posted Saturday 13 July 2013 @ 3:05 pm PST
by Gary Westfahl
Perhaps I am suffering from a form of dementia induced by excessive exposure to cinematic explosions and high-tech battles, but I thoroughly enjoyed watching Pacific Rim, despite the very low expectations that I brought to the theatre, and I would heartily recommend Guillermo del Toro’s production to anyone long enamored of science fiction films. This is because, in contrast to most of the noisy blockbusters that promise summer entertainment, there are definite signs that this film, like the enormous robots that it celebrates, has a genuine human intelligence manipulating its machinery.
Granted, this intelligence manifests itself in a selective fashion. It is not evident, for example, in the scientific rationale behind Travis Beacham’s story: sinister aliens, we are told, have opened up a “breach” between dimensions (a wormhole?) at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean to release huge, genetically engineered reptilian monsters (kaiju) to ravage the world as a prelude to conquest. (Ignoring ample evidence that they were home-grown creations, the film also asserts that Earth’s dinosaurs represented their first failed attempt to implement this evil agenda.) In response, the nations of Earth banded together to build gigantic robots (jaegers), mentally controlled by two humans, to clobber each monster when it comes to shore, though these are now failing as the monsters grow larger and develop new strategies. Fortunately, having discovered that the breach is sustained by atomic energy, scientist Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) has figured out that the breach can be destroyed by dropping an atomic bomb into it. Needless to say, none of this scenario can withstand detailed scrutiny, ranging from the convenient vulnerability of the breach to the logic behind both the alien invasion (if they wish to exterminate Earth’s inhabitants, wouldn’t it be simpler to bioengineer a virulent disease?) and the human response to it (couldn’t we devise a less expensive and more effective weapon against giant monsters, drawing ideas from scores of Japanese films addressing this problem?). If you say that this all sounds like nothing more than an elaborate pretext for a series of cacophonous fistfights between robots and monsters, one would be hard pressed to disagree.
And nothing in this film is particularly original: destructive monsters emerging from the ocean have been a staple of science fiction films since the 1950s, and there is an entire subgenre of Japanese anime devoted to the adventures of enormous “super robots” with human pilots, best known to American audiences due to imported examples like Mobile Suit Gundam and Voltron (though my personal favorite is Mamoru Oshii’s Patlabor). The major difference is that the Japanese pilots typically sit in cockpits and handle controls like an airplane pilot, while del Toro’s robots are animated by two people who are mentally aligned with the robot and each other (in “the drift”) and propel the robot by making the desired movements with their own bodies. It is also difficult to muster much enthusiasm for the film’s acting, which ranges from competent to over-the-top, or the contrived personal baggage that its main players bring with them: pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) remains saddened by the death of his brother and former co-pilot; commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), carrying on the fight though the foolish authorities are withdrawing their support, maintains a stoic disposition while concealing (poorly) his worsening health problems; potential pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) is haunted by a traumatic childhood encounter with a kaiju; scientists Gottlieb and Newton Geizsler (Charlie Day) are perpetually distracted by their childish feuds; and hotshot pilot Chuck Hansen (Robert Kazinsky) despises Becket, regarding him as a washed-up liability to the cause. As convention requires, though, all of these troubled characters somehow manage to overcome these and other problems to achieve an improbable victory in the final minutes of the film.
Because, as this summary demonstrates, there are ample reasons for audiences to despise Pacific Rim, the question becomes: why did this picture, against all odds, prove to be so remarkably successful? One vital clue comes at the very end of the closing credits, where the film is dedicated to the two men who essentially created the genre of the giant monster film: special-effects artist Ray Harryhausen, whose credits include It Came from Beneath the Sea (1953), and his most prominent Japanese follower, director Ishiro Honda, responsible for Godzilla (1954) and scores of successors. (It would have been nice to also mention Honda’s own special-effects guru, Eiji Tsuburaya, but today’s film credits are long enough as it is.) Del Toro’s film thus invites consideration as a respectful homage to earlier monster movies, not an exploitative ripoff. True, it does not attempt to mimic the crude special effects or garish color of 1950s films in the manner of another delightful tribute to the era, Alien Trespass (2009) (review here), but its apparent inadequacies arguably represent a deliberate effort to evoke the spirit of Harryhausen’s and Honda’s films. After all, charmingly idiotic scientific explanations are one hallmark of 1950s monster movies; their generally inept acting has the effect of dramatically heightening the sense that, in opposing daunting alien menaces, the human race is in way over its head; and the intimate conflicts that fill most of their running time, a necessary measure in an era when nonstop use of special effects would have been too expensive and time-consuming, serendipitously provided audiences with calming respites from exciting sequences of enormous monsters destroying cities. In emulating the rhythm of those earlier films, Pacific Rim provides an especially heartening contrast to other contemporary action films, driven by what one might charitably call this sort of thinking: if last year’s blockbuster had ten thrilling action sequences, twice as much money might be earned by a new film with twenty of them. One appreciates this film’s robot-vs.-monster free-for-alls precisely because they are refreshingly infrequent, alternating with quieter dramas that may not be profound but are at least different.
