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The monster that is Pacific Rim and the problem with Kevin Hart

Once upon a time, going to a mega-movie was a really big deal. The studios spent months winding up the audience with ads, trailers, clips, and toys wrapped in plastic and buried in a box of fast food. People had dreams about characters, built tents in queues outside theaters, and dressed themselves as characters. Mega-movies were special for their size and scale and rumored expense. They featured state-of-the-art effects and maybe involved an alien invasion and were possibly directed by James Cameron. They also seemed relatively rare. You’d get maybe five a year, and you’d get that many only because of the cost and the risk involved in spending that kind of money.

There was also the idea that not every movie should be an event, that if you lost your mind every weekend of every summer you’d have no mind left. So much for that. Now, whether it’s because of our so-called Changing Media Landscape or because the monomaniacs who approve and finance our films are obsessed with making stuff that eats the entire planet, things have changed. Events are all the movies have. The blockbuster threat level has gone from green to blue to Bruckheimer. The mega-budget superproduction owns so many of us. And if we must be owned, and therefore deafened, manhandled, manipulated, exploited, 3-D’d, and forced to watch entire cities reduced to crumbs, then by all means that ownership should be entrusted to those more competent than mere professionals and more committed than certain glorified nerds.

Guillermo del Toro is both — a competent obsessive — but he is also what these sorts of Trump Tower spectacles desperately need. Del Toro is a dreamer. He’s a visionary. If you give him a pile of money to make enormous robots fight enormous monsters at the end of civilization, he will work to make Pacific Rim a movie that makes you feel all the enormousness. He will put you at the feet of the monsters and inside the bellies of the beasts. He will do what a movie about big reptiles and big machines is supposed to do: make you look up, make you feel as if the screen is grossly inadequate to contain what’s on it, even though, if you’re charmed — or strategic — you’re already watching the movie on the biggest screen you possibly can.

Del Toro will attempt to do this for us because many a movie craftsman had done the same for del Toro. Pacific Rim has been dedicated to the legendary creature-effects wizard Ray Harryhausen, who died in the spring, and to Ishiro Honda, the pioneer who gave us, among other kaiju movies, several helpings of Godzilla. It’s hard to describe the tingle of seeing a 100-story-tall object slogging across a skyline and the perverse yearning it provokes, but after my first Godzilla movie, I can remember staring out of windows in anticipation of something that would cause the house to rumble and the treetops to stir.

The creatures in kaiju arose from atomic fear. Would Hiroshima and Nagasaki reoccur? But for a moviegoer lucky enough to be innocent of war and large-scale atrocity, Honda’s radioactive byproducts were just strange creatures — like Harryhausen’s swashbuckling skeletons, howling man-beasts, and hissing serpents — that flourish in the imagination like growing dinosaurs in a glass of water. His movies and their imitators had a strange power. I kept my face pressed against the window. Del Toro delivers the highest-tech tribute to Harryhausen and Honda one could pay. I find myself, once again, staring at treetops.

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim is set seven years in the future, at a time of constant war. Massive monsters — kaiju — continue to rise up from Earth’s core and ravage the planet. To combat the threat, man has devised comparably gargantuan machines called Jaegers whose pilots stand, armored, on a platform in the cavity of all that hardware and operate the robots virtually. For practical purposes, these men and women — brothers, fathers and sons, lovers — are Jaegermeisters, and the movie, which del Toro and Travis Beacham wrote, never tires of splashing the screen with the aftershave-blue montages of one meister’s mind melding with the other.

The human story proceeds in several directions. An American meister named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) comes out of very early retirement to fight for a multinational outfit called the Pan Pacific Defense Corps, whose commander is an Englishman and former pilot named Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). It’s right about here, with the discovery of a name as stupid and amazing and amazingly Bible Belt porny as Stacker Pentecost, that you have to suppress the urge not to watch the rest of Pacific Rim on a knee. Raleigh winds up partnered with a Japanese woman named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) and sparring with a macho pilot named Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky).1

The baldness of the badness that surrounds a lot of the writing and performing of these characters is reminiscent of Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers. Like Verhoeven, a Hollywood-friendly Dutchman, del Toro, who’s Mexican, appears to have had more compelling business to worry about than how people sound. But the nationalities aren’t entirely random. The film is nodding — hilariously, perfunctorily — to global movie-attendance conditions by having the two best Jaeger teams hail from China and Russia, which, according to a Screen Digest report, were 2011′s second- and seventh-largest non–North American box-office markets. (Japan was no. 1.) Del Toro scatters the movie all over the planet, in its metropolises, its waters, and beneath them. His nation-state placement happily makes concrete what’s been obvious for so long: Asia’s the new Coke.

