Grace: Chaos. Destruction. Ruin.
Why is it that we love to watch as our world falls apart? Whether it’s for real, like a riot in a far-off country or another celebrity splattering their bad choices all over the Internet like a monkey throwing its feces, we love to watch a train wreck. It’s why we crane our heads to see an accident on the highway on the way to the office, even though we know it’s making us (and everyone behind us) late to work. It’s why we laugh uproariously when some sixteen-year-old kid on Youtube flubs a skateboard trick and slams his junk against a metal bar, most likely making him a soprano for life. The Germans have a word for it: schadenfreude. It means, “taking pleasure from another’s misfortune.”
That basically defines the entire monster movie genre. Cities are leveled, lives are destroyed, and people run amok in the streets, screaming their heads off and looking for someone to save them. And someone will: a hero, marked by fate (or by the screenwriter), will stop the monster threat and save the city… or what’s left of it.
I don’t watch monster movies. I never saw Godzilla, Sharktopus, or the one my boss was talking about the other day that allegedly has some kind of crocosaurus. They’re overblown. They’re melodramatic. They’re just plain silly. And I never thought I’d enjoy seeing a city crumble into the dust, but after seeing Man of Steel, I unearthed a secret desire I didn’t even know I’d had. But then, some men (and women) just want to watch the world burn.
So yeah, I went along with it when Thom suggested we go see Pacific Rim for our simul-review. I expected the worst: melodrama, wanton destruction, hokey dialogue, and a story built around the city-smashing, which is the worst kind of action-enabling story outside of The Fast and the Furious.
The movie opened with a computer screen. Kaiju, it read. Creature. On the line below, it read Jaeger. Hunter. Because it makes sense to give the thing a German name when Germany isn’t anywhere near the Pacific. We are then treated to five minutes of backstory, the “here’s how it is” of the world before it got used up. The Kaiju arose from the depths of the Pacific: giant aliens from another dimension. Traditional weaponry was ineffective, so of course humanity created giant robots to fight them instead: the Jaegers. Jaeger pilots are “rock stars,” and there are two to each Jaeger, because expecting a single man to operate a bajillion-ton nuclear-powered robot is ridiculous. The protagonist (whose name I can’t remember, but who I will refer to as Young Thor) lost his brother/copilot in a fight with a Kaiju, at which point the war started to go south.
And that’s the backstory. Five years later, giant robot punching ensues. There’s a decent pause to establish the story a little bit, but it’s not important. Honestly, the most important thing was the robot punching (and by the way, can I say how ridiculous it is that they even have nuclear robots in 2020 when it’s now 2013 and we don’t even have friggin’ hoverboards yet?).
One of the things I liked about the somewhat simplistic (though surprisingly engaging) story was the fact that there wasn’t any romantic sh*t. Seriously, I kept expecting Young Thor and his love interest, who I’ve dubbed Japanese Ramona (think Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), to do the do any second. But they didn’t even kiss, which was incredibly, unbelievably refreshing. The story focused more on platonic and familial love in the midst of a world-shattering war, which was particularly poignant given the fact that one of the Jaeger teams was a father-and-son duo. Granted, the fact that they shared a neural link while in the suit was super creepy; nobody wants to see their dad’s memories of boning their mom.
But it asked an interesting question I’d never heard before: how do you respect someone when you know them completely? They say familiarity breeds contempt, and when it’s your father, there’s some level of contempt there anyway. It was a great character study, examining how families, natural, adopted, and surrogate alike, manage to keep themselves together in the middle of the apocalypse.
The actors all reminded me of other people or characters I’ve seen, and since their names were impossible to remember (with the exception of Japanese Ramona, whose real name was Mako), I just mentally gave them new nicknames. You’ve already met Young Thor and Japanese Ramona, the marshall is Police Chief from Castle, and the scientists are Glasses McAbrams and Walter Koenig. There was even a technician who looked like the Eleventh Doctor, complete with tan pants, a collared shirt, suspenders, and a bow-tie. It made the movie just that little bit better when I pretended he really was the Doctor, and that he travelled to that point in time to save us from the sea beasties.
There wasn’t a whole lot in the way of character development, other than the parts about families. Each character embodied a specific role rather than a real identity. For example, Young Thor is the long-estranged pilot with raw talent who’s got nothing to lose. Japanese Ramona is the little girl looking to experience adventure while proving herself to her father and to everyone else. Police Chief from Castle is essentially (and ironically, I think) the cop on his last day of retirement, who’s really too old for this sh*t and is probably going to die. Even Glasses McAbrams and Walter Koenig represented the two sides of scientific and generational divides: contemporary versus traditional.
