Pacific Rim Archive

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On the Importance of Escapism

A foreword for readers: this piece is going to be a little more personal than my usual fare. In fact, I think the words below might border on the realm of cheap therapy. Frankly, my dears, I don’t give a fuck.

You have been warned.

Ernest Hemmingway once said happiness is a rare trait among intelligent people. I don’t think my intelligence, per se, has made me an unhappy person. Intelligence, particularly in my childhood, has served to isolate me from a great many people, but people are monsters so no loss there. Intelligence does let me see the world in a slightly different, and often saddening, way. Most relevant to this piece, intelligence gives me an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

This desire to learn has generally served me well. It helps me in almost every aspect of my life, up to and including my professional life. On that note and through either the grace of the gods or the chaos of the universe, I have a job with a work environment very reminiscent of my university days. University was a profoundly happy time for me – possibly the happiest were it not for the fact I was paying to be there. Now, however, I get paid do research, write things, and give presentations. Not a bad deal.

The physical location of the job, however, tends to weigh upon my soul. When I began my job, it was located in downtown St. Catharines. Like most downtown cores, downtown St. Catharines is an odd mix of affluence and poverty. For every salaryman or government bureaucrat dropping $20 on an over-priced farmer’s market lunch, there’s a homeless person digging through rubbish bins. Walking to the one and only deli worth eating at in St. Catharines required passing by a methadone clinic. A person can find brew pubs within spitting distance of pawn shops and “cash for gold” operations.

Last year our office moved from the downtown core to a much more poverty stricken neighbourhood. I’m now within walking distance – not that I ever walk anywhere from my office now – of short-term lending operations, an abandoned bingo hall, and the lowest of low-rent, government-supported housing.

Oh, and I forgot to mention my job involves researching local labour market statistics. This means when people talk about the problems in the local economy, I probably know more than they do about it. I can tell you how many people are working in retail sales and tourism and hospitality in the Niagara region. I can tell you how many people are making less than $14/hour – the figure generally batted about as the living wage. I can tell you what rental prices are like for apartments in Niagara, and then show you the shortfall between median annual wage and cost of living in Niagara – apparent quality of life in the region be damned.

Every day I live with the numbers. Every day I see the face of urban poverty. Every day I have to laugh at the absurdity of it all. Because if I don’t laugh, if I don’t find a way to wrap all the things I’m powerless to change in sarcasm and snark, then I might start really feeling the emotional weight of my knowledge.

Adam, you’re being a little melodramatic.

No, I’m being honest, something we’re only supposed to be within a specific set of circumstances. We’re supposed to blame people for their lot in life. Nothing happens without a reason. The language of bootstraps and self-reliance offers those of us not on the shit-end of the stick a convenient set of psychological and rhetorical tools for distancing ourselves from the privilege of birth and the vicissitudes of fate.

So when a person approaches me as I’m walking from my car to my office and says, “I’m handicap, can I have money for a coffee and a donut?” Am I supposed to have the dark heart to tell them that it’s their fault they are cold and hungry? Should I disregard what stands before me and embrace cynicism to the extent I write the person off as a fraud or a drunk or both? I’ll usually say, “I’m sorry,” and keep walking. Because I am sorry, despite the fact they can’t eat my apologies.

Once I’m at my desk I’ll make a joke about Niagara turning into Detroit and dig into the day’s emails and projects. Doing so is my only armour. What was Edward Blake’s line in Watchmen…once you realize what joke everything is, being the comedian is the only thing that makes sense.

This is the world we live in, Adam, nothing you can do about it, no point complaining about it.

Probably true. And at the end of the day, I’m the guy going home to a loving fiancée, an aloof cat, a nice apartment, all the “privilege” of being a white, het, cis, educated, male, and all the other things that set the difficulty for my life on the easiest level.

Then shut up about your life already, Adam, and get back to reviewing things. People come here to know what games and books they should spend their disposable income on, not to hear you pontificate about your bullshit, you self-pitying jackhole.

Fine. I will. Here’s the point of this temporary foray into feeling human feelings: in so much as our world produces a lot of shitty cultural artefacts, some of them serve the important purpose of giving us a temporary escape from the oppressive weight of willful knowledge and experience.

