Pacific Rim

Saw Pacific Rim on Sunday… another movie I wanted to love, and unfortunately didn’t. Guillermo del Toro! Nerd obsessions! Giant monsters! Mako Mori! Idris Elba! It looks pretty and there are some parts of it that work great, but overall I was bored too often and surprised and delighted too little.

(Spoilers, I’m sure, follow.)

The premise is kind of like Godzilla + Transformers + Iron Man + Independence Day + Starship Troopers + Lovecraft. And there’s really nothing wrong with the premise. Dimensional hole opens up to a world of giant monsters (kaiju) who come over here and wreck stuff, then we build giant robots to fight them, because why not? Can you think of a BETTER way to fight giant monsters?

Yeah, sometimes I was a little distracted by wondering how much these robot warriors (jaegers) were supposed to weigh and what exactly they were supposed to be made out of and how much do they cost and since when is a machine capable of such complex movement also well-nigh indestructible when you toss it around like that? When the jaeger crashes into things made of concrete and steel rebar, why is it never the jaeger that breaks? But that’s the premise. You go with it or you don’t. It’s not any more ridiculous than Superman.

I liked the recurring “teamwork” theme, and the visual metaphor of the giant robots — power suits really, as they are piloted by humans who act out the movements the machines are supposed to follow — as an expression of the enormity of human will.

The problem is that I found the longer fight sequences impossible to follow… and so MUCH of the movie is one long fight sequence. I couldn’t keep track of how many kaiju were still alive, or which jaegers were fighting which kaiju, or where exactly in space everybody was supposed to be at any given time. The director, Guillermo del Toro, has talked about how he made the kaiju all look different — and then he didn’t. I mean, yeah, they probably had different… fiddly bits… but they weren’t different enough for me to instantly spot which was which, especially once you break it down the way fight scenes tend to do — a fist here, a limb there. The same goes for the jaegers — I wasn’t always sure which was which.

It means that what should have been a really emotional moment, as one jaeger and then another jaeger get destroyed, slid by without much impact, because I wasn’t 100 percent sure what had happened until long after it was over.

Also, that moment would have meant more if we had previously gotten more than a passing glance of the crews that get killed.

Of the characters we do get to know, I liked the main protagonist (who’s name escapes me), Mako Mori (you know, the girl fighter with the cool blue streaks in her hair) and Idris Elba (his character is called Stacker Pentecost, and both names are pretty awesome). I liked their story arcs and relationships, and the movie was at its best when it was focused on being about them.

I also liked the weirdo scientist duo, responsible for most of the movie’s humor. They fight a lot and then work together to mind meld with one of the aliens and discover that one final piece of information that allows the heroes to save the day. Go, quirky science dudes!

I was less interested in an Australian hotshot dude and his father. The hotshot is a big square-jawed guy with sandy hair, just like the main protagonist, so that when they weren’t speaking, sometimes I would get them mixed up. I also got them a bit mixed up with the OTHER square-jawed sandy-haired guy, the one with the bulldog, even though that guy was a bit older. It wasn’t until really late in the movie that I figured out bulldog guy was supposed to be hotshot dude’s father. So whatever was going on with them, I didn’t end up caring, and precious moments of character development (as opposed to monster-punching) were wasted there.

(When these precious moments COULD have been spent on that bleach-haired Russian couple… who seem well on the way to rivaling Boba Fett as “most popular characters in nerd history that everybody thinks are really cool even though they have, like, one line of dialog.”)

Idris Elba delivers a speech so similar to the one from Independence Day, without the irritating American exceptionalism, that I was almost inclined to interpret it as a deliberate parody. I still rolled my eyes, though. You are not making Henry V, everybody, so stop trying to do the St. Crispen’s Day Speech.

My favorite moment was the scene when Mako Mori finally gets her dream of being a jaeger pilot, along with the main protagonist, only to find their extreme past traumas throw off the mind melding. She gets caught up reliving a horrible memory and nearly shoots all the heroes with a laser canon. The scene is tense, believable given the setup, heartbreaking, and doubly heartbreaking as we also see her memory of the day a kaiju destroyed her city.

It’s powerful stuff. But instead of carrying that power into the climax, it happens kinda in the middle, so it’s followed by a big, confusing, overly long fight sequence, and all the emotions dissipate into boredom. It’s way too late now, but in my rewrite of the movie that moment happens much later, and closer to when the other jaeger pilots get killed, so that tragedy is piling on tragedy and you can really FEEL the apocalypse coming — before Idris Elba announces that it has been canceled.

(Hey, look, another movie that I think it would have been improved by following the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet more closely.)

Still, I think this might be one of those movies that is flawed, but weirdly memorable. The people who like it, seem to like it a lot. This analysis of its visual storytelling hints at why — [The visual intelligence of Pacific Rim] – a strongly resonant visual metaphor begs to be revisited and recontextualized, and often has a pop culture life much bigger than the fiction that spawned it.

In the discussion here [Simple Does Not Equal Dumb] there’s a lot of back and forth about whether Pacific Rim is “dumb,” which is ridiculous. It is way less dumb than Star Trek: Into Darkness, for example. At least this movie bothers to acknowledge that if you smash a bunch of skyscrapers without evacuating them first, thousands of people die – which Star Trek inexplicably failed to acknowledge, and apparently Man of Steel does the exact same thing. Also, unlike Star Trek, we can figure out what the Pacific Rim villains are trying to do. And if you want to talk about technological handwaving, did you COUNT how many times in Star Trek they couldn’t beam somebody up, for reasons, but could beam someone else down, for reasons? Then a fistfight would ensue, and obviously THAT was the reason?

Or, take last year’s biggest movie, The Avengers. I liked The Avengers a lot, but it wasn’t because the technology or science made any more sense than it usually does in such a movie. I mean, consider the Hulk – where does he get all that mass from? The main area where The Avengers succeeded, and Pacific Rim failed, was that The Avengers managed to more successfully integrate storytelling and character development along with punching. It meant I didn’t get bored during too much punching, and other people didn’t get bored during too much not-punching.

And that, I think, is the real problem – if we’re a little bored, we have the mental space to sit there and wonder what the heck they mean by “pure titanium – no alloys!” and why that’s supposed to be a good thing for a skyscraper-sized monster-punching robot anyway. If we’re caught up in the excitement, we just don’t care.