10 July 2013

Pacific Rim more of the spectacular same, only different

With Pacific Rim, Writer-director Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham have created a definitive summer blockbuster movie that paints the giant cinemaplex canvas with 2 hours and 11 minutes of heart-pounding spectacle. The action is so densely packed that there is an entire feature film’s worth of story before the opening title appears. It is the kind of movie that begs to be seen obscenely large and heard outrageously loud. Every richly constructed detail, in all its realistically rendered hi-definition glory commands our attention in creating a world like none we’ve ever seen. And, yet, in a way, we’ve seen it all before.

That is because Pacific Rim seems manufactured to provide audiences with exactly what they want. Its success is easily predictable because it is everything that recent box office figures have shown audiences want, and more.  It has the immersive CG environment of Avatar, along with its story device of action carried out by human-operated surrogates. It shares the fanciful martial arts combat numbers of The Last Airbender or Hero.  It involves levels of meta-narrative, stories within stories, and linked minds and memories like Inception before it. Images of full-scale, urban apocalypse scroll past like those we’ve seen in 2012 and the Dark Knight films.

The movie borrows heavily from older films, as well. The Hong Kong of Pacific Rim very much resembles the Los Angeles of Blade Runner.  Flashback scenes of a character in her youth, wandering alone in the ruins of a city devasted by kaiju, attempt to evoke a similar pathos as that created by the girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List. An unending laundry-list of allusions and resemblances shape the movie:

  • the melodramatic flight camaraderie of Top Gun (although calculatedly avoiding the homoeroticism of that earlier film by primarily pairing pilots in familial relationships-- brothers and father/son teams-- but sharing that film's unbelievably forced romantic storyline)
  • the us vs. them, sci-fi military machismo of Aliens and Starship Troopers
  • the hostile alien colonization scenario of Prometheus
  • the behemoth, anthropomorphic battle machines of the Power Rangers and Transformers

Of course, the basic concept of the kaiju (“strange  beast”) is indebted to Godzilla and other classic oversized, city-stomping monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s. While del Toro has explicitly stated that he did not want the creature designs to reference any familiar screen monsters, comparisons with the critters of Cloverfield are inevitable.

The film’s harvesting of visual and narrative elements from already-proven sources isn’t limited to the big screen, either. Pacific Rim wields the TV-MA star power of Sons of Anarchy by appropriating its handsome star, Charlie Hunnam, and its less-than-handsome star, Ron Perlman. It takes advantage of the ridiculous, but charming, comic sensibilities of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Charlie Day. News media and historical images shape the visual quality of the film, too. At times, the rolling cloud wave of debris moving through the streets, past skyscrapers, looks as if it might be archive coverage of September 11, with the remnants of the city resembling post-atomized Hiroshima.

Pacific Rim is a mosaic made up mostly of shards of previous films, of recognizable elements, both visual and narrative. Yet, the unique conglomeration, pacing, and arrangement of these elements form a constellation like nothing we’ve seen on screen before. What audiences are presented with is an uncanny movie, in a very literal sense; as the story unfolds, it looks and sounds comfortably familiar, and yet somehow strangely different. The result is that we are kept interested, awaiting the next recognizable scene, perhaps in spite of ourselves.

Pacific Rim is altogether entertaining, never really promising to be more than it is—an enjoyable, highly-marketable action film, positioned respectfully in a lineage of similarly enjoyable, highly-marketable action films. It is likely this summer’s definitive blockbuster and it is just what we’ve asked for in terms of saccharine cinematic dessert. If we’re ultimately unhappy with the taste, we have only ourselves to blame for ordering seconds.


Anonymous said...

I'm guessing the author of this piece has never seen a kaiju eiga and doesn't watch mecha anime. Oh well.

Matt Bennett said...

Sorry Anonymous, but you guessed wrong. This movie is far more indebted to the lineage of Western action films I mentioned than any romanticized notions of the eiga of Toho Company or other classic Japanese studios.

Anime nods are there, but they are based, like the snarky comments of would-be anime fanboys who think themselves experts on Japanese film because they've seen Ghost in the Shell, on heavily-filtered Western perceptions of those anime.

Oh well.

Anonymous said...

Ooo.. burn.

Anonymous said...

I kind of like that. Instead of having a movie that tries really hard to be a Japanese film, we're getting a very western take on something that's always been an almost exclusively Asian.

Matt Bennett said...

Anonymous, I agree with you. It is definitely not a bad thing. I was just hoping to make the point that someone doesn't have to be a classic kaiju movie or mecha anime fan to "get" this movie, because while they are influences on Pacific Rim, the movie is far more indebted to Western action films. I, in fact, enjoyed the movie a lot and am looking forward to seeing it again.