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July 23, 2013

Pacific Rim: Fight a Hurricane

There’s a scene relatively early on in Pacific Rim where our hero Raleigh is giving the audience a voice-over to explain the mentality behind piloting a Jaeger, the giant robots employed in the future to fight off the kaiju invaders.  He says something to the effect of “standing up” and “looking forward” -- or more specifically, he mentions that normally when there’s a hurricane coming, you run and hide.  But when you’re in a Jaeger, you feel like you can stand up to it.  You have to fight the hurricane.

That…sounds like a really dumb idea, even if you’re in a giant robot.  A hurricane is a swirling mass of wind, water, and debris, isn’t it?  That really doesn’t strike me as the kind of thing you could get rid of just by punching it.  It sounds cool as hell, sure, but pretty impractical.  Still, it’s something you can chalk up to the nature of the movie and the universe therein.  It’s a world with giant robots and giant monsters.  It’s not supposed to make sense; it’s just supposed to be cool.

Except that mentality doesn’t really work for Pacific Rim.  Believe it or not, this isn’t necessarily the sort of movie where the “turn your brain off” mantra can come into play.  The movie is inherently dumb, but if you take even a few minutes to listen to these people and get invested in their world, you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.  Surprised, and rewarded -- and walking out of the theater with a smile on your face.

I know I did, at least.

There are likely some SPOILERS to follow, but there shouldn’t be anything too heavy here.  Besides, you shouldn’t even be reading this post anyway if you haven’t seen the movie; go out there and watch it so it can beat out Grown Ups 2.

Do the right thing.  Don’t let Adam Sandler win.


You know what always struck me as weird?  The quotes from critics during commercials for a movie.

It never occurs to me to check the source of those quotes until the commercial is long over, but I suppose it’s a practice I’m going to have to start getting into.  Not that I know any movie critics by name or organization (besides Bob “MovieBob” Chipman of The Escapist), but a bit of knowledge on who’s singing praises could say wonders about the movie’s actual credibility.  I can remember a time when I caught a passing glimpse at a newspaper, and there was a four-star rating for one of the Twilight movies…with the actual critic’s name printed in such tiny text that plankton could party atop it. 

What was striking to me about a recent Pacific Rim commercial was a mention of what was in it, according to one critic.  Something along the lines of “humanity” and “heroism” or something to that effect.  That immediately made me perk up my ears.  “So this movie apparently has just what I’ve been looking for in fiction for ages now?” I said to myself, stroking my chin and lamenting my utter inability to grow a manly beard.  “Is it even possible?  I would have figured that Man of Steel and this Dark Age of Grit drove a railroad spike through fun.”  But lo and behold, the movie delivered.  I wasn’t just satisfied with the final product; I was outright impressed, and elated.


On paper, Pacific Rim sounds like a dumb, dumb, rock-dumb movie.  (You can probably blame the prejudice on a certain director and a certain trilogy of banal, bot-laden blockbusters.)  But thankfully, there IS a level of thought going on under the hood.  There IS an unmistakable spirit to the proceedings, giving it some genuine and enjoyable flair.  There IS an ability to surpass the grit that’s infected the media lately.  And above all else, there IS a lot to love.

I’m not going to say that Pacific Rim is perfect, because it isn’t.  Nor will I say it’s the movie of the year, because the year’s barely half-over.  But it is a good, good, good, good, damn good movie.

Real talk: my measuring stick for this movie is a simple question.  “Is it better than G Gundam?”  And the answer to that is…HELL NO.


Pacific Rim doesn’t have lovingly-gratuitous ass shots of its leading characters as latex suits stretch across their taut and toned forms.  Nor does it have remarkably-long chants reproduced almost without fail from its main character just to use his ultimate attack, which is pretty much just a matter of executing the old “I’m crushing your head” in the most literal form possible.  Nor does it have anyone even close to playing the role of Master Asia.  So no, it’s not better than G Gundam -- because clearly, nothing ever will be.

But it doesn’t have to be.  The strengths of G Gundam were in its ability to substitute our logic for theirs; our world doesn’t matter, because their world and their framework are so incredibly engrossing that you can’t help but come along for the ride.  Would anything in that universe make sense or be practical if transplanted into the real world?  No, of course not.  It’d be awesome, no question (I would expect no less from America than a Gundam with a polearm that creates a superheated-energy flag, along with the ability to transform into an eagle form that releases red, white, and blue vapor trails).  But we can accept that world, even if it’s only for twenty-two minutes at a time.  It’s separate from our own.


