See if you can follow me on this: some years ago, I was presented with the prospect of a movie in which both Chow Yun-Fat and Keith Richards were to appear together. More than that, they would be playing pirates. I thought at the time: “How can that possibly be bad?” I still think back on that thought in idle moments when I consider the films that resulted, but more as an exasperated expression of disbelief. If someone had told me beforehand that those movies would suck—and suck they most assuredly did—I wouldn’t have believed it. My mistake was in underestimating the power of corporate Hollywood to turn everything it touches into a big steaming pile of shit. This is a cautionary tale.
When I first read about Guillermo Del Toro’s latest film, Pacific Rim (2013), my first thought was that fatal, “how can that possibly be bad?” Once burned twice shy, I guess, because I tamped down on that as hard as I could and tried to keep my expectations low. Then the trailer promised giant robots fighting giant monsters like the biggest Toho monster rally you ever did see, and given that I once ran a video store whose sign had Godzilla looming on the Tokyo skyline, this was a pitch that was in the sweet spot for me. I could feel the glee rising in my chest. But also, there was a nameless dread. I’d like to say that Del Toro’s name was reassuring, but that would be a lie. Auteurism only goes so far and Del Toro has always been less interesting at bigger budgets than he is on his small, personal projects. This is a movie that must do a half a billion dollars at the global box office to make money, so it’s the sort of movie in which “input” from the suits in charge of the money was a given. So as the movie began, I was a more than a little bit apprehensive.
The story in Pacific Rim finds a dimensional rift opening on the ocean floor. It spits giant monsters into our world and they proceed to wreck the cities of humankind. To counter this invasion, humanity builds monsters of its own: gigantic robots called “Jaegers,” to fight the threat. At first, the war against the kaiju (as the monsters are called) goes in humanity’s favor. But over a long decade, the monsters wear our civilization down. They get progressively more dangerous, progressively more destructive. The Jaegers aren’t enough, and the leaders of the world abandon them in favor of constructing huge sea walls to defend the coasts. The remaining Jaegers gather for one last, desperate bid against the dimensional rift. Into this milieu comes Raleigh Beckett, a veteran Jaeger pilot whose life has gone to hell since a mission in which his co-pilot—his brother as it so happens—was killed. The two pilots of a Jaeger share a kind of telepathic link in order to control the machines—a “drift”, they call it--and Raleigh was in his brother’s head when he was killed. It haunts him. The Jaeger commander, Marshall Stacker Pentecost, brings him back to the program. He even provides him with his old machine, somewhat refurbished since its last, fatal mission. Pentecost invites Beckett to choose his own crew from among the trainees at the Jaeger home base. Beckett’s choice is Mako Mori, a Japanese woman who has a familial relationship with Pentecost. Pentecost is reluctant to clear her for action, but his options are limited as the accelerating appearance of bigger and badder kaiju forces his hands. The team’s scientists, meanwhile, are looking for an angle against the monster. To this end, one of the scientists, Dr. Geisler, “drift’s” with the living brain of a fallen kaiju. In doing so, he gains some insight into their plans for the Earth: extinction for humanity, followed by colonization. It’s the apocalypse, in other words, and it’s the job of the Jaegers to stop it…
My partner is a lot more forgiving of movies than I am. When it comes to movies like this, her demands are simple: she wants to see monsters eating people and wrecking cities. In this, she was well pleased with Pacific Rim. I’m sure that once upon a time I would have been equally satisfied, because this really doesn’t skimp on the monster on robot mayhem. If I had seen this when I was twelve, I’m sure I would have thought it the greatest movie ever made, a modern, hyper-expensive version of Destroy All Monsters. Don’t get me wrong: I’m still able to put myself into that kind of headspace, and when this film was firing on all cylinders, I was totally that twelve year old version of myself again. Unfortunately, this suffers the curse of all giant monster movies: the stuff in between monster scenes is significantly weaker than the action. During those scenes, I was again a forty something woman who needs something beyond simple mayhem to hold her attention. The human element here is poorly conceived. Admittedly, this is something you get used to if you watch a lot of giant monster movies.