The pairing of Harryhausen and Honda also suggests a desire to effect a merger of the American and Japanese traditions of monster movies; thus, the starring team of robot pilots is a standard-issue rough-hewn American man, Hunnam’s Becket, and a favorite anime protagonist, Kikuchi’s cool, competent Japanese woman. Also, avoiding standard settings like America’s San Francisco or Japan’s Tokyo, the film’s major battle takes place in Hong Kong, an Asian city deeply influenced by lengthy British colonization that therefore combines Eastern and Western culture. As in American films, the monsters of Pacific Rim are creations of special effects, not men wearing rubber suits, and there is a governing aura of scientific rationalism, not ancient mythology; as in Japanese films, the tragic impact of the monsters’ violent destruction is foregrounded, and the emphasis is on collective effort more than individual heroism. (Indeed, in Pentecost’s inspirational speech to his troops, which unusually is eloquent enough to actually be inspirational, he proclaims, “at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time, we have chosen to believe not only in ourselves but in each other.”) It is a film, in other words, that was seemingly produced not on one of its rims, but in the very middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Another clue to the strange power of this film comes at the very beginning, which rapidly outlines this story: the breach opens, the monsters begin emerging and attacking coastal cities, conventional weapons prove ineffective against them, the enormous jaegers are constructed, and these machines overcome the monsters with more and more success. At this point the audience is very surprised, because the film has just completed in its first five minutes the story that they expected the entire film to relate, and the story of the routine film that most filmmakers would craft if given this premise. Instead, del Toro cleverly decided to set up his interesting film as a sequel to the less interesting film that he summarized but declined to make. Thus, his main story starts several years after the kaiju first appeared, when the jaegers are increasingly being defeated by the new, improved monsters, so the robots have been abandoned in favor of the construction of a huge wall around the Pacific Ocean (though this proves ineffectual). Operating with diminishing resources, Pentecost has collected the world’s four remaining jaegers in Hong Kong and recruits the retired Becket to participate in one more effort to close the breach and defeat the kaiju. The film therefore has an oddly elegiac tone, as the obsolete jaegers and their jaundiced pilots come together for what everyone knows will be their final campaign, bringing an end to both the giant robots and (they hope) the giant monsters.
To me, this unusual twist on a familiar story appeared to convey del Toro’s keen awareness that he was working within two dying genres, as every variation on the theme of giant monsters and robots has been played out and viewers are inevitably tiring of their repetitive tropes; but like his heroes, he was determined to go out with a flourish, applying all of his energies and resources to add one more memorable saga to an admirable but doomed body of works. I suspected, in other words, that del Toro believed he was making the last great giant monster movie, and hence was determined to do the very best he could. The problem with this theory, obviously, is that the director and his colleagues are already discussing plans for a Pacific Rim 2, although in doing so they are mimicking another proclivity of their distinguished predecessors, who invariably brought their most popular monsters and robots back for return appearances. In this respect as in others, one might say, del Toro displays that he understands and respects the history of these movies, and planning sequels is part of the tradition.
