Somewhere around thirty minutes into Pacific Rim, there’s the first of many scenes where a giant robot is striding through a city to take on a giant monster, and it was then that I felt that the movie was talking directly to me.
“Yeah, I know what you’re doing,” it said. “You’re doing that thing where you start composing a blog post in your head before the movie is even halfway over. You’ve probably already even picked out a pun title that you think is just so clever and you’re mighty pleased with yourself. Well, cut it out. This isn’t a movie made for you cinema school drop-outs to pontificate about, discussing symbolism and emotional resonance. This is a movie made to show giant robots beating the shit out of giant monsters.”
After I got over how unnecessarily belligerent the movie was being — I still think the title is pretty good — I eventually understood what it was trying to say. Pacific Rim is a movie that casually brushes off attempts at analysis like so many surface-to-air missiles as it shambles through the wreckage of Tokyo and Hollywood.
It may not mean much of anything, but at least now, we no longer have to listen when anyone tries to defend a Transformers or G.I. Joe-scale debacle by saying “You just have to turn your brain off!” We can now point to Pacific Rim and say, “No, that is how you make a turn-your-brain-off movie.”
On The Dissolve, Scott Tobias and Tasha Robinson discuss the movie and Tobias asks, “what’s the metaphor?” They come to the conclusion that the post-nuclear anxiety that created Godzilla movies in the 50s has now turned into anxiety about global climate change. Especially since Charlie Day’s character comes right out and delivers a line about our poisoning the oceans and the atmosphere, creating a perfect environment for the kaiju to return.
I say that’s a load. Or at least, it’s as much a load as saying that the kaiju movies after Godzilla were really a metaphor for post-nuclear anxiety. Or that the bulk of the sci-fi movies of the 50s were a metaphor for Cold War anxiety. I believe those are all just too-convenient explanations that cinema studies types like to come up with to explain something that’s difficult to admit: sometimes we like movies even though it seems like we should know better.
But looking for meaning or metaphor in Pacific Rim, and then concluding that it lacks depth because it has neither, is a lot like criticizing a ballet for being poorly written. It’s entirely about technique. None of these moves are new, but we’re going to perform them better than you’ve ever seen before. The scale of the robots is astounding, as is the magnitude of the destruction, and the geographical scope of the story. You get the sense that this is the movie that little kids see when they watch Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla, before they get old enough to recognize the models and the rubber suits.
There’s no environmental message here, just as there’s no message about man’s hubris (or over-dependence on technology, or following orders vs. showing true courage, or our responsibility to step up when our governments fail us). Any vestigial profound moments are just a side effect from mashing up so many different sources — this film produced in a facility that also produces substance. The collective unconscious of at least two generations’ worth of adolescents got tossed in a blender: kaiju movies, obviously, but also Gundam and Big O and dozens of other anime series, Top Gun and Rocky III and countless 80s action movies, Aliens, the end of every 80s Bond movie, Shadow of the Colossus, Front Mission 3, the Half-Life games, and X-COM. (No doubt several of those are themselves mash-ups of earlier ideas, and I just caught the re-interpreted versions).
The scenes of interpersonal drama are really nothing more than connective tissue. Moments of familiarity to space things out until the next monster battle. The characters are even less developed than the ones in Cloverfield, but I think they end up functioning basically the same way: you want to recognize them enough to care about what’s happening, but not care too much. Maybe the fear was that having too much story on top of such massive battles would be too much for our brains to handle, giving everyone in the audience nosebleeds. (And still, that’d be fewer people than characters in the movie with sudden nosebleeds). Maybe if any of the characters were too far developed, we’d end up chasing the rabbit, getting too caught up in the intrigue to pay sufficient attention to a rocket punch directly to a monster’s sword head. Maybe there was a concern that if you start to accept any of this as even remotely real events happening to real people, the magnitude of the destruction would start to sink in, and it’d be a post-apocalyptic nightmare film instead of a fun action movie. Or most likely, the scenes with people are only just as interesting as they need to be to give all the spectacle a sense of rhythm.
I believe that’s part of why Pacific Rim works so well, while spectacle-heavy nonsense like Transformers and Sucker Punch just leaves the audience feeling stupider than we were when we came in. It simply feels more honest. The fight scenes are spectacular, obviously, but the spectacle seems rooted in a shared nostalgia, instead of a genuine desire to knock our socks off with something we’ve never seen before. And I never felt that the human moments were trying to wrench genuine emotion out of me; they were familiar and even comfortable, dredged up from dozens of anime and action movies I’d seen before.
Take for instance the pitch-perfect Russian jaeger pilots, a blond Zangief and a shorter Brigitte Nielsen. A lesser movie would’ve tried to Vasquez-ify them, to impress us with how bad-ass they are. But here, they just give a jolt of familiarity and then fade to the background, along with the pilots of the Crimson Typhoon. It’s essentially a live-action cartoon that’s not constantly winking at the audience to make sure that we’re all aware the filmmakers are in on the joke. Or the same kind of celebration of disparate influences and genuine love for the source material that goes into a Quentin Tarantino movie, but without the need for the audience to think that liking all this stuff makes the director really cool.
On the whole it felt like a cover song being performed by a virtuoso: zero points for originality, but 100 points for technique. During one of the battles late in the movie, our heroes’ jaeger purposefully strides down a street in Hong Kong, dragging something — it’s the best moment in the movie, so I don’t want to spoil it — it intends to use to club a super-powerful kaiju to death. And that moment felt like it wasn’t just extraordinarily bad-ass, but inevitable. It felt like the culmination of decades of being a nerd.