If you know me at all, you knew this post was coming.
To understand Guillermo Del Toro’s new film “Pacific Rim,” you have to suspend a lot of conventional filmgoing beliefs. I say that, as someone who generally doesn’t have a lot of filmgoing beliefs, as someone who doesn’t watch a lot of films in theaters to begin with.
I’m not saying to turn your brain off completely. But there’s a certain trend amongst a certain breed of film that I find troubling: the idea that all humans are inherently capital-F Flawed; that there has to be a deeper psychological angst/trouble among protagonists, especially white male ones; that this angst, this emotional “journey,” has to be the central core of the narrative, and has to stand as a metaphor for a manifestation of the human existence
or some equally twisty bullshit. Now, I love me some flawed protagonists (“Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” “Battlestar Galactica,” etc. come at me), but things are different in TV, when you have so much more time to flesh out a character. If I’d only had 120 minutes with Walter White, I’d be like “Yo, this is totally whatever.” But it’s because we have hours upon hours to break down his character that we find White’s troubles to be so compelling, that we look at his character and can actually compare Before and After. Mr. Chips and Scarface. We have that time.
So many movies try to take that same journey, but very few actually accomplish it, especially when it comes to the recent summer comic book movie hype machine-generated juggernauts. In most big-budget action movies, there’s the idea that you have to keep dragging the viewer into crazier visual heights that correspond with increasingly more meaningful stakes. This is about THE STRUGGLE FOR GOOD IN HUMANITY, man! This is as real as it gets!
Except that all this darkness can be absolutely suffocating. When I watched “The Dark Knight Rises,” I felt like Christopher Nolan was force-feeding me with his Big Damn Movie, and as much as I wanted to care about Bruce Wayne and his cohorts, the film left me feeling like refuse left behind by a sludgy tide — I didn’t know how I got to the end, but boy was it obfuscating and slow.
What I like — no, adore — about “Pacific Rim” is that it is so firmly rooted in a starry-eyed belief in good. This is a movie about what it means to be human, both literally (in the sense that the kaijus are trying to wipe out all human life) and figuratively (in that it is a uniquely human bond of love between Jaeger pilots that allows them to connect the way they do). You read that right: those giant robots are powered by love, goddammit, and if you think that’s cheesy, well yeah, it is, except that this cheesiness, in real life, can be read as the most pure, distilled expression of earnest human emotion.
It’s like, when I hear my best friends call out my name, I break out into a big dopey smile because hey, I love those guys. Or when I see my family during one of my increasingly rarer visits home and I immediately gush and coo over my little sister (much to her chagrin, but whatever). It’s that surge in dopamine (not strictly biologically speaking; it’s been a long time since I’ve studied ~*science*~), that unhinged giddiness, that fuels “Pacific Rim.”
Which, given the back story of the film’s origins, makes a lot of sense. This is Guillermo Del Toro indulging all of his childhood dreams, which thematically and actually overlap with many of my childhood (and honestly, current) dreams. If you’re going to compare “PacRim” (yes I abbreviate it) to another summer blockbuster, think “The Avengers” instead of “The Dark Knight,” “Spider-Man” instead of “Man of Steel.” Except just imagine/remember what these directors could do with an original universe.
We kind of saw that with Zach Snyder’s “Sucker Punch,” which, for all of its flaws, was actually pretty enjoyable if you had that fanboy/fangirl gaze. I would say the same about “PacRim,” except that this film does so many things better.
I was scrolling through the “Pacific Rim” tag on Tumblr when I stumbled upon this post, and since the writer does a pretty bangup job of describing what it was that I enjoyed about the film, I’ll just post their words here:
Let me tell you why I love Pacific Rim
(I’m a little calmer now) [Ed. note: I KNOW, RIGHT?!]
1. Water. If you’re doing IMAX 3D, I want the movement, so rain and water, and wow, night scenes; GDT’s cinematography’s always aesthetically fantastic. The look is metal. The setting’s urban and the movie recognizes the fact. There are underground hideouts, there are people making a quick-buck, there’s the “magic mile” where Jaegars are expected to stop the Kaiju, and there are giant mecha robots stepping gingerly over a bridge and trying to minimize damage, adding that dimension of humanity to a Robot vs. Monster fight.
2. All the tropes, just enough to use and not enough to overwhelm. Yes, the story took shortcuts: the tragic backstory of lost relative, cocky hotshot pilot doing insults, the geeky scientists finding a way, the “defending” the girl’s honor.
3. The story tropes inverted. Rookie revenge storyline for the female protagonist. The male protagonist’s loss did not allow him to become focus of the story despite the whole “hide out a bit a la Batman/the Shadow/Hulk” sequence. Not much emotional indulgence for anyone, because yes, there’s an impending apocalypse. All the shades of meaning behind the word “respect” especially after the revelation who Pentecost is to Mako.
