Monsters, Machines, Cybernetics, & Teamwork Make Pacific Rim a Cool Experience (Non-Spoiler Film Review)

Pacific Rim Movie Poster

When I first saw the trailer for Pacific Rim, I thought it looked like a horrid cross between Godzilla and Transformers. It had that "big CGI objects smash against each other while a city is obliterated" look that I've become so bored of. But I decided to see the movie out of my fondness for Guillermo del Toro. I adored Pan's Labyrinth and wondered if he could bring the emotion and imagination of that film to this spectacle. While I wanted more from the characters, Pacific Rim’s cool monsters, machines, cybernetics, and teamwork made it an entertaining experience.

Let me get this out of the way—the story is ridiculous. Giant monsters invade Earth through an inter-dimensional crack in the ocean floor and humanity unites behind a global force of massive mech battlebots. If you can suspend your disbelief enough to embrace the story, there's a good chance you'll enjoy this film. Like Oblivion, every frame in Pacific Rim is beautifully shot (particularly on the expansive IMAX format). Unlike Transformers, the action is easy to follow and the special effects blend in with live action elements. Del Toro also creates some interesting environments, like a Hong Kong community built out of the carcass of a slain monster.

Pacific Rim 's cybernetic interface looked like  StarCraft  meets  Iron Man .

Pacific Rim's cybernetic interface looked like StarCraft meets Iron Man.

There are also some fun psychological threads. Pacific Rim highlights what first contact with aliens might be like—humanity uniting behind a superordinate goal of eliminating a common threat. I also like the cybernetic interface between humans and mechs. While we can't yet create a hive mind between two humans like Pacific Rim's "drift", we keep getting better at controlling machines with our thoughts. Breakthroughs have made brain-controlled mechanical arms nearly as good as organic limbs and nonintrusive mind control interfaces are already exist. By the time we reach the 2020s (the film's setting), it's not hard to imagine cybernetic interfaces being as common as touch interfaces are now.

Speaking of societal trends, why have so many scifi movies this summer featured traumatized characters? This movie has not one, but two characters re-experiencing traumatic events from their pasts. I like psychological complexity and appreciate any film that destigmatizes mental illness, but Pacific Rim didn’t do justice to PTSDit just evoked trauma. More humor could have helped balance the seriousness of the main characters (yes, the film’s scientists are funny, but everyone else is SO stoic). And while we're on the subject of characters, Pacific Rim did a much better job fleshing out a female lead than other scifi films this summer, but the film still felt like a boy's club. One more random criticism - dinosaurs never had secondary "butt brains" (I know I'm nitpicking, but I hate it when Hollywood perpetuates myths about psychology).

Pacific Rim's  Kaiju are a fitting tribute to monsters of the past.

Pacific Rim's Kaiju are a fitting tribute to monsters of the past.

The ultimate message of Pacific Rim is we have a lot to gain when we work together (like defeating giant inter-dimensional monsters). Given all the crap going on in the world, that’s a nice message to see on the big screen. It's not the most complex movie of the summer, but it does offer a lot more fun than we've come to expect from "big CGI smashing" films. As long as you can stomach the premise, you'll have a lot of fun watching Pacific Rim.  

Rating: 7.5/10

I loved NPR’s take on this film. For a stronger critique, read The Atlantic.

The Top 10 Science Fiction Moments of 2012

Yesterday, I wrote about why we love end of year retrospective lists. Today, I want to give you my rundown of the 10 best science fiction moments of 2012. I'm not ranking 2012's best scifi movies or TV shows (io9 and Tor already did a good job of that). Rather, I am ranking moments from 2012 that were important to fans of science fiction.

10. The Walking Dead strikes back

Walking Dead Season 3.jpg

Great writing, acting, social commentary, and special effects make Walking Dead one of the best shows on TV. But 2011's 2nd season wasn't that good. Fans were worried about season 3, especially after hearing that executive producer Frank Darabont left the show. Not only has season 3 been awesome so far, but it also has provided some of the most memorable moments of the entire show.   

9. IMAX endures

I'm a huge fan of the IMAX format (real IMAX, not the fake stuff) and find it much more engrossing than 3D.

This year was a big one for the format with several movies optimized for the giant screen (Skyfall, The Amazing Spider-Man, Titanic 3D, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and one partially filmed in native IMAX (The Dark Knight Rises).   

Next year promises more films optimized for IMAX (Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug) and at least two partially filmed in the format (Star Trek Into Darkness and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire).

Seeing the Dark Knight Rises in the native IMAX format was an awesome experience. Source: DC Comics/Warner Brothers Pictures. 

Seeing the Dark Knight Rises in the native IMAX format was an awesome experience. Source: DC Comics/Warner Brothers Pictures. 