On a lot of levels, Pacific Rim works the same way.  The fact that so many of the robots on display in the movie resort to close-quarters combat -- punching, especially -- instead of any form of gunplay is proof of that.  (Even Royal Gundam handled that much, and to great effect apparently.)  But this movie is as much about the humans -- and probably more so -- than it is about the robots.  It’s something that plays into one of its greatest strengths, as you’d expect, and it’s indeed something that I’m thankful for.  But throughout the entire movie -- from the talky bits to the big whompin’ punch-ups -- I couldn’t help but be intrigued.  Even if their world is absurd by nature, and designed to please the audience, it felt like I could understand this world.  It didn’t feel quite as alien as I would have expected. 

And I think I know why.  And in order to explain, I have to draw comparisons to a certain badass game…again.


As these things tend to go, the thrust of Devil Survivor 2 is to save the world (or Japan, at least) from an outbreak of demonic invaders.  Over the course of about a week, things just keep getting worse and worse, and the survivors’ options just keep getting more desperate and more extreme.  But even though the thrust of the story is “saving the world”, the TRUE conflict of the game is “how do you rebuild the world?”  It’s the undercurrent that defines the characters, their choices, and their crumbling world in ways that a standard clash with creepy crawlies would never allow.  And it’s what makes the game (and the people in it, resident badass dragon-stomper Makoto Sako chief among them) that much more memorable.

Pacific Rim works on a similar basis.  It’s not necessarily about “rebuilding the world”, per se, since it puts remarkable focus on beating those monsters.  I would say that the undercurrent for the movie is “what’s the best way to save the world?”

Let me back up a bit and explain the plot.  See, in the not-too-distant (alternate) future, kaiju started crossing over from another dimension, and conventional weaponry proved ineffective.   Killing just one took everything the army had…and that was just the first of many to come.  So in order to combat them, governments across the world set aside their differences and started developing the Jaegers -- the quintessential giant robots primed to do battle with the kaiju and take ‘em out.  Miraculously, they succeeded, and Jaegers (and the men and women that piloted them in two-man teams) became heroes and icons as well as defenders of the peace. 


Only problem?  More and more kaiju started coming, and faster.  And harder.  Try as they might, the Jaegers couldn’t keep up -- repairs and development couldn’t keep pace, and plenty of fighters were KIA.  That’s more or less the lead-in to the present day, where mankind is on the ropes, the Jaeger program is all but kaput, the government’s best “strategy” is to build feeble walls, and the rate of kaiju emergence can be measured in days, not months.  A small, underfunded military force has rounded up a quartet of Jaegers to stage one final operation: to cut off the kaiju at the source, or otherwise face a total wipeout within a week’s time.  Given that the human race ain’t havin’ that, it’s a scramble to put together the pieces for a final offense -- and as you’d expect, they’ll only get “one shot at this.”  Because we can’t have it any other way, now can we?

Truth be told, the “one shot at this” trope actually works well here.  Because they only have one shot, they have to be absolutely certain they have all the tools, preparations, and of course players they need to survive.  The only problem is that the opinions on the best options differ wildly from one character to the next…to the point where you could get away with calling this Red Oni, Blue Oni: The Movie.  Raleigh is (to some extent, but an expected one all the same) the hot-blooded hero, the guy who’ll defy orders if it means saving ten people in the middle of a kaiju emergence!  He’ll butt heads with authority, make demands, and start fights!  But it’s that passion -- and skill, of course -- that makes him one of the best men for the job.


So of course, his partner ends up being the reserved researcher Mako (who’s pretty good with a bo staff, as it turns out).  She prefers to play things by the book!  Preparations must be made, and all the pieces have to be put in place!  Science!  Coming at me with a stick?  Then I’ll enter a defensive stance and make you look like a doof!  She’s a complement to Raleigh, just as he is to her…although to be fair, he borrows her coolness at several junctures just as she borrows his hotness. 

And in a lot of ways, you could argue that virtually everyone in this movie takes on hotness and coolness in order to get the job done.  There are two scientists on deck (or at least in full view of the camera on a regular basis), the hyperactive Newt and the tightly-wrapped Hermann; the former is obsessed with getting down and dirty with kaiju parts to study them -- in a non-sexual way -- while the latter relies on numbers and computations to try and predict the monsters’ next move.  Different approaches?  Of course.  Different personalities?  No doubt.  Coming together and using their strengths to save the day in a way one of them alone never could?  You bet your bippy.