There are some good bits with the del Toro regular Ron Perlman, as an oily operator selling kaiju parts on the black market. But the official comedy involves a pair of bickering PPDC scientists — an overcaffeinated American (Charlie Day) and a limping, most highly strung Brit (Burn Gorman) named Dr. Hermann Gottlieb — eager to discover what makes kaiju tick. It’s an achievement that calls for a kaiju brain, which Day’s character, a tattooed monster geek named Dr. Newton Geiszler, spends the movie trying to procure. Day is as funny as John Turturro is in the Transformers movies, playing a character who works as a broad outline within which he can try out a shtick. The skinny Gorman is even better. With his dark clothes, matted hair, and madman rictus, he’s like an SS commander outraged that no one’s following behind him. A friend mentioned that the two scientists are like the robots in Star Wars, and he’s right. They’re the custodial undercard in an Ernst Lubitsch comedy, too. But these two do so much shouting at each other that, by volume, they’re also Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby.

In Pacific Rim, when two pilots suit up and are shuttled into a Jaeger, the camera lingers over the gear long enough for you to appreciate precisely how battle-tested these machines are. You can see scuffs and rust and grease and dents. You see the wear and tear and surmise their use. You appreciate the details. They tell as descriptive a story as the creases on Brad Pitt’s or Judi Dench’s face. It’s a level of specificity that only the people at Pixar might care to top. With Pixar you expect that degree of granularity. Del Toro and his vast team didn’t have to bother. But the bother becomes an endearment. So does the attention to the staging of the battles between the kaiju and Jaegers.

The monsters have the dino-lizard quality you want. They don’t have the hair and slime you’d get from a Rick Baker or a Stan Winston. They have a clear, ferocious Godzilla-ness that feels both absolutely referential and perfectly apt. Kaiju can rip Jaegers apart with their talons or vomit sizzling nuclear acid on them and are indiscriminate and promiscuous enough to chase anything that moves, including adorable little girls. When kaiju and Jaegers go charging at each other in, say, an ocean or on the streets of some city, you feel a perverse tingle of amorality. You crave the destruction. You’re riled up by the shredding in Ramin Djawadi’s score — the guitar’s credited to Tom Morello, whose history with Rage Against the Machine speaks to the sympathy del Toro evidently feels for the monsters.

Pacific Rim is just as guilty of mass destruction and mega-budget clichés as Armageddon, the Transformers movies, and nearly every blockbuster to open in the last two summers. But del Toro doesn’t turn real-world disaster iconography into kitsch for our entertainment. This isn’t to say that the movie is free of politics. (With del Toro, you’re rarely far from them, actually.) The Jaeger, for instance, represents a less morally problematic alternative to drone warfare.

But del Toro’s work is more inspired than traumatic exploitation. He’s studied pop art and likes to reinterpret it. Del Toro has mentioned that he found inspiration in Goya’s 200-year-old blockbuster painting The Colossus. I wouldn’t put it past him also to have been thinking about Goya’s gruesome remake of Rubens’s Saturn Devouring His Son. (Maybe he already used that for Pan’s Labyrinth.) But watching the kaiju and the Jaegers go at each other inspires thoughts of a less passive masterpiece: the boxers in George Bellows’s Both Members of This Club, a painting whose bloody, monstrous boxers — one man white, the other black — are made to look at least twice as large as the spectators surrounding the ring.