Consider, then, an alternate explanation for del Toro’s retrospective story: recognizing that his favorite sorts of movies are an endangered species, he is crafting and presenting a strategy for keeping them alive, just as Pentecost and his cohorts maintain their jaegers despite their long years of service. One can draw from the film any number of helpful lessons for other producers of such films. First, spend your money on special effects, not stars; like earlier films about monsters and robots, Pacific Rim has no stars and does not suffer from their absence, and while its $180,000,000 budget was hardly small, it would have grown perilously larger if some hefty salaries had been added. Second, as already discussed, maintain a relaxed pace: provide a sufficient number of action sequences, but don’t overwhelm audiences by constantly keeping them on the roller coaster; grant them some peaceful moments, some leisurely conversations. Third, take what you are doing seriously: as noted, the science behind the film is shaky, but it is articulated with a conviction displayed by all of its performers, who never for a moment suggest that there might be something unbelievable or amusing about giant monsters striving to destroy the human race. Other action films often fail because their heroes are simultaneously devoted to saving the world from an apocalypse and cracking jokes on every conceivable occasion, undermining any sense that they are really focused on their mission; for heaven’s sake, if the heroes don’t really seem to care about what they’re doing, why should anyone else? Here, while del Toro indulges in some mild humor involving his bickering scientists, he elsewhere criticizes the concept of making monsters funny: to illustrate humanity’s unwise, temporary complacency when the jaegers were routinely victorious, he shows some comedians kidding around with a playful toy monster, clearly poised to receive their comeuppance when the monsters successfully relaunch their genocidal campaign. It is also significant that every one of the kaiju is slightly different, and none of them are ever given names, so there is never any temptation to grow sentimentally attached to the monsters or, in the manner of Godzilla, incongruously transform them into heroes or buffoons.
Finally, to return to my opening comment, del Toro seems to urge filmmakers to think about what they are doing, to use their brains instead of their calculators to find new ways to make old scenarios involving. Since the pilots must be mentally bonded to jointly operate their robots, each battle is preceded by intriguing images of characters’ memories as they absorb and adjust to each other’s thoughts; eventually, the process is even employed to provide viewers with a glimpse inside the minds of the kaiju. The film ponders a hitherto unexamined consequence of such attacks – namely, the huge reptilian corpses lying around in cities after each assault is thwarted. The script ingeniously posits that there would emerge a black market for kaiju body parts, operated by shrewd hustlers like Hong Kong’s Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) who would dispatch scavengers to harvest prizes from each monstrous body in a manner recalling the fate of J. G. Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” (1964). Then there is my favorite scene in the entire film: during one battle, a monster slams into a large building and sets off waves of destruction that reverberate through a series of rooms until they finally subside – but not before having one final effect: the executive toy sometimes known as “Newton’s cradle,” an array of silver balls on strings, is activated by the fading surge, as it applies force to one end and makes the ball on the other end swing away. This seems to represent del Toro’s sly reminder to audiences that his film, for all its portentous overtones, is also little more than an attractive toy for grown-ups, though this does not diminish its import or its value; for Newton’s cradle embodies the concept that adults need toys as much as children.
There is also a provocative undercurrent in del Toro’s story that will be clear to viewers familiar with his well-publicized, and constantly fruitless, efforts to produce a film based on H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1931); for he has apparently seized upon this story as a potential pathway to such a project. That is, the briefly observed aliens behind the kaiju are not unlike the cursorily described Old Ones of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and Cthulhu himself is said to be currently resting at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean – the same place where this film’s kaiju come from – inside the submerged city of R’yleh, which might explain why the hero’s first name is Raleigh. True Lovecraft experts would have to be called upon to explore other possible connections, but it seems eminently possible that a sequel to Pacific Rim could explicitly link the film’s alien invaders to Lovecraft’s ancient masters of the Earth, perhaps beginning with characters from the first film embarking upon an expedition to Antarctica to investigate recently discovered evidence of the first alien invasion. In effect, Pacific Rim 2 might become At the Mountains of Madness in disguise, while necessarily incorporating a few giant robots stomping across the ice to confront enormous versions of Lovecraft’s sinister beings.
While speculations can be diverting, I am actually hoping that they never make a sequel to Pacific Rim, despite my fondness for the film; for establishing such a franchise might encourage other filmmakers to make movies about monsters and robots that surely would not display the craftsmanship and love that del Toro poured into this film. Instead, del Toro’s good advice would be ignored, and the typical Hollywood criteria would be applied to generate a typical Hollywood film. We have already seen, much to our regret, how Roland Emmerich would approach a similar project (his disastrous Godzilla ), and these sorts of horrors – far worse than anything Lovecraft ever imagined – should remain eternally submerged in development hell. We are driven to hope, then, that Pacific Rim proves successful enough to reward its creators, but not so successful as to inspire any sequels or imitations.