Review: Pacific Rim

Review: Pacific Rim

The Heat is still my favorite movie of 2013, just FYI. It was a buddy cop film with two women as the leads, one of which was Melissa McCarthy being her usual awesome self. It had a minimum level of romantic bullshit, and the more overt displays of sexuality were NOT from Sandra Bullock – who, true to her character, was awkward and bumbling in the extreme when it came to anything to do with the opposite sex. – but from Melissa, the fat lady. And at no point during the movie did they make a joke out of her size.

In a buddy cop movie comedy, they did not make a joke of a fat woman being fat. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for Hollywood. I’m so proud, guys. It’s like they’re learning, or something.

Anyway – I’m not going to talk any more about that. Go see it, it’s fucking awesome. Today, we’re going to look at a dumb action movie – namely Pacific Rim.

PACIFIC RIM

 

Pacifim Rim is about giant robots beating up giant monsters. At no point does it ever stop being about robots and monsters. In fact, it looks like it’s a pretty faithful big blockbuster homage to Japanese monster movies.

The Plot, in a Nutshell

So a giant inter-dimensional rift has opened up deep in the Pacific Ocean, and city-sized monsters called Kaiju are spilling out of it and wrecking everyone’s shit. Humanity takes down the first one with massive amounts of artillery, and eventually decide that they have to come up with a solution that doesn’t take six days and level most of a city, and that solution was the Jaegers.

Jaegers are the giant, 200 foot robots, piloted by at least two people. They also pilot it from the head of said robot, because the technology to create huge fucking robots doesn’t come with decent remote control, but whatever. Let’s just go with it.

(You’ll be saying that a lot if you see this movie. The physics of just about everything is pants-on-head crazy. But, eh, it’s a big dumb action movie, so on some level it’s kind of expected.)

The movie follows one ex-pilot, this white dude called Raleigh, as he’s called back into service for one last lunatic plan to seal the rift and stop all these monster shenanigans once and for all. There’s a bunch of big special effects fights, with the pilots actually saying the names of their moves in a delightfully anime-esque way. There’s a few deaths. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that, yes, they seal the rift and save humanity etc etc.

The Bad Parts

There was one significant female character – Mako, Raleigh’s co-pilot. The only other woman to appear in the movie and have speaking lines appears for, I kid you not, less than thirty seconds in total, and then dies. The Jaeger team leader is played by a black guy, namely Idris Elba. So the movie had one token minority and one token woman, more or less, and every other named character who spoke was a white guy.¬†That is not fucking well good enough. They had plenty of named characters wandering about the place – it would have been pretty simple to mix it up a bit. Hence, I have the rage over this particular point.

The plot feels underdeveloped. It seems like there could have been another hour there, to really flesh out the setting and story, but they had to crunch it into an hour and a half and include the requisite number of big dumb fight scenes, so there wasn’t really enough room for proper writing. My better half argues that it’s just the third act that’s kinda weak, but frankly, I think the whole thing is pretty weak overall, and the third act doesn’t really jump out at me as being especially bad.

The physics. Good gods, the physics. 200ft robots are an impossibility, my friends. The materials to make something that big and also make it move like a person do not exist. And the Kaiju? Holy crap, there is a reason why the dinosaurs never got over 130 tonnes. The physics of something measuring in the thousands of tonnes while being made out of organic material just doesn’t work, not on our planet, not in our atmosphere.

The frequent lapses in basic common sense. So the world decides that this Jaeger thing isn’t working out, and they’re going to decommission the program and – I shit you not – build a wall. Around the Pacific Ocean.

I wish I was making that up.

If you immediately thought, ‘what in hell is a wall going to do against giant fucking monsters’, then congratulations, you are officially smarter than the collective Earth governments in Pacific Rim. Surprising no one in the cinema, the wall is proven ineffective halfway through the movie.

People still live in the Pacific coastal cities, in spite of the ongoing monster attacks destroying everything. Like, seriously? They’ve had seven years of this crap, why aren’t they grabbing anything they can and walking inland, if they can’t afford the bus fare? If you knew that there was a high risk of something as devastating as, say, the eruption of Mt St Helens in your area every few months, you would get the hell out of there.

Them not remote controlling the Jaegars. Come on, seriously. Don’t tell me the tech isn’t good enough. Bonus – you don’t lose your very valuable pilot teams when – not if, when – the robots get ripped up.

Finally, the whole idea of robots going out to fight giant monsters. Whoever decided that risky and costly melee combat with a 200ft monster was a better option than building the world’s largest railguns was a fucking idiot. Guys, during WWII, the Germans built giant cannons that could punch through metre-thick armor plating. Given the tech to build 200ft robots that move like people, we could build guns that turn Kaiju into itty bitty monster bits as soon as they poked their heads out of the water. Hell, a swarm of fucking drones, with a drill on the front to get through the Kaiju’s hide and a massive bomb in the back, would have been a better solution.

Okay. Now, having said all that…

The Good Parts

Pacific Rim is sort of enjoyable. The funny bits are pretty funny. The action bits are kinda cool. I’m not really impressed by special effects and I don’t care much about the whole spectacle of it, so I will only say this much – the fights between monsters and robots is about what you’d expect. It goes without saying that you shouldn’t see it in 3D, because it adds nothing and makes it hard to actually focus on the fights at all.

I really like that the teams were varied. Raleigh was one of the few Americans around the place – the rest came from all over. The other Jaeger teams were, respectively, Australian, Russian, and Chinese. It really made the war against the Kaiju feel like a global effort.

But the weirdest thing about this movie, and probably the one thing that prevents me from just dismissing it as a generic action waste of my time, is the characterization.

Seriously, the characters in this movie are, for the most part, better defined and more interesting than most dramas. They make the movie something more than it should be, which really blows my mind. It’s a testament to Guillermo del Toro’s skill as a director, if anything. If the characters talk, they’re interesting, full people that don’t come off as caricatures (even though most of them are white guys). They react in very human, natural ways to the insanity around them.

Raleigh: generic white dude who loses his co-pilot brother at the start of the movie. You’d expect him to be the damaged, brooding, anti-hero whose return to batting the Kaiju becomes his redemption – and you’d be wrong. Raleigh is not quite the main character, because it comes off more like an ensemble team effort, and he’s the emotional heart of the whole movie. He’s accepted the loss of his brother and moved on from it. He takes up the fight because the world needs him to. He smiles, he reaches out to others and tries to help them, he offers advice – particularly to Mako, his co-pilot. And he still harbours his own doubts, about whether he still can be a pilot, but does it anyway because he must. In short, the main white dude is an emotionally complex character who displays supportive traits normally assigned to the token female.

Mako: Raleigh’s co-pilot, who carries a lot of pain and vengeance from losing her family to a Kaiju attack. She’s a rookie pilot, but no one else has a stronger connection to Raleigh, so it has to be her in the cockpit with him. She is not weak, lost, or insecure, but her need for revenge almost gets them killed at least once. In typical Chinese fashion, she’s respectful and deferential, but only up to a point.¬†Raleigh becomes her friend, and her emotional support, over the course of the movie. Their relationship is never antagonistic, never sexual, never about dominance or opposition. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that everything they’ve been through makes them care deeply about each other.

She is not sexualized, ever. She’s strong without being a typical “strong female character in an action movie”, a.k.a. a man with tits.

Stacker: the leader who’s running the whole show. A former Jaegar pilot, driven to do what he has to in order to stop the attacks, and if that means he’s a bit of a bastard, then so be it. But Mako is his adopted daughter, and he’s torn between letting her have her chance to fight the Kaiju and protecting her from them.

Newt and Hermann: the comedy science duo, who eventually crack the key to sealing the rift. One German, one American, and they bicker like idiots most of the time, but it’s clear they do respect each other’s work on some level. When push comes to shove, they support each other, even though the rest of the time they mostly throw insults. They’re genuinely funny, I liked them a lot.

Herc and Chuck Hansen: the Australian father and son pilot team of another Jaegar. The father (Herc) is older, wiser, and level-headed, and tries to keep a rein on the son (Chuck), who’s passionate about the fight but very quick to judge and to anger, especially against Raleigh. But, oh man, there’s a scene where Herc’s been injured and Chuck has to go out and fight with Stacker as his co-pilot instead, and he’s probably not coming back so they have to say goodbye… real tear-jerking stuff.