8. Neil deGrasse Tyson is the ultimate fanboy

Neil deGrasse Tyson is about as geeky as you can get. As an astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium in the American Museum of Natural History, Tyson is one of the nation's foremost authorities on space, an eloquent ambassador for science (watch "The Most Astounding Fact"), and a passionate advocate for NASA (see "We Stopped Dreaming").

He's also a major Trekkie. This past year, Tyson had two standout moments - proclaiming the U.S.S. Enterprise as the champion of the 2012 Comic-Con Starship Smackdown (see below) and dedicating an entire episode of his hit internet show to the science of Star Trek (in which he revealed that his sideburns are an homage to Star Trek).  

7. Dystopian novels are cool again

Dystopias are a staple of science fiction, though it's been awhile since a new dystopian story captured the public's attention. Thanks to critical acclaim, word of mouth, social commentary on our obsession with reality TV, and an excellent film adaptation, this was the year Hunger Games returned dystopias to the bestseller list. Hopefully, the success of Hunger Games will bring about a renewed interest in other dystopian classics

6. TNG gets a facelift

In celebration of the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation, CBS launched a complete HD restoration of the show for blu-ray. This meant scanning the film negatives, repairing damaged film, updating special effects, remastering sound, and recording new interviews and behind the scenes specials. The first two seasons are out and the results are spectacular! The remastering has ensured that TNG will live on long into the 21st century.

5. Space jumping becomes a reality

Space Jumping from 2009's Star Trek
Space Jumping from 2009's Star Trek

One of the coolest scenes from 2009's Star Trek became a reality on October 14th, 2012 when Felix Baumgartner jumped out of a capsule at the edge of space, broke the sound barrier, and safety returned to Earth. Science fiction to science fact in 3 years - that's pretty cool.

4. The cybernetic age begins

At the 2012 London Olympics, Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorius became the first double leg amputee to participate in the games (he had previously competed in the Paralympic games). His participation sparked a global debate on the role of biological augmentation in our society.

This year also marked the first case of a cybernetic hate crime when Steve Mann was physically assaulted in a French McDonalds for having a "digital eye glass". 

Both of these cases, along with the growing sophistication of robotic implants marked the beginning of the cybernetic age.

Photo by  Erik van Leeuwen .

Photo by Erik van Leeuwen.

3. Avengers is actually a good movie

Marvel Studios' Avengers was a bold experiment. If you factor in the five separate films that were produced in parallel between 2008 - 2011 to setup the Avengers, this was one of the biggest and most expensive films in history.

I was afraid Avengers would be a flop. The first footage didn't look promising, Hulk never worked on the big screen, I didn't think Tony Stark/Iron Man/Robert Downey Jr. could play nice with the other heroes, and Loki didn't seem like a big enough villain for the movie. Why did I care? If Avengers failed, there was a good chance Marvel and other studios would become far more risk-averse in their productions of superhero films.

I was completely wrong. Avengers worked on all levels (well...nearly all, see the “Honest Trailer” below), was critically acclaimed, and made a ton of money. Not only has Marvel Studios announced 4 new movies which will lead to Avengers 2 in 2015, the studio is taking their "cinematic universe" into the very geeky galactic realm of Marvel Comics - a far more ambitious and bold move than Avengers Part 1. 

2. NASA does a lot of cool stuff

NASA did a lot to capture the public's attention this year.

First, the space agency sent its space shuttles into retirement with style by orchestrating flyovers above Washington, D.C., New York City, and Los Angeles.

Next, Harold White reiterated that the agency is looking into wrap drive technology for interstellar space travel at the 100 Year Starship Symposium, though the science remains purely speculative at this point.

Finally, NASA's most advanced Mars rover, the Curiosity, landed on August 6, 2012 at 1:32 a.m. EDT. The landing was the most complicated in NASA history and was ripped from the pages of science fiction, utilizing the largest and strongest supersonic parachute ever created and a combination of sky crane tethers and rockets to lower the rover to the surface. Curiosity has already made some interesting discoveries and is on its way to Gale Crater near the Martian equator to determine if the area had the right conditions to support life.

My favorite part of Curiosity? This photo below featuring NASA's "Mohawk Guy".

NASA Time Machine.jpeg

1. Star Wars is coming back

The best scifi moment of the year was also the biggest entertainment news of the year - Disney buys Lucasfilm and announces new Star Wars movies beginning with Star Wars Episode VII in 2015.

Yes, it's a little strange picking a corporate acquisition as my number one pick. But, Star Wars is the biggest science fiction franchise EVER, the original trilogy influenced generations of artists and scientists, and if you look at the subtext behind George Lucas' exit interviews, it seems like he's truly stepping away from creative control of the new movies suggesting that this upcoming trilogy might finally give us a fresh take on the universe.

That's my list for 2012. What do you think? What did I miss or get wrong?