Even the other Jaeger pilots had a role. There was a team of three Chinese pilots and another of two Russians. The Chinese pilots had the sweet three-armed robot with sawblades on its arms, and they were the first to die. The Russians had a first-generation Jaeger that was basically a titanium tank on two legs, and they ate it next. For all these guys were built up to be such great pilots, they bit the dust in the same fight, and it made them look grossly inept in comparison with Young Thor and Japanese Ramona. But really, they didn’t survive because they weren’t protagonists. And conversely, it took some of the fun out of things when we knew that the protagonists wouldn’t die. It was limiting, but for some reason, I didn’t really mind.
One of the things I noticed about the film itself was how it created a sense of delicacy about the machines. At one point, a Jaeger is shoved through an office complex. Its finger brushes against a desk chair, pushing it in and setting one of those clicky-ball things into motion. At another point, the same Jaeger just touches a pylon at the end of a wharf, sending an irritated seabird into the air. These are enormous machines of war. Ordinarily one would see nothing delicate about them, but after seeing just those two little mini-scenes, it gives one a whole different perspective about what these machines are actually capable of.
The dialogue was atrocious; there’s no getting around it. I’m no screenwriter, but there are only so many different ways and times you can say, “Let’s do this,” before you start thinking, “Are you going to keep talking about it, or are you actually going to do this? You’ve been talking about doing it for twenty minutes. Just do it already.”
Finally, I felt like the last Kaiju could’ve been bigger. Nothing is ever big enough. When you’re creating giant sea monsters from another dimension, seriously, just make them as enormous as humanly possible. And then double it.
To paraphrase one of my coworkers, who will undoubtedly get pissy if I don’t credit him, this movie is essentially what happens when you give a twelve-year-old $200 million and a video camera. It’s big, it’s CGI-heavy (but holy crap, was it ever a thing of beauty), it veers into silliness at times, and it stays so far away from romantic subplots that the director may not yet have had “the talk.”
Obviously there are issues with the story. Why are the robots shaped like humans, rather than something more aerodynamically sound? Why is there a nuclear reactor, like, twenty feet away from where the pilots are chilling? Why do they even need pilots? Can they not be operating the Jaegers remotely? And for a Pacific coast plagued by monster attacks and necessitating global cooperation, I’m sure as hell not seeing any Filipino guys.
But that’s not the point. I didn’t go for the story, for the filmmaking, or for the all-star cast that looks vaguely familiar but that I’ve never seen before. I went to see giant robots fight giant sea monsters and level cities in the process. And I wasn’t disappointed. I got all the fighting I could possibly want, and I got it in gloriously shiny 3D. My expectations were more than surpassed, and, though I can’t possibly explain it any better, I had a much better time than expected. And for that reason, I’m giving Pacific Rim a much higher rating than the Internet at large feels the movie deserves. And you know what? I don’t care. ‘cause that’s my opinion, and I’m entitled to it.
So why is it that we love to watch as our world falls apart? It’s a simple answer: because it’s not happening to us. And holy hell, is it ever awesome… but only as long as it’s not happening to us.
In honour of the movie, we’re choosing our own Jaeger codenames:
Grace “Sierra Thunderclap” Crawford’s final grade: A
Thom: We live in a dark world. A world where we worry about the environment. A world where we worry about the economy. A world where we worry about other nations encroaching on our space. We worry about what’s out there — some perceived monsters at our door. And we don’t do anything about it. Maybe it’s because we lack the will, but it’s at least a little more hopeful to imagine that it’s simply because we believe that we can’t do anything. We’re paralyzed with fear and doubt and betrayal, all the things that could be out there in the dark, while we shake and shutter and wonder and wait for everything to be over. The unlit alleys, the dark basements, the paths not travelled… the other side of the door. The outer darkness. Everything we avoid to hold on to the scraps that we’ve somehow managed to gather together. That’s where the essential power of a movie like Pacific Rim comes from.
There are things you can’t fight – acts of God. You see a hurricane coming, you get out of the way. But when you’re in a Jaeger, you can finally fight the hurricane. You can win. ~Raleigh Becket, Pacific Rim lead character
When I saw the first trailer for Pacific Rim, all I could think to myself was, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
That first trailer in particular doesn’t necessarily give away just how far the film goes. As much as this was clearly going to be a giant robots vs. monsters movie, there’s a deliberate measure of restraint to the pacing and visuals of that first trailer that really left me wondering. Could this really be as big as it looks? Could it possibly be any good at all? And, like every time I spoke to anyone about it, I had to keep reassuring myself (as I did them) that this is a Guillermo del Toro film. We’re not talking about Brett Ratner or Stephen Sommers here.