Both Members of This Club

Like other directors who don’t seem alive unless they’re working on a massive scale — George Lucas, Michael Bay, Peter Jackson — del Toro can sometimes stall beneath the weight of his undertaking. The nearly perfect polemical Grimm’s fairy tale of Pan’s Labyrinth got as carried away with itself as his two Hellboy films. But what separates del Toro from those other directors is the joy he imparts to you. It’s the joy of a filmmaker who’s never forgotten that movies can do everything. It can make a Stacker Pentecost pre-battle pep talk seem vaguely like Henry V‘s St. Crispin’s Day speech. It can keep you checking the skyline for imaginary dragons.

The lasting image of Pacific Rim features a kaiju clamping its talons into a Jaeger and suddenly growing wings and taking off. All that airborne tonnage drops your jaw and waters up your eyes. On one hand, it’s probably just somebody’s computer. On the other, it’s a miracle.

Kevin Hart Kevin Hart’s stand-up comedy is at its best when he’s sitting down. His breathing returns to normal. His antic pacing and delivery are confined to his stool. He actually seems possessed by the memory of his jokes instead of pacing the stage in search of them. You no longer notice that he’s another comedian who doesn’t have the follow-up sensibility that bespeaks a kind of ingenious relentlessness — Joan Rivers failing to run out of ways to talk about her lack of beauty or Chris Rock working his racial outrage down to the bone.

At their best, the great comedians go until there’s nothing left, until they’ve wiped you out, until you hurt. With Hart, you feel like the show’s over before it has even peaked. He feels his way from observation to anecdote to exclamatory riff to self-deprecation. When he’s seated, at least, you no longer feel like you have to chase him in order to make a connection. He’s right there.

People are talking about Hart’s two recent live-in-concert movies — I use “movie” out of occupational habit; there were cameras present during his act; that is all — as if those hits were Eddie Murphy’s Delirious or Raw. These people obviously haven’t seen Hart’s movies. The second, Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain, which opened last Wednesday and was shot at a sold-out and acutely receptive Madison Square Garden, is a mess. There are montages of fans screaming love, support, and thanks into the camera. There’s some man-on-the-street stuff. There’s a self-mocking introductory sketch. There’s a bit about the size of his YouTube Channel and the love for him on Twitter. This is always a dubious strategy for a movie. We’re already here, dude. We know. Somewhere in between there are the 52 or 53 minutes of Hart’s show, which mostly concerns how life’s been for him since his divorce.

Murphy, who in Raw was at the peak of his fame, made himself a sex symbol and rock star with these live shows. Hart is all too eager to undermine that kind of bravado. His stand-up made him a comedy star, but the movies and television reduce him to stripping the ball from people more famous than he is. That was him, uncouth in Soul Plane and characteristically aggrieved in Think Like a Man and picking fights with Robin Thicke on BET’s Real Husbands of Hollywood. At 33, Hart could spend the rest of his career as a professional scene thief. But he has something more agitated than that. Hart shouts and wails and pants at a high pitch so that we know he’s still there. He’s half the size of the people around him and seems both delusional and openly insecure. He has the bark of a dog that doesn’t know it can’t bite. 

Let Me Explain opens with a vague indication of the fun to be had at a real Hart movie. He’s at a rooftop party where people accost him with accusations. “Is it true,” asks one woman, rhetorically, “that you don’t fuck with dark-skinned bitches no more?” The woman is light-skinned and says she’s asking on behalf of her friends, who, with a pivot of the camera, are shown seething and eye-rolling in a corner as if they were Girlfriends zombies. “Let me explain,” he says. There’s a charm in the way the accusations pile up and hurt his ego, in the way he tells his incredulous manservant to call the Garden so he can get some things off his chest.

Tim Story, who made Think Like a Man, directed that intro, and it’s a barrage of personalities chafing against Hart’s. It’s legitimate screwball comedy, too — he’d be perfect for the Ernst Lubitsch undercard. You believe his sense of aggrievement — not as a real superstar, per se, but as a caricature of one, as a joke on someone like Murphy. Otherwise, he’s using the movies, the TV shows, and the concerts to inflate his ego. Even that feels dubious. In Let Me Explain, the most adulatory post-show comment a fan makes about Hart is, “I loved him in Soul Plane, definitely his best work.” But it doesn’t have to be.

Filed Under: Alien, Movies, Pacific Rim

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Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris