Pacific Rim

October 15, 2013
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Review by Justin Spencer

  • I remember as a child having near hallucinogenic nightmares after watching Jurassic Park for the first time on our old black and white, sixteen-inch television. After not being able to sleep at all the night after, I wanted to watch it again the next day. Such is the magic of cinema, I suppose. A well constructed film has the ability to so thoroughly entrance that the line between the viewer's reality and the fiction on the screen becomes entirely blurred, especially if that viewer is a child. That is magic, and children love magic.

    Now that I'm older, it has become much more difficult for a film to elicit such a visceral reaction from me. A film shown on a standard 72' wide IMAX screen, in bone-shaking surround sound, and in the latest 3-D technology is often too easily dismissed a few hours after watching, save intellectually. This is a tragic thing. I wish that I could give myself over to a summer blockbuster the way I could when I was younger. Alas, my "sophistication" all too often gets the better of me. I can't help but notice poor acting, plot-holes, corny writing, and shot selection that fails to rise above, "This will look cool," and I refuse to give myself over to the story.

    After my first viewing of Guillermo del Toro's 2013 film, Pacific Rim, I noted all of the above. With the exception of Idris Elba, the acting was anything but subtle. Lines were delivered in far too much earnest by perpetually flexing actors. All of it felt like it belonged in a classic Van Damme action flick. Take this gem:

    Raleigh Becket: Wait, I think we took this guy out. But just to be safe, we better check for a pulse.

    (Becket shoots the monster a few times, the monster doesn't move)

    Becket: No pulse.

    Who would guess that these lines are from a film by one of the greatest filmmakers of our time? I couldn't believe that the director of Pan's Labyrinth could make something that had nothing to offer but admittedly stunning special effects. I thought Anthony Lane's critique clever and interesting, "Long, loud, dark, and very wet. You might as well watch the birth of an elephant."

    But, in my original critique, I made the fundamental mistake of not taking into account the genre del Toro used as his inspiration, a genre in which all the elements I thought insipid were actually essential.

    Pacific Rim fits neatly inside the monster film tradition which began, for the most part, with King Kong in 1933. One type of monster, in particular, provided del Toro with the idea for his own project. He noted, in an interview given on NPR, Pacific Rim is a Kaiju (Japanese for monster) film, made famous by Ishiro Honda's Godzilla in 1954.

    At the beginning of the movie, we are told that an alien race has placed a portal to another dimension under the Pacific Ocean, intent on the destruction of the human race and subsequent unhindered pillaging of Earth's resources. To accomplish this they have unleashed gigantic, Godzilla-like Kaiju on every major coastal city in the world.

    Hoping to prevent the destruction of the human race, humanity is forced to unite under one world government. All technological, political, and military power of every nation is combined to develop a means to defeat the alien invaders. This means is called the Jaeger (German for hunter), a machine equipped to defeat the Kaiju in single combat. Continuing with the international theme each individual Jaeger is piloted by a set of people from various countries. A Jaeger, too complex for a single pilot to control, requires a sort of mind-meld, called "drifting", between each individual in which their deepest fears, doubts, triumphs, and history are laid bare.

    In this, Del Toro is continuing a tradition of such films being somewhat heavy-handed statements on war and world-peace. It is well known that, for Ishiro Honda, the enormous, lizard-like, sea monster an was an effective metaphor for the destructive and impersonal power of atomic weapons. In Pacific Rim, the monsters represent humanity's largest, most frightening challenges. The solutions to our current problems, both internationally and interpersonally, arise out of a lack of cooperation, unwillingness to compromise, and little desire to know or be known deeply by the other.

    Such a theme is perhaps representative of the entire film, and indeed the entire Kaiju genre. There is no subtlety to any element. Humanity's enemy is not a deadly disease or political intrigue, it's an never-ending line of skyscraper-tall lizards. Humanity's solution isn't terribly clever, it's a skyscraper-tall machine. The writing, as evidenced by the lines quoted above, don't require a master actor's deft touch; they require a gruff voice, muscular body, and unwavering face. The film on its own is entirely juvenile. It's the kind of film ten year old boys love.

    But that's exactly the point. Del Toro made Pacific Rim out of a desire to make the kind of film that awakened him to the magic of cinema. It was, by all accounts, an act of pure joy, and who could find any fault in that? In the interview I referenced above, he spoke on this element of joy, "The way they transported me, the way they made me feel in awe of the gigantic creatures strolling across the ocean, coming into the city - it's unlike any Western movie genre ever."

    You won't find much in the way of deeply satisfying reflections on the human condition in Pacific Rim, but then again, what child reflects on such things? Del Toro deliberately eschews that type of "sophistication" because that's what the genre requires. That the film failed in drawing a sense of joy and wonder out of me is not his fault, it's mine. It is clear to me now that my original dislike was merely a matter of taste and not a definciency in the movie. The genre sadly doesn't appeal to me in the way it once did, and in that way, perhaps, I'm wholly unqualified to review the film. But, I still remember enough of what watching movies was like when I was young to know my ten year-old self would find Pacific Rim a wonderful movie. He wouldn't be wrong.

  • Release Date
    October 15, 2013
    • Kanaan Trotter
      March 17, 2014

      Justin, I just finished a review of Jack Ryan and found the same sort of impersonality connected to nuclear warfare. I’m curious though, do you think that’s because we’ve grown immune to the massiveness and really terrifying side of the thing? Or is it really as impersonal as it seems?

    • Justin Spencer
      March 20, 2014

      Kanaan, interesting question. At the risk of sounding too simplistic, it’s interesting to notice that, for the vast majority of history, war has been fought between individuals who could see each other. The act of killing a fellow human being was necessarily immediate and necessarily personal. Technology, specifically nuclear technology, allows a person the ability to kill not one but millions of other human beings never having seen their faces, and that person can do so from the other side of the world.

      What do you think?

    • Kanaan Trotter
      March 26, 2014

      It seems Americans are fascinated by the idea of global destruction accomplished in a single act, maybe much the same way we love the idea of ending ” global hunger”. As if we can do such a thing with a massive bomb-like act: giving money. But at the same time I see how, watching footage of Nagasaki or Hiroshima, we’re terrified by the reality of vaporizing people and leaving only a shadow of them against a building. It seems that we’re desensitized to the thing’s reality, as long as it’s big and distant. As soon as characters get involved, we’re not sure what to do. I’m not convinced that nuclear war is impersonal. I completely understand what you’re saying. It’s quite spot on. Maybe I’m just suggesting we’ve been trained by our movies to think of nuclear bombs as impersonal. Your thoughts?

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