When you see a lot of movies, you notice little things. You notice things buried deep. Or sometimes these are obvious things that anyone might notice, but which don't bother people who maybe see a smaller, more homogeneous range of stuff than you do. I made my way to Pacific Rim, encouraged by reports here and there that it was actually a good movie - i.e., if Hollywood must make giant action setpiece blockbusters, this is how they should do it.
I'm not sure what I missed here, but pretty quick into the movie I couldn't wait for Pacific Rim to end. It was unbearable for me. It's not that it's really that awful a movie; it's that I was deflated by how utterly conventional it seemed. We've seen everything here before. I guess you can call it "homage" to the old Japanese kaiju films, and mecha anime, if you're being charitable. But really it just reminded me of all the huge blockbusters featuring a tired narrative arc. Even the brief touches of comic grotesquerie - presumably hallmarks to let us know this is "a Guillermo del Toro film" - are just tired rehashes of things GdT, and others, have done much better elsewhere. (I do like Pan's Labyrinth and Mimic. The former strikes me as a fairly successful example of how to do both fantasy genre filmmaking & prestige seriousness without scrimping on either side; the latter seems to me a solid example of termite art.) I would have much preferred Pacific Rim open with, say, some comic whimsy and truly weird images (not just boilerplate CGI "big action"), and then gradually build its was across two hours to its requisite emotional payoffs. Instead, what the film does is frontload a lot of emotional third-act sort of bullshit before the title card even comes up, and then it keeps returning to mine this vein as though unaware that it never really earned any of the emotions. Everything we know about the characters comes through voice-over exposition, or hammy dialogue. It's all cheap, it's lazy, it's juvenile - and not in a good way. You can see the plot devices creaking; they're almost skeuomorphic, as though they've been handed down as the impressions of story structures and plot devices that once might have moved us.
Just for example: Why must Idris Elba be so nobly silent about his history with Rinko Kikuchi? The answer, I think, really just has to do with convention - "we need backstory here, people!" - and a myopic, ungrounded dedication to trying to flesh out story without actually fleshing out story. I won't join the cult chorus who lament this film's disappointing box office returns; it's a lame piece o' work without character or feeling.
There is a flipside, though. You've probably seen absolutely everything in The Conjuring before too - assuming you've seen 1970s US horror films and/or early 21st century US mid-budget horror films. Like Ti West's The House of the Devil, The Conjuring is a loving textural recreation of an older generation's horror movies. You get the vintage clothing and hairstyles; the close-ups of old technology; the beautiful sound design of a large, big, quiet house with creaking hardwood floors and old heavy doors. (You can almost overlook the shoddy production design of the family photos, which screamed Photoshop to me.) The story is like director James Wan's Insidious (itself a reimagination of Poltergeist) injected with a healthy dose of The Amityville Horror. The premise and backstory are pretty generic, down to the ways past evils are roughly sketched and alluded to through flashing vignettes. Even the shock gags are fairly routine: you often know exactly when they're coming.
But I felt, and appreciated, that the filmmakers already knew this, themselves. (In fact the very last shot before credits roll plays upon this mutual acknowledgment of the conventions of timing out scares.) And it's because they understand their tools so well that The Conjuring is a massively awesome film under certain parameters.
Despite bringing little new to the table, everything here sings. It vibrates. This is the work of a very clever, sensitive director working with a cast and crew who seem to all be on the same wavelength. It's probably one of the scariest films I've ever seen.
I hope that James Wan does not settle into a comfortable, lucrative groove of being a shock-n-awe pastiche merchant. Because he might end up making really impressive and innovative works in a tradition of popular cinematic art. I don't mean the extension of classical film aesthetics as bulwarks against social and technological change. I mean the noble goal of trying to tell stories through sounds and moving images to people as if they are not mere demographic automata, as if they are not stupid, as if entertainment might be something more than catch phrases and adolescent revenge fantasies taken far too seriously. Wan might have it in him. I'll be hoping.