In so much as I like to bust on Star Trek for over-arching delivered with the efficacy of an undergraduate’s research paper – i.e. what’s said on in writing often falls well short of the intended message – Star Trek can give us a brief cognitive escape and hope for something conceptually, if not functionally, better.

I might be able to walk a Mk. III Jaeger through the plot holes of Pacific Rim, but for those two hours I’m presented with the possibility of humanity getting its collective shit together to do something bigger than any of us can imagine.

A jaunt through The Temple of Elemental Evil or Baldur’s Gate affords 30-60 hours of soul-warming heroics – or cathartic evil, depending on what a person needs.

Escapism is nothing new. Modern, city-dwelling civilizations go hand-in-hand with alienation and ennui. Though the form and medium of these escapes has changed from the early phantasmagoria shows of the 19th century, to the pulp adventures of Buck Rogers, to cock-cannons of Saints Row, these escapes are a pressure valve for those of us who see but are powerless to change. To dismiss them as frivolities in the face of grander works is akin to telling a person they  don’t deserve any safe haven from the creeping sands of the desert of the Real.

This isn’t to say every piece of shit is escapism, mind you, but such is an essay for a different day.

I know return you to your tonally appropriate Page of Reviews content.


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Some Thoughts on Spiritual Successors

For the last few weeks I’ve been playing Xenonauts, Goldhawk Interactive’s spiritual successor to X-Com: UFO Defence. Rather than gum up my review of said game with a discourse on the ontology and taxonomy of video games, I thought I’d use today’s post to talk about spiritual successors.

Let’s begin with a suitable definition of the term spiritual successor. Here’s what TV Tropes has to say on the subject.

A Spiritual Successor is a type of sequel that is not part of the same world or story as its predecessor, but is nonetheless considered to be a successor because it’s made by the same creators; shares common themes, styles, or elements; or, most likely, both. In other words, it’s a sequel “in spirit”.

In tackling the first part of the definition, it’s common enough to see game designers iterating on old projects for new studios/publishers. A perfect example of this phenomenon is Shipbreakers, an upcoming RTS from Blackbird Interactive. BBI is billing Shipbreakers as a spiritual successor to Homeworld, despite the fact that Gearbox now owns the rights to the original game. Shipbreakers qualifies as a spiritual successor because of its aesthetic and the fact that a number of Blackbird Interactive’s team worked on Homeworld back in the 90s.

Taking the Shipbreakers approach is probably the easiest way to sell a spiritual successor. The fact that Shipbreakers is going to be set on a planet, rather than deep space, means that the game won’t be a clone of Homeworld. We are, however, likely to see markers of Homeworld’s DNA at work within Shipbreakers e.g. real time switching from a battlescape to a tactical map, or the high-fidelity voice acting that’s meant to sound like it is coming through a cheap radio headset. The game might even be set on Kharak, assuming Blackbird can sneak that one past Gearbox.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the spiritual successor that presses the hottest button in all of gaming: the streamline button. With streamlining often, but not always, acting as a euphemism for taking a smart thing and making it accessible to a dribbling idiot, the streamlined spiritual successor is well positioned to piss off the loyal fanbase. I’m sure there are still System Shock II fans holding a grudge against Ken Levine for his perceived Cleveland Steamer on their childhood via BioShock.

Sitting between these two opposites is the most nebulous of the spiritual successors: the non-iterative homage piece. Demon Souls versus Dark Souls. X-Com: UFO Defence versus Xenonauts. Bayonetta versus Devil May Cry. Baldur’s Gate versus Dragon Age. From where I sit, this type of spiritual successor invites some very hard conversations on originality, fan service, and game design. I use the following as my first litmus test: does the spiritual successor stand on its own, or does stand on the shoulders of giants?

While I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a homage piece – see my review of Pacific Rim – I still think it is incumbent upon the spiritual successor to prove that it is engaged in a business beyond excelling at the sincerest form of flattery.

Regardless of the form that the spiritual successor takes, I think their very existence is also a reflection of us, the audience. Though I’ve focused on video games in this post, the spiritual successor, in any medium, is a product of a collective inability to let go. We cling to the things that we loved because new things are often terrible and derivative, looking at you Doom 3. We raise a