Of Men, Monsters and Hope

Pacific Rim has taken longer than usual to unpack. I’ve seen it twice, once in 2D and once in 3D, and both times felt frustration and admiration. There are some things the movie does extremely well, and there are somethings that left me wanting.

Pacific Rim offers up a rich world for the audience to get lost in. It opens with the first attack of a giant alien monster, known by humans in universe as Kaiju (mistranslated to Giant Beast when it indeed is Japanese for Strange Beast). Conventional military intervention proved too ineffective to taking down the beast, resulting in the production of gigantic human piloted robots, called Yaegers after the German word for Hunter, presumably because Yaeger just sounds cooler. They begin winning, the pilots become rock stars, and the Kaiju are trivialised and commodified. In fact, a whole series of cultures appropriate the Kaiju for their own ends. While some consume toys built in their likeness, others see them as messengers from a displeased God.
We then find ourselves with the film’s central character, Raleigh Becket and his older brother copilot (it takes two minds to link in order to effectively pilot machinery the size of a modest skyscraper), Yancy, as they are being deployed to head off the latest Kaiju, ominously codenamed Knifehead. They manage to kill the beast, but at great cost. Their Yaeger, Gipsy Danger is massively damaged and Yancy is killed in the process.

The Yaeger program is defunded and Pan Pacific nations turn to building massive walls to keep the Kaiju away from costal population centres.
All of this sounds like it could have been material for a whole movie, but takes place within Pacific Rim’s opening 15 minutes. It is refreshing that a movie sets up its mythology in such an economical fashion when its contemporaries find it fit to stretch the world building to feature length. Narrative economy can be seen through the rest of Pacific Rim, and it ends up one of the quickest moving big budget action movies in recent memory.

Pacific Rim is an undoubtedly hopeful movie. Its message is one of cooperation and trust and it is singular in its delivery of this message. As such, the hope is not drowned out in an orgy of destruction or navel gazing, unlike its contemporaries. It is a movie built from the ground up to depict humanity uniting in the face of extinction and winning. The very conceit of the movie (which is echoed in the Kaiju requiring two brains to function) is that two people need to be utterly trusting of each other in order to mentally link and pilot a giant metallic death machine to freedom. Hope is part of the DNA of Pacific Rim, a far cry from the philosophising and moralising of Man of Steel being completely divorced from its action climax.

In a time when cynicism and dark, gritty “realism” has become the norm in summer entertainment, it is refreshing to get a shot of genuine enthusiasm and love for the human spirit in what is otherwise a Giant Robot movie.
Let us take the movie’s two eccentric scientist characters as an example. Their interpersonal conflict serves to drive a significant subplot. It’s interesting to note that the older of the two scientists appears to have a physical disability, requiring him to walk with the aid of a cane for the entire movie, and the younger one appears in the throws of a severe manic episode. Pacific Rim has enough faith in its message that it allows two characters with visible disabilities, play a massive part in saving the day. In any other movie of this type, these characters would have been relegated to spewing exposition before being disposed of in some way.

Further to this, the movie does put a lot of energy into talking about how through each other we can find the strength to stand up to seemingly impossible odds. There are attempts to integrate other nations into what would, in most other films of its kind, be a solely American affair. The Russians fund the operation after the Pan Pacific Nations decide to defund it. The best Yaeger in the world is Australian built and run. The crew that run the Shatterdome come from all corners of the Earth.

Unfortunately, the Chinese Yaeger pilots are given virtually no dialogue, and the Russian pilots (of whom only the wife speaks) only speak during their battle scene. Of the two teams, the Chinese team feels like they are given less screen time.

It is an unfortunate coincidence that the most important players by the end of the film are mostly white men, Australian and American. I don’t doubt that there was nothing implied by this. I am saying that for a film that makes an effort to be multinational in its cast, a lot of it ends up feeling token. That said, was it awesome to see other nations contributing to the war effort? Damn straight it was.

Pacific Rim, much like most every del Toro movie, is a visually rich movie.
Let’s look at some examples.

The film introduces and characterises the Russian and Chinese Yaeger pilots visually. The Russian pilots are husband and wife, and first walk on screen, shot in low angle. They are imposing figures, standing straight as a stick and far more deliberate in their movements than their ground crew that follow behind them. In a later scene, Raleigh walks past them in the mess hall. Though they appear in the background, the wife’s actions depict her as possessive and in charge, while her husband comes across as supportive and obedient.

The Chinese Yaeger is piloted by three brothers. They are first introduced while engaged in a game of basketball, with two brothers passing the ball between each other, while the third is unable to gain possession. It is established that mental linking capacity can be judged through a physical dialogue between pilots. During a battle in which the Chinese Yaeger is deployed, the cockpit is shot in such a way that only two of the three brothers are clearly visible.

Mako Mori, the female lead in the film has blue tinged hair, a visual reminder of a traumatic event in which she was orphaned by a Kaiju during which she was wearing a blue dress, and also thematically tied with the Kajius’ blue blood and the “oil spill” like effect of Kaiju decomposition, known as Kaiju blue. She is clearly out for their blood.

The cocksure Australian pilots, who have the most Kaiju kills to their name, mark each kill in a tally on their armour. They are clearly proud of their achievements, and the son in this father/son pair, is particularly concerned about making damn sure that the people watching his back are up to the task.

Particularly impressive is how each Yaeger shown on screen speaks to the culture of the nation that built it. The Chinese Yaeger is red and gold, particularly auspicious colours. The Russian Yaeger’s head is fashioned into a nuclear stack — which also doubles as visual short hand for it being a first wave Yaeger and thus largely nuclear powered. The American Yaeger, Gipsy Danger is red white and blue with a decal of a pin up girl like one would find on the side of a bomber.

