the film, I haven't been able to stop asking myself: Why didn't Pacific Rim truly wow me? I was entertained, sure, but was it on par with anything I felt while seeing Jurassic Park for the first time? Not even close. The answer here goes back to the previous paragraph—the fact that Transformers is being used to draw parallels to Pacific Rim is quite telling. No matter how balls-out del Toro went with the film, and despite the always earnest director's best intentions, Pacific Rim is, visually speaking, more of the same. It'll be hailed as a welcome, story-concerned antidote for mindless summer fare like The Lone Ranger, and for very good reason, but that's not the issue here. Pacific Rim doesn't connect like Jurassic Park because it's not about man versus moviemaking creation—it's one intangible moviemaking creation versus another intangible moviemaking creation.
You can't imagine that you're Jeff Goldblum, trying to distract a T-Rex with a flare; you can only watch two impressive-looking digital projections square off. The disconnect from reality is inescapable. Your imagination is tested, as well as stimulated, but only for so long. When Jeff Goldblum taunted the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, it felt real. That monster could inflict authentic, limbs-off damage—sure, it would've required some skilled puppeteers manning the controls, but it was possible. To get decimated by a Kaiju, you'd need a green screen and post-production computer fuckery. Where's the palpable threat in that? Where's the awe?
Even if Pacific Rim does give someone that Jurassic Park-like sensation, it'll be short-lived. Next month, District 9 writer-director Neill Blomkamp's futuristic action flick Elysium debuts, and, if its trailers are to be trusted, it's going to be chockfull of armed robots, reality-defying stunts, and more things to make you say, "Cool." Yet the understanding that everything on screen has been meticulously crafted in some expensive post-production studio won't go away, nor will the thought that, sooner or later, there's going to be a new film boasting even greater, more advanced VFX.
I'd be lying if I said that the last movie that floored me was Jurassic Park. Over the last few years, several movies have knocked me into submission, and all of them have one thing in common: humans. There's The Raid: Redemption, for instance, last year's insanely choreographed action film about Indonesian police officers kicking, punching, and somersaulting their way through martial-arts-proficient goons on every floor of a high-rise building—it's Streets of Rage set inside a single location, but ten times crazier. Written and directed by Gareth Evans, The Raid: Redemption features some of the most awe-inspiring fight sequences ever put on film, with actors bouncing off walls, slap-boxing in mid-air, and leading man Iko Uwais smashing through dozens of baddies in a series of extended, cut-free takes. It's real-life dudes bashing the hell out of other real-life dudes—the spectacle is grounded.
To a smaller, though hardly any less stunning, degree, there's also English genre master Ben Wheatley's extremely disturbing horror film Kill List, another 2012 release. In one how'd-they-do-that? scene, the film's antihero protagonist, Jay (Neil Maskell), is on a mysterious assignment as a hitman. His target is a child pornographer, and Jay forces him to rest his head on a kitchen table in order to beat him to death with a hammer. Wheatley doesn't cut away. As a seasoned viewer of harder-edged genre fare, you're conditioned to expect the director to keep the camera steady until the hammer is just inches away from dude's cranium, and cut right before impact. But not Mr. Wheatley. You see the hammer crash into the man's head, the same man you've just seen breathe, talk, and move, in a single take. That has to be his real head that's just been hammered like a nail, right? When in God's name did Wheatley edit him out and place the dummy at the table? Hell, is that even a dummy? Kill List's most brutal scene a brilliant piece of sleight-of-hand mastery that elicits gasps and genuine wide-eyed astonishment every time it's seen. Superb makeup work sells the carnage, in all of its skin-flapping glory.
Filmmakers like Gareth Evans and Ben Wheatley understand that, while it's fun to play make-believe with CGI, human beings accomplishing truly unbelievable things will always impress the most. Practicality will never get old. That's what makes The Raid: Redemption and Kill List so extraordinary—they're films in which people do bad things to other people, bad things that could actually happen. Jurassic Park, meanwhile, extends the threat further into all-out fiction, yet there's still the human element, the "wow" factor that comes from seeing a real-life person interacting with something fake but still physically present, like an animatronic dinosaur.
In Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro shows that he's cognizant of such an advantage—in a smart narrative move, the Jaegers can only function if two humans are positioned inside it, controlling its movements (think virtual reality) while their minds are synched together. When the robots and aliens duke it out, del Toro repeatedly cuts back to the Jaeger's interior, to remind us that it's mankind that's saving the day, not a soulless machine. But when Pacific Rim stars Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi are directing its sprints and punches, they're doing so from a studio in Toronto, where the film was shot. It's pretty damn cool to watch, sure, but its impervious to sustainable adoration. Because, remember, Elysium is on the horizon, and if it's as dynamite as many are hoping it'll be, it'll make you forget about Pacific Rim's CGI eye candy. Just as the September release Riddick could very well do to Elysium's momentary power. And so forth.
A decade from now, James Cameron or someone of his caliber will have pushed cinema even further into an immersive, all-CGI experience. In, say, 2023, those behemoth fights in Pacific Rim will give you the dated feeling that 1982's TRON elicits today. It's not out of the realm of possibility to think that audiences in 2023 will be able to download the latest summer blockbuster directly onto their convenient Google Glass 15.0 accessory and somehow physically interact with the film's three-dimensional characters—in Avatar 6: Na'vi Scared. Pacific Rim will be cinematic Intellivision. But those ass-kicking gangsters in 2023's The Raid: Annihilation? They're going to literally beat the piss out of you as you're standing there in awe.
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Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)