It’s worth noting, though, that (as is the standard, I assume) Idris Elba OWNS this movie, with his performance and beyond.  As Marshall Stacker Pentecost, he’s in command of the anti-Kaiju/pro-Jaeger defense force, and has to bear all the responsibilities therein.  At a base level and at the outset, he is the rigid, calculating, for-the-greater-good-and-you’re-out-of-line-soldier type of leader.  At the start of the movie, Raleigh wanted to save a boat with a whopping ten people, with the intent of abandoning his post in the process; Stacker wanted him to follow orders so he could protect a million people.  Raleigh wants Mako as his partner to pilot his Jaeger because they’re apparently compatible after mutual rounds of ass-kicking; Stacker wants someone who actually knows how to use a Jaeger in the pilot suit, and someone who’ll follow his orders by extension (something he’d get from Mako, but he has to pretty much armbar Raleigh into compliance).Raleigh is the boots-on-the-ground sort who’s more than all right with punching out giant monsters; Stacker has to command an entire base, scrape up resources however he can, deal with penny-pinching bigwigs, corral his comrades into something vaguely organized, and ensure the success of Operation Bomb the Giant Monsters’ Front Door.  So yeah, I don’t blame him for being testy.

The appeal of this movie comes not just from the fights, but from the interplay of differing (but charismatic nonetheless) characters.  No one is being played as a scapegoat, or a stooge for people to laugh at when the movie proves him so gloriously wrong.  When points are brought up and ideas are made evident, it’s a very fair treatment.  What do you do when that hotness helps you win the fight, but lose the war -- and what do you do when reckless actions have destructive consequences?  What do you do when that coldness keeps you from taking action -- and what do you do when your plans fail, and sacrifices have to be made to compensate? 


The movie and its characters manage to come to a satisfying conclusion, but for the most part the implication is that there is no one way to save the world.  The only time when one option is forgone instead of another is when the team discovers that certain plans won’t work.  Given the whole duality/teamwork element well-worn throughout, I’d say that it’s not necessarily about characters being hot or cold; it’s about them being hot AND cold, and just using the proper approach at the proper time.  And before you ask, yes, Stacker gets in on this too -- and depending on your interpretation, it’s arguable that he’s not only justified, but downright essential.

Now, I’ll be fair.  There’s a very strong possibility that I’m reading much too far into the movie -- and even if I’m not, I’ll admit that there are some flaws throughout Pacific Rim.  I can see some of the thematic elements the movie was going for, but some of them get lost or muddled along the way.  The idea is that there’s no one way to save the world, but the movie’s tone and internal logic gives the advantage to the hottest action available; the manlier, cooler-looking option will edge out the smarter option, though there will be some debate on it.  That aside, for all the emphasis on duality and the two-man piloting teams that make the Jaegers usable in the first place, there’s not as much mutual effort as I would have hoped for; Raleigh and Mako can’t pilot their beloved Gipsy Danger unless they work together, but I can’t shake the feeling that Mako can’t pilot alone because she needs Raleigh’s support and strength, whereas Raleigh can’t pilot alone because that’s just how the Jaegers work. 


There are other issues, of course.  Every Jaeger besides Gipsy Danger is only around to get destroyed spectacularly in combat -- and by extension, two out of the four Jaeger teams (i.e. those that likely aren’t native English speakers) don’t feel like characters, but more like sacrificial lambs to show that it’s hit the fan.  For some reason the camera is in love with showing off a pilot’s dog -- and I’ve yet to figure out exactly why.   The timeline for Jaeger construction confuses me; apparently the earlier ones popped up in 2015, but unless this is some sort of alternate universe take on history, it’s more than a little surprising that two years from now we’ll have the facilities to create our own mind-linking mechs. Raleigh is interesting enough, but unfortunately he’s surrounded by even more interesting characters.  And the biggest fault is that, while I appreciate it when a story takes time to slow down the action and offer some setup, everything from the first fight to the next is curiously lengthy.  I’d argue that it’s a pacing issue, but it doesn’t hurt the final product too badly.  Then again, that’s a matter of preference; I enjoyed it, but for those expecting wall-to-wall action, they might be more than a little disappointed.  Angry, even.

With all that in mind, I can say with some confidence that even if there are flaws and issues (and there are, even beyond what I’ve called out), none of them are too debilitating in the context of the movie.  It’s competent, well-executed, and rewarding no matter how deep you decide to dive in.  Those looking for a bit of insight into the world of giant monster battles hardly have to do any legwork for a bit of intellectual stimulation.  This is no Transformers, let me tell you.

And I mean that in more ways than one.


If you’ve been following this blog for long (and I thank you/apologize to you for that), then you may have caught wind of me mentioning the “impact factor” at certain points here and there.  If you’re looking for an abridged version, here’s the gist of it: vibration, delay, anticipation, and echoVibration begets audiovisual confirmation of weight and power.  Delay begets pauses in the action so we can understand the weight of the motion -- and that, in turn, begets anticipation; whether it’s winding up for the final blow or beginning its death-dealing motion, it’s anticipation that helps seal the effect in your mind. And there’s the echo -- the sound effects that reinforce and fully define the impact of a motion.  Ergo, impact factor. 

You’re gonna be feeling that impact factor constantly throughout the movie.  Constantly.  Whether it’s the kaiju or the Jaegers, the visuals and sound design will utterly overwhelm you into believing that these things are completely wrecking each other, their arenas, and your eardrums.  Their size is fully-represented thanks to some camera work, perspective, and scale comparisons.  The environment will be used to their full extent -- either to showcase the destruction on display, or to be used as impromptu weapons.  They even manage to throw in a visual gag or two.  Simply put, this movie goes well beyond “show, don’t tell”; this is more like “show, then show EVEN HARDER!  HRRRAUGH!” 


And the fights themselves?  Well, I don’t know how others might react to the proceedings, but I remember a common phrase going through my head was, “Did that thing just…?!”  And yes, that thing DID just do it.  Some of the moves on display here may not reach the absurdity of G Gundam, but they get pretty damn close.  Punching is the order of the day, but get ready for some of the most surprising moves, weapons, and tactics you’ve ever seen -- up to and including a couple of attacks that’d make Mayor Mike Haggar proud.  And in true anime fashion, Raleigh and the gang even manage to name some of their attacks -- and shout them out accordingly.  If there’s one issue that I have with the fights, it’s that for some reason they’re really poorly lit at times, and some of the action gets lost in the darkness.  Then again, the fact that there’s actually a color palette to speak of easily helps soften the blow.

Okay, so Pacific Rim delivers on the story, and it delivers on the action.  So it’s got some level of intelligence behind it, and it has some thrills alongside it.  Is that enough to recommend the movie?  For a lot of people, yes.  But there’s one element that just might seal the deal: for a movie so eager to show off giant monsters and giant robots, there’s an undeniable -- and massive -- amount of humanity in this movie.  Humanity, and that age-old artifact called heroism.  You might have heard of it in an encyclopedia or something.


Raleigh is essentially called to action using the argument “die like a man while doing what’s right.”  Mako puts on airs of being meek and obedient at first, but she’ll quickly show that there’s more to her than just being a follower in the shadows (and of course she gets her fair share of badass moments).   Every character with a modicum of screentime gets to show off their hidden reserve of strength, or courage, or resilience, or nobility, be they hot or cold -- and they do so while being hot OR cold, even if hot is the go-to answer.  And I kid you not, this is an actual line in the movie when it comes to trying tos stop a kaiju: “We can either sit here and do nothing or grab those flare guns and do something really stupid.”  MANLY AND COOL.

But even if it is MANLY AND COOL -- even if there’s spectacle to be derived from these men and women sticking their necks out to push back against the immense invaders -- all that coolness and passion doesn’t mean a thing if there’s no element of humanity.  But there is.  There is, and there’s plenty of it.  You get to see the people lose more and more hope, day after day, as the kaiju bust through every feeble defense they can create.  And then, you see the drive and focus of hundreds of people as they toil to keep the Jaegers in top form.  You get to see people cowering in fear of the kaiju menace, and the damage they do on a personal level…but in tandem -- almost in the same sequence at one point -- you get to see the beacon of hope offered by a smiling pilot.  You get to understand the grief and despair of the people as they scramble and hole themselves away (and indeed, they have a stronger presence here than in Man of Steel and its multi-trillion-dollar destruction carnival).  And most of all -- most important of all -- you get to see some real triumph.  Victories small and large.  And you know it because you’ve been through it all.  The highs and lows, the shocking swerves, the arms race between two powers that can never, ever reconcile.  You know it.  You feel it.  And when the credits roll, you believe it.


This is more than just a movie about giant robots.  It’s a movie that’ll show you what it means to stand up and fight.

So.  Bottom line time.  Is it a good movie?  Yes, I think so.  Better than The Avengers?  Ehhhh…maybe a tiny bit better, maybe a tiny bit worse.  They’re in the same bracket, at least.  Is it worth your time?  Definitely -- if not for the chance to revel in/scoff at the proceedings, then at least to teach Hollywood that an original idea with heart and charm FAR outstrips a dreary, half-assed cash grab.  Will it blow your mind?  That’s debatable, but frankly I doubt it; it’s a great movie, no question, but this is no Second Coming.  It WILL put a smile on your face, and make you feel no shortage of childish glee, but on a lot of levels it is just a stupid action movie.

But it’s a stupid action movie done right.  And to that end, I’m putting it right around HERE on my SmartChart™:




And there you have it, folks.  I’ve done my part.  Now you go do yours.  It ain’t G Gundam, but it’s the best mecha movie I could have possibly asked for.

...

...All right, one more G Gundam clip for the road.  Master Asia, play me out!



6 comments:

  1. You know, I give them Kudos for trying an 'American Gundam Movie' but only so much... Mainly because Transformers exists. But I digress. It's funny that you mention G-Gundam because I have the same appreciation for that terrible incarnation of Gundam. It really was distilled robot fighting awesomeness to a degree of tongue in cheek that would make Bruce Campbell blush.

    So I'll give you that. G-Gundam is fun, but on tone, I think it would be more fair to compare this to a more serious Giant Robo show. At a glance this looks more 'Robotech' than Gundam. There are several out there, so I'll give you a shortcut. Look up Tech Romancer by Capcom. While it is the same degree of ridiculous as G-Gundam it represents every major Giant Robo anime type. It exists as a distilled satire of the genre and then allows you to investigate the specific spoofs further if you desire.

    Also on an unrelated note: Finally got around to watching Evil Dead (2013) and I highly recommend it.

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  2. Tech Romancer, huh? I've heard the name before, but I've never gone out of my way to look up the actual game for myself. Curse my non-infinite, non-encyclopedic knowledge of video games! It wouldn't be the first time it's nearly led to my downfall...



    Also, I'll have to take a look at Evil Dead one of these days...and by Evil Dead I mean the original movie. Confession time: there are a LOT of classic, taken-for-granted, everybody's-seen-it movies that I just haven't ever seen. (I didn't see any of the Back to the Future movies in full until a couple of years ago, for example -- and now that I think about it, that was probably the first time I'd even seen the original movie, period.) Soooooooooooooo...yeah, I'm thinking that there are a lot of movies I need to catch up on so I'm slightly less of a cultural embarrassment.


    Or I could just play more video games. That's always an option.

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  3. I really really love this movie. The inspiration is obvious, but I think it's important to keep grounded that Guillermo Del Toro is building a mecha vs. monster movie, not an American version of _____

    What makes this movie special is that is its humanity. There was a lot of criticism about the 2 pilot mechanic, the large cockpits and generally how it all worked. But IMHO those were the things that made Pacific Rim work so well, on an emotional level.

    Watching a Jaeger pilot get ripped out of the cockpit is absolutely heart wrenching. It's not some faceless robot beating up a non-descript monster followed by explosions. The amount of fireballs is actually quite minimal for a disaster movie, and the body count surprisingly low.

    A lot of reviews from 'top critics' simply frame this as a 'fun' run of the mill summer blockbuster. I don't think they realize that this isn't stock Hollywood fare, and it's respect for the source material and humanity, despite the archetypal tropes uses, makes it far more interesting than your Ironman or Superman.

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  4. "The inspiration is obvious, but I think it's important to keep grounded that Guillermo Del Toro is building a mecha vs. monster movie, not an American version of _____"


    True enough. Comparisons can be drawn, no question, but what we've got here is a movie that exists on its own merits. It's not a cheap imitation of something that's already out there; it's a movie that not only tries to stand on its own, but brings plenty of thoughtfulness and heart to the table.


    Too bad it still lost to Grown Ups 2. Financially, at least; it's the clear winner in plenty of other ways.


    In any case, as it stands Pacific Rim is the best movie I've seen all year (and the way things are looking, that's going to stay true for a while yet). I'm in total agreement with you on a lot of points; there are archetypes being used here, but the movie goes to great lengths to at least TRY to make them more than five-word descriptions. Losing someone in this movie actually means something...though now that you mention it, the movie DID have a pretty low body count. On-screen, at least; no telling how many people died during other kaiju attacks. But I suppose the good guys did their jobs well enough this time around.


    Well, whatever. I enjoyed the movie, and it's good to hear you did too. Here's hoping that there'll be more like it to come in the future.

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  5. Waiting on the Japanese numbers :)

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  6. Oh, right. That just might be a saving grace. And I think there was some mention of the Chinese movie market as well? Maybe that'd help out, too.

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