4. Stacker Pentecost, fixed point, not asking for your sympathy, just your compliance. And yes, there’s every indication that this is a world in need of a fixed point. There’s definitely anger, and resentment, and resignation a la Battlestar Galactica in the retirement of the program, but he was in charge of a group of people who clearly took pride in what they do (or he’s keeping them that way). The whole place is busy and the crowd scene actually “looks” like it’s a global collaboration.
5. Mako looking at Raleigh’s abs through the peephole because when’s the last time you’ve seen a movie where a woman openly appreciated a man’s beautiful semi nude body and didn’t suffer the vice versa?
6. Bonds of humanity: between spouses, lovers, biological family, adopted familIes, even colleagues…different nations…that allow Jaegars to be possible. It’s not just technologically magnificent mecha fighting, it’s individuals understanding and trusting each other fighting monsters, who are, we find out, clones in a hive mind. In short, men with free will from all nations are fighting nonconsensual clones operating under dictatorship. This is classic good vs. evil, but I love the emphasis of “THEY ARE ACTUALLY CLONES”. Who want zombies when you can have Jaegars vs. Kaijus.
7. The internal coherency of the movie from prologue’s celebration of Jaegar pilots as heroes to Hannibal Chau’s knowledgeable blackmarket in Hong Kong to the two-man research division under budget constraints to cults springing up in the supposed last days of the world.
Interesting how a lot of the character props goes to Mako, eh? As someone who’s keenly aware of the fetishization and marginalization many WOC go through in popular media, Miss Mori was a fabulous addition to the Actually Human Female Character list. That’s right, she wasn’t a “Strong Female Character” or a “Damsel in Distress” or an “Ingenue in need of a Male Savior.” Sure, she needed a man — right after her family and her city were wiped out by a giant crab monster. And let’s be real, if Idris Elba offered to raise you, you’d totally take the offer.
Also: Charlie Hunnam’s acting is uh, there, but I actually like the fact that his character was so simple. A lot of people say that Raleigh Becket (if they even remembered his name at all… to which I say, Pay Attention!) didn’t have any character growth in the film, to which I say Yeah, but did you see like the first fifteen minutes? “Pacific Rim” is not a narrative that is meant to build up and up and up and then finally down; this is a film poised right at the climax of the action. Raleigh is already an old soul by the time he gets to the Shatterdome, and he explains things to Mako not because he looks down on her but because he is the veteran mentoring the promising rookie. In terms of growth, this is all Mako’s story, with some Hansen father-son resolution tossed in and also I cannot stress those great father-daughter moments because again, gotta milk Idris Elba’s swag/gravity/general steez for all it’s worth.
I will admit, Rinko Kikuchi’s accent was distracting, especially in the beginning (that “Which I have, Marshall!” line kills me every. single. time.) but then again, when’s the last time you watched a film with that many accents, in which the accents weren’t all just from various European locales, in which the non-European accented-characters weren’t automatically evil? And besides, Mako Mori is Tokyo’s Daughter; she isn’t going to speak flawless English, and the fact that she doesn’t speaks to the worldliness of “Pacific Rim.”
Does the film have problems? Of course, but they don’t trump the promise of the film or its many, many visceral joys. The first Gipsy Danger assembling sequence! The beautiful (but not demeaning) visual introduction to Mako! The Jaeger spotlighting shots when we first get introduced to the Shatterdome! The compatibility fight test between Raleigh and Mako, a pair that, romantic or not, has more chemistry than 98% of all actual movie romantic leads! The solo guitar snarl during the Hong Kong fight! That breathtaking aerial dismembering! Charlie Day’s sexy costuming and manic delivery! Ron Perlman killing it in the role of a cranky burgundy velvet-suited black market dealer! Idris Elba doing anything, especially being an overprotective surrogate father (which, as a Tumblr user whose post I didn’t save pointed out, overturns the whole “absent black father” idea)! Single dads (also see: Stacker)! The crackling, lurid landscapes, both geological and human: Hong Kong bathed in nighttime neon, rust and grime and torn knits on Raleigh, blue and red in different hints and hits on Mako, blossoms of hyper-orange explosions and mesmerizing kaiju blue.
A lot of people have been trashing this film and saying that it’s a box office bomb. But despite its “lack” of mainstream appeal, the idea that this movie actually fails as a movie is just dumb, and to write it off because of numbers alone is like tossing away an umbrella because its color’s fading. One of my editors articulated my opinion in his article on why “Pacific Rim” may just be the sleeper hit of the summer, and while I’m not totally on board with all of his points, I do have to agree with the overall gist of what he’s saying, which is basically: this is a beautiful world, and the film takes you on a journey within it, and there’s a lot going on but if you let the magic of it flow through you, you will see wondrous things.
It’s nice to see a movie with such hope for humanity, and whose protagonists are honestly good people. Is it simple? Yeah — but such is the case with childhood dreams.