To really understand where Pacific Rim is coming from, it’s helpful to understand the world it’s indebted to. Though the film isn’t at all trapped in its Japanese monster-movie influences, it is a celebration of that genre’s trappings. Japanese culture in general (and I’m not claiming to be an expert) is an odd combination of two primary ways of life: dedication to craft and honest self-expression. If you think about the [comparatively] recent history of the country, you realize that most of our conceptions of Japan are the result of a society that is, essentially, post-apocalyptic, atomic bombs having been dropped right into well-populed areas of the nation. There’s a hyper-modernity to the culture built out of the basic sensibilities of a people that saw the end firsthand and chose to move forward by doing things that mattered. It’s something that I’ve always liked and admired about Japanese culture, particularly as a Chinaman, my primary Chinese cultural influences having been defined more by jealousy, betrayal, and intentional cruelty. The monster movie concept, obviously embodied by Godzilla, but also seen throughout popular fictions like Voltron, Gundam, or even the Power Rangers, is a fundamental reaction of a people with a strong desire to fight back against whatever may be out there.
One of the strongest choices the writers of Pacific Rim made is entering the story in the twilight of the Kaiju (giant monsters) conflict. This is a world that has lived with and even gotten comfortable with skyscraper-sized, giant-monster incursions, that celebrates its star Jaeger (giant robot) pilots, and has even grown industries around selling Kaiju organs to treat insomnia, depression, and cancer. After giving us a pre-title opening that shows everything we need to know about the world in a highly-compelling fashion, the film trusts its audience to keep up with what’s happening and be intrigued rather than confused by any blanks it doesn’t fill in. You get a real sense of the world, and this greatly helps with the integrity of the film. Right from the outset, as I found out more and more about this place, there was a bigger and bigger grin, slowly creeping its way across my face. I am not in any way a smiley person, but I couldn’t help it. There’s no real way to quantify exactly why so much of this film works other than to just give credit to the creators. This is a film made by people who have enough intelligence, integrity, and respect for the material and its audience to turn out something outstanding, from the visuals to the cinematography to the music, and everything in between.
Breaking things down to their base elements, everything about Pacific Rim just works. Every character plays an important role, is acted well, and could be anyone’s favourite. They completely embody who they’re supposed to be without variation and don’t necessarily have a lot of complexity, but they work in a film that is so honestly committed to its goals. The action set pieces are fresh, spectacular, imaginative, and, crucially, well-composed. You can actually tell what’s going on, unlike in Michael Bay’s Transformers. The music is exceptionally well fitted to the film, both powerful and inspiring. The drift, the plot contrivance that the neural load of piloting need be shared between two compatible pilots who must share their inner-most selves to properly control the Jaegers, adds surprising weight and meaning, cementing a film that may otherwise have felt a little empty otherwise. When Yancy, Raleigh’s brother and co-pilot dies early in the film, ripped away from Raleigh and the audience, the combination of the broken neural link and the way the scene is shot really drives home the horror of the Kaijus. Best of all, the movie is thematically strong enough to linger in your mind. It’s only been a few days since I saw it and my final score has moved up a full point since that day and my original conclusion.
We live in a dark world. One where we worry about what’s waiting for us out there. But, as with many stories, the real monster is harder to see. In some ways, it’s easy to imagine Pacific Rim enduring in audience’s minds the same way marquee works like Star Wars have stuck with us. This is actually a family film at heart, with something to appeal to kids and parents of all ages, so long as those people have any strong feelings towards mythic adventure stories. But the fact that Pacific Rim didn’t win the weekend box office, that it might not even break even, that it was beaten by a movie like Grownups 2, should be all the proof we need that the problem isn’t out there. It’s right here. It’s us. So go see it, go see it now, and go see it again, and maybe we can cancel the apocalypse.
In honour of the movie, we’re choosing our own Jaeger codenames:
Thom “Midnight Intercept” Yee’s Pacific Rim final score: 9.5
- So apparently Obama is still President in 2020 or whatever year it is, and he’s aging hella well.
- “I’m trying to reroute the auxiliary!” Said every fictional scientist and no real scientist in the history of ever.
- Also, the same genius expected that unplugging a wireless machine that runs independently on its own nuclear reactor would shut down said machine. The bar for military scientists has been set rather low.
- Little baby Mako! What a sweetie. I want five of her. Between Agnes from Despicable Me, Carmelita Spats from A Series of Unfortunate Events, and Vanellope from Wreck-It Ralph, I’m gonna have like twenty adorable little girls running around.
- Mako. You pulled that sword out of nowhere when it would have been supremely helpful like two minutes ago. Also, how’d you know it was there when we never saw Young Thor using it before? And that would’ve come in super handy when his brother was horribly killed, so you’d think he would’ve used it.
- You seriously used the Kaiju to explain the disappearance of the dinosaurs? Seriously?
- They built up the blue acid like it was going to be a plot device, but they never did anything with it. So that felt like a bit of a wasted opportunity.
- Why the hell do the pilots need combat skills when they’re operating a robot? They don’t have nearly that range of motion.
- I would very much like for Oil Tanker Baseball to be a thing. That is all.