At some point after ruminating on the matter for a while, I decided that the main reason for this is its need to focus on its straight white male hero. Ordinarily, this is a given in movies and I think nothing of it, but this movie has such a diverse cast and such an exotic location that centering on Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh Beckett seems almost willfully retrograde. Especially in a film where Idris Elba is allowed to rule the screen in every scene that he’s in. But it’s not Elba who is this film’s natural protagonist, it’s Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori who should ideally assume center stage. She has the most fully-realized back story of any character in the film, she’s already on screen in all of the important sequences, and she’s representative of other narratives that haven’t been on screen in a movie like this one before. We’ve all seen Raleigh Beckett’s story before. Boring. Nothing new to see here. Move along…
For that matter, I might have been interested in a movie about the two scientists. Their banter and rivalry would make for a fine screwball comedy. Dr.s Geisler and Gottlieb have their own narrative through line here, and it holds the screen better than Raleigh does, too. Certainly, the scenes where Geisler matches wits with the black marketeer, Hannibal Chau, are the best non-monster scenes in the movie. For that matter, Chau himself is a character that could probably support his own narrative, too. It would probably be too much to ask for a short film about Chau, but such a thing would almost guarantee that I would buy this on DVD. I’m not holding my breath, not least because Ron Perlman is probably too expensive for DVD short subjects.
Lest you think this is just a matter of me knocking a character because he’s a straight white dude: it’s not. Raleigh’s story doesn’t go anywhere. There’s no sense of development in his story, nor any compelling reason to watch him beyond his six pack abs and status as the designated hero. He’s this film’s version of Bella Swan, if you know what I’m saying. He’s a cipher designed as a vessel for the identification of the film’s target audience.
Even so, this isn't necessarily bad, because this is a film that astutely avoids a male gaze in spite of the centrality of it's white cis dude protagonist. The female characters are not objectified or forced into romantic attachments with the male characters. I would almost describe this film as asexual, but for one instance where the camera gazes longingly at an unclothed Raleigh from the point of view of one of the female characters. That, and a pregnancy subplot late in the movie involving one of the slain kaiju. This is memorably icky and it calls to mind some of the horror movie's issues with pregnancy and childbirth.
The fact that the filmmakers have bothered with characters at all speaks well of them, but this film is indicative of just how hard it is to do “characters” when the special effects are so brutalizingly large. It can be done—James Cameron has managed it once or twice—but it’s not going to happen when your screenwriter is giving your characters names like “Stacker Pentecost” or “Hercules Hansen.” That’s a concession to pulp, and not a smart one. In any case, it’s the monsters and robots that are the attraction here, and I’m mostly satisfied on that count. There’s as much monster mayhem as anyone could want, lovingly filmed and designed within an inch of its life. And still, I’m left wanting a little. I would have liked to have seen a monster/robot throw-down in broad daylight. All of this film’s major actions scenes are slightly obscured by night and ocean. There are a couple of fragmentary images of the kaiju in daylight that only whets my appetite for such a thing. The film communicates things through its visuals rather than through its script, too. That one of the kaiju our heroes fight mid-film has wings suggests that humanity's faith in walls is misplaced (is this a metaphor for immigration along the US/Mexico border? that might be too much to read into this). I wish there had been a scene between Pentecost and his superiors after this revelation, but then, so much of this movie is elided through its design elements that that might have been putting too fine a point on it. And there's the rub. Whatever my complaints might be about Pacific Rim as drama, as a visual object, it's amazing. Almost all of its mythmaking is visual, from the godlike appearance of Pentacost atop his Jaeger in Mako's flashback to the "fuck you" of the defiant to the last breath destruction of the Cherno-Alpha, the Russian Jaeger and its pilots, holding the line like they're Stalingrad in miniature. I'm less sanguin when it comes to the psychedelic freakout once our heroes penetrate the rift, but I was kind of hoping Del Toro's master aliens would be wearing sunglasses, too, so you can take that with a grain of salt.
So how does this measure up to my intial question? “How could that possibly be bad?” Well, it’s not bad. Not really. In fact, a lot of my complaints are just me projecting what I want from this film rather than accepting what this film has given me on its own terms. That’s a bad way to approach a film like this, but I can’t help it. If I'm honest, I have to acknowledge the film's generosity of imagination even if that imagination doesn't extend to any grand statements about the human condition. And, really, I’d be lying if I said I had a bad time at this film. It’s fun and it doesn’t insult my intelligence. There’s something to be said for that. I'm just grumpy because this isn't a transcendent film and it should be. It should be.