It is visual touches like this that make the world of the movie feel lived in, and elevate it above its contemporaries. The neon colouration of Hong Kong also serves to lighten the tone of the film compared to its contemporaries, and does a much better job than J. J. Abram’s over reliance on lens flare for the same effect. The movie looks at times like a cartoon come to life, and for better or worse, that is really what it is.

Unfortunately, Pacific Rim suffers from some horrendous spoken exposition. You could say it was par for the course for films of this genre, and I suppose that would be right. That did not stop Hellboy and Hellboy 2 from having genuinely touching character moments, and Hellboy 2 in particular having a devastatingly powerful moment involving a giant creature attacking the human world. Nor did it stop Wrath of Khan enriching its narrative with bits and pieces of Mody Dick, while also being an effective rumination on ageing and death.

That is not to say the cornball dialogue is at fault. Hammy dialogue comes with the territory, and is part of what makes things like Pacific Rim enjoyable. Corniness was a huge part of the original Hellboy’s charm. Corniness was also a major element of a lot of the earlier episodes of my favourite Giant Robot property, Neon Genesis Evangelion! Corniness is what made Pacific Rim feel genuine and heartfelt and removing it would change its flavour for the worse.

Problems such as having dialogue scenes stintedly explaining what had or will be explained visually in the movie weakened its presentation. A lot of interesting ideas were dropped in favour of the action, e.g. Kaiju Blue, a substance that causes the area neighbouring a Kaiju corpse to become uninhabitable is never touched upon again after a brief mention in the exposition dump in the beginning of the film.

If one were to consider film as Gesamtkunstwerk, a work in which the art of music, visual arts, writing and theatre combine to form an artwork that embodies drama to a greater extent than its constituent parts, the expository dialogue is where Pacific Rim would fall short, while the camp and hamminess is where Pacific Rim shines. It is a pity to see such an accomplished work of audio design, scoring, visual artistry and visual story telling be let down by clunky dialogue.

I, personally, feel that given the screenplay, Pacific Rim may have been more suited to a medium with a longer running time than a feature film. Exposition dumps of the kind seen in Pacific Rim seem more forgiveable in a television series, where there is more time to play with than in a cinematic production. Some of the more interesting ideas, such as Kaiju Blue, and the effects of mentally experiencing Yancy’s death on Raleigh’s psyche would have also been given more time to germinate, and more importantly, been shown rather than told to us.

One thing I am happy to report is that the action, despite being set mostly in the dark and while it is raining, is easy to read and follow. There are no quick cuts, rapid camera moves or incredible close ups to create an inflated sense of energy or tension to the sequences. The Yaegers and Kaiju are, for the most part, lumbering beasts, deliberate in their movements, delivering weighty blows to each other. It’s the lumbering and the sense of weight that make the CG effects in Pacific Rim seem so much more convincing than in a movie such as Transformers. Sure, Transformers is dazzling in the number of moving bits that were rendered and displayed on screen, but especially in Revenge of the Fallen, the robots did not look like they physically belonged with the human actors.

The 3D is pretty exceptional. I was able to follow everything on screen, despite the fact the majority of the movie is shot at night or in the dark. I did not feel like the picture was dimmed to the point where I could not tell what was going on and I found the movie as easy to follow as I did when I saw it in 2D.
It would be unfair of me to skip over the amazing sound design. The Yaegers and the Kaiju sound massive. Each footstep sounds thunderous, and the roar of the Kaiju has a sense of physicality to it. It really does sound like a building sized creature is very angry and willing to punch you, the audience, in the face.

Now onto two characters I felt really stood out in the film. They would be Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost and Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako Mori.

Stacker Pentecost heads up the operation. While he is written as a character that has nothing much to do but whip those under his command into shape, Idris Elba’s portrayal reveals him to be a haunted man with a rich history. When alone, he can be found staring, contemplatively, off into the distance. On paper he is a flat character, on screen he is a man whom you believe when he tells you that you have no idea what he’s been through.

Mako Mori has been getting some flack from feminist readings of the film. I, however, do believe her to be an incredibly driven woman who knows exactly what she wants. What I have said may seem counterintuitive from a western perspective, however, it is important to note that Mako is a Japanese character. Japanese society is very much built upon showing respect and being polite. She does not defer to Stacker’s judgement because she is weak willed, she does so out of respect, because it is the culturally appropriate thing to do. It hints at a deeper, more complex relationship between the two characters and is a case of showing rather than telling.

Her actions in the film serve to exhibit her capability as well. She is more than capable of mopping the floor with Raleigh when sparring, and she shows a resourcefulness in combat when Raleigh is flustered. At the same time, Pacific Rim manages to preserve her femininity – a particular scene has her attempt to use puppy dog eyes on Stacker Pentecost. She is not made masculine in a misguided attempt to strengthen her, and she is kept respectful to her culture of origin. She is by far the best written character in Pacific Rim.

Now let us talk about Raleigh. Despite being the main character, he certainly was rather dull. Interesting elements of his character were addressed in dispassionate dialogue and then dropped for the rest of the film. As a result, he is no more than a disgraced pilot, who is still gung ho, insubordinate and eager to prove himself.

In summary:

I guess there is a unique potency to having a film that champions Humanity as a whole coming together in a time of need use a main cast of mostly thinly sketched archetypes. It’s not the characters that are important to the story, but the fact that at the edge of our hope, humans in general are willing to cancel the apocalypse.

And I guess in that sense, Pacific Rim is a uniquely superlative version of itself and a movie worth watching at least once.