Guillermo del Toro Archive

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The (potential) Fatalism of Pacific Rim

For a moment, let’s take Pacific Rim a little more seriously than we might otherwise be inclined to do. Put aside the plot holes – like Gipsy Danger being analog – and the burgeoning buddy comedy between Burn Gorman and Charlie Day. Imagine Pacific Rim as directed by Christopher Nolan or Ridley Scott. It’s a self-serious and dark movie akin to War of the Worlds, witnessing humanity is on the eve of being conquered by vastly superior alien intelligence. Okay, are we all on the same page? Good.

As an XCOM / X-Com veteran, there’s a specific scene in Pacific Rim’s first act that resonates with me. After Gipsy Danger’s defeat in Alaska, the movie skips ahead to the PPDC pulling the Jaeger program’s funding. The assembled heads of state inform Marshall Pentecost that they are pouring all their remaining resources into the coastal wall program as a last line of defence against the Kaiju. This plot point does a few things in terms of setting up the rest of the narrative.

Shutting down the Jaeger program introduces third act stakes into Pacific Rim’s first act. It also taps into the audience’s potential distrust of authority figures as a means of building sympathy for Marshall Pentecost and his rangers. When a Kaiju smashes through Australia’s coastal wall, Pentecost’s role as the only person who can save humanity is all but carved into stone tablets. None of these points, I expect, offer any new insights into Pacific Rim’s story. Yet re-watching the movie, and witnessing the Jaegers get shuttered got me thinking about a potentially overlooked narrative subtext in Pacific Rim; albeit an interpretation dependent upon appreciating the work as a slightly darker piece of fiction.

Suppose for a moment that the decision to abandon the Jaeger program and build a wall around the Pacific Ocean was more than a gimmick designed to reinforce the hands-on expertise of the movie’s protagonists. What if it was a way of setting a bleaker tone within a pop corn movie. Imagine if you will the coastal wall as a massive make-work project in the face of a slow-burn apocalypse. Despite early successes, we know that the Kaiju’s attacks against the PPDC nations overwhelmed their ability to resist. One would expect that the intelligence gathering mechanisms of the PPDC”s members could count the days until a Kaiju would emerge into a world bereft of Jaegers. Assuming these same governments accept that truth, what do they tell their people? Pucker up and kiss your collective asses goodbye? Of course not.

Why not embark on the largest distraction/infrastructure project ever?

Anybody who knows anything about military strategy knows that there’s no such thing as an impenetrable wall. Eventually, somebody will find a way to knock it down. Alternatively, the alien powers behind the Kaiju invasion would have loosed more flying Kaiju upon a walled up ocean. Likewise, I have to assume that some intelligence officer would have entertained a flying Kaiju as something of a fatal flaw in the costal wall system – we’re talking an oversight far greater than the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star. Keeping that in mind, what other reason would there be for investing in a a massive sea wall other than to give the people of the PPDC nations something to do which would maintain the illusion of a normal life amid their pending demise.

Once again, I will admit this line of thought might be dependent upon reading too much into Guillermo del Toro’s movie. Yet if it is even slightly appropriate, it adds a significant layer of fatalism to the story. All the more so when we consider Raleigh Beckett’s decision to work on the wall after the death of his brother. As a former ranger, defeated at the hands of a Kaiju, he has firsthand knowledge of a Kaiju’s capacity for destruction. His decision to work the wall becomes the hero surrendering to the inevitable.

Approached this way, Raleigh’s return to active duty is not a heroic arc, but a Kamakaze run from a man who, like the governments of the world, has given up hoping that humanity can defeat the Kaiju. As an added bonus, looking at Pacific Rim in this way lends more credence to the idea that Mako Mori is the story’s lone protagonist. Raleigh needs to be prodded back into action by Marshall Pentecost. While he builds the wall, she rebuilds Gipsy Danger and trains to become its pilot, all this in the wake of the Jaeger program’s shutdown. Perhaps it’s not too much of a stretch to look at the wall as the ultimate symbol of humanity’s surrender to the Kaiju.


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Movie Review: Pacific Rim

Giant robots. An army of Kaiju. GLaDOS. 3D that doesn’t feel like a cheap tack-on to justify jacking up the price of admission. Well I think that about covers things. Review over. Thanks for coming out, everyone.

Seriously though, I expect that the coming year will see a lot of Mass Effect cosplayers rapidly modding their N7 combat armour into Jaeger neural interface suits. Mark my words; if there is a cosplay stock market, buy Pacific Rim.

The proposition of taking the tropes of Japanese monster movies and making them work for a Hollywood audience is simultaneously a simple and impossible task. Kaiju movies need to be focused on action, presenting a spectacle that appeals to the inner child who still thinks professional wrestling is as unscripted as a brawl in ancient Rome’s Coliseum. Yet that action has to be underwritten by science, specifically environmental science, to the extent that the Kaiju is a manifestation of humanity’s arrogance and hubris. It needs to be awesome enough to fire up the audience, but smart enough to have a moral message. And that is exactly what Guillermo del Toro has given us in Pacific Rim. It strikes the perfect balance between the works of J.J. Abrams, Roland Emmerich, and Ishiro Honda, all through del Toro’s own wholly unique visual style.

I won’t focus too much on plot summary because, really, monsters versus robots. Do I need to draw you a picture? The Kaiju invade through a space-time rift in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Unable to effectively fight the Kaiju with conventional weapons, the nations of the world commission the Pan Pacific Defence Corps and their army of Jaegers, combat robots driven by two human pilots. Fast forward to the first act and the scope and frequency of Kaiju attacks has risen to a point that the PPDC is deemed ineffective by the nations of the world. After a scene that injects a little X-Com/XCOM appropriation into the milieu, the PPDC’s operations are shuttered in lieu of building a big wall around the Pacific. When the wall fails, the marginalized PPDC and their four remaining Jaegers become the last hope for the world.

There’s an obvious intelligence to Pacific Rim’s casting. The international PPDC team looks and sounds appropriate for a movie set in and about the Pacific Ocean. Idris Elba heads the PPDC as the taciturn Field Marshall Pentecost, who is a clear nod to the characters of Gendo Ikari, Captain Juzo Okita, and every other strong silent leader from anime history. Charley Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi co-pilot Gypsy Danger, the Jaeger seen in all of the movie’s promotional material. Other Jaeger teams, red shirts though they be, represent China, Russia, and Australia. Torchwood alum Burn Gorman and Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame round out the cast as the PPDC’s Odd Couple science division.

Given Hollywood’s recent and flagrant tendency toward whitewashing, I can only imagine how awful this cast could have been. Instead, we hear both Japanese and English spoken aloud throughout the movie. Kikuchi’s character is no tittering bashful schoolgirl cliché, waiting to be taken into sexual maturity by a brash American lead. Like all the other characters, she’s as damaged by the Kaiju War as anybody else. From that pain, Kikuchi’s character finds the strength to be Hunnam’s equal partner in piloting Gypsy Danger.

You hear that, Hollywood? You don’t have to sexualize the shit out of a female Asian actor/character in a lead role for the audience to take her seriously. You can even leave the romance between the two leads unspoken and mostly in the background, and we will still feel the connection with as much impact, possibly more, than if you cram in a PG-13 sex scene.

It goes without saying that a Guillermo del Toro picture is going to have a certain artistry to it. Even though Pan’s Labyrinth was weak in terms of storytelling, it had the benefit of looking unlike like anything at the time. Similarly, Pacific Rim is so heavily invested in presenting a vision of digital art fused with physical sets that it also looks like nothing else I’ve seen of late. Eat your fucking heart out, George Lucas and Michael Bay.

The only thing that even comes marginally close to matching Pacific Rim’s visuals is Battleship. Though a Jaeger using a tanker as a club against a Kaiju sort of closes the book on any meaningful comparisons there.

Most impressive is the fact that Pacific Rim marks the first occasion I haven’t walked out of a 3D movie grumbling about how I would rather watch movies in 2D. Even with 3D technology most other movies do little to move outside the paradigm of fake depth on a flat screen. They use all the old camera tricks of perspective, line, and character blocking to craft an illusion. Employing swift pans and camera motion through scenes, Pacific Rim’s 3D creates an experience where the audience is not observing from across the room, but situated in the center of the action. It’s not the holodeck, mind you, but it’s enough to see how the movie’s cinematography has evolved past the standard playbook to incorporate an additional dimension into the principal photography. Kudos to Guillermo del Toro and his director of photography, Guillermo Navarro.

My only issue with the movie is that of runtime. While the second and third act were both well paced and effective, I could make a case for the first being a bit bloated. Personally, I don’t care. From a critical point of view, I don’t think many people would complain if ten more minutes of Pacific Rim were left on the cutting room floor.

Perhaps the most important thing I have to say about Pacific Rim is that when the script said something to evoke a headscratch, the atmosphere and narrative proved compelling enough to make me not care about the answer. Unlike a certain other film from this summer, Pacific Rim kept me immersed in its story from start to finish. Even in a post-mortem analysis, I haven’t found any flaws in the story that are serious enough to break the movie. Perhaps this is because Pacific Rim isn’t trying to be Transformers; wherein the movie wants to be all things to all people. It’s content to be an over the top piece of robot vs monster battle porn, which skilfully appropriates from 50 years of Japanese and American pop culture to emerge as something unique.

So let’s go back to my first point on this review as a way of summing up. Kaiju. Jaegers. Sophisticated uses of 3D. Cohesive plot. Need I say more? I do? Okay. Ron Pearlman.

Pacific Rim

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Written by Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro

Starring Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi, Charlie Day, Burn Gorman, and Ron Pearlman.