Hannibal Chau: the black market dealer in Kaiju body parts who helps out the team during the movie. I mention him because he’s just kinda interesting – he’s a criminal asshole who’s not above running away from danger, who doesn’t default to ‘kill the good guys because they’re inconvenient’, who doesn’t double-cross them, and who actually know’s what’s what with the Kaiju. I was really surprised when he figured out Newt had possibly drawn a Kaiju towards them – instead of, say, killing him or giving him to the Kaiju to make it go away, he just calls him a fucking idiot and… gets him to some kind of safety in a public refuge.

The Really Interesting Part

So, okay. Big budget somewhat brain-dead action flick. But here’s the question that I was asking, in a sort of meta-analysis way: why two pilots?

You expect this to be one pilot per robot. In my experience of mecha-type movies and anime’s it’s either one pilot, or the whole combo schtick with four or five joining together or some crap. So why two? Or in one case, three? The official line is that pilots have to share the neural load, because piloting a Jaeger is too much for one mind to handle. But forget that, that’s just an explanation. Why did del Toro decide that it had to be two people in the cockpit?

I think the answer is actually one of the most subversive pieces of cinematic genius I’ve ever witnessed.

So here’s the facts, about Jaeger pilots:

  • It can’t be just one person, because it’s too much to handle and it causes brain damage.
  • When two people share the neural load, they sort of merge minds, so they can act as one.
  • The pilots need to share some kind of strong connection in order to make it work at all.
  • The pilots do a thing called ‘drifting’ when they link up, where they share thoughts, feelings and memories, and it requires a lot of trust.

You know what I notice most about this? It’s a plot device that relies solely on emotions and relationships to make the shiny flashy robot nonsense go. I can’t believe he got away with it, but del Toro actually took the heart of great character drama and made it a vital part of his big dumb action movie, and he did it in a way that forced the whole movie to become a celebration of teamwork and common feeling; to emphasize the idea of the many, working in harmony, to overcome great hardship.

This is incredible because big dumb action movies tend to default to antagonistic character relationships to provide some kind of drama – like, say, when the main character is a renegade who gets no support from their superiors until it’s too late. When the sidekick or the scientist is revealed as working for the villains and double-crosses the good guys for their own gain. When the main character finds their efforts undermined by a secondary character who’s ostensibly on the same side but more concerned about making the main character look bad rather than actually accomplishing their mutual goal. Pacific Rim never really gets as far as that, in spite of the punch up between Chuck and Raleigh at one point. (Said punch up resulted from Raleigh playing protector to Mako after Chuck said some hurtful things about her.)

So the movie still has drama and conflict, but it’s far more interesting. The characters are, at the most fundamental level, fighting for something greater than themselves, and they know that this greater purpose makes inter-personal conflict trivial. The tension between Chuck and Raleigh vanishes after the first big fight, for example, and for the rest of the movie, the Jaeger pilots work as a team. Then the drama comes from the simple question: can they really do this? A few tiny humans, their machines, and whatever courage they have left, in the face of impossible monsters? And how many of them will not come back from the final battle?

This is not without its flaws, unfortunately. I wanted the last part to be Mako’s redemption, where she lets go of her need for vengeance with Raleigh’s help. I didn’t really get that. I wanted there to be more of the other Jaeger pilots, and their story, but the movie just wasn’t long enough, which is a real shame. (See previous point about it being underdeveloped.) It felt like they had all this awesome backstory and setting and whatnot, and they just couldn’t fit it all in. But Pacific Rim is still good, for all that it’s not perfect, and I’m impressed that del Toro was willing and able to make it a reality.

It’s astonishingly rare to see a big action movie that is really less about the action and more about the people in it. Independence Day is about the only other one I can think of. I don’t know how it got past the studio executives – at this point, I’m pretty sure they have an agenda to nix anything even vaguely outside the accepted norms – but I’m glad it did. I’ll give it a tentative thumbs up, though I’m not sure what or how they’ll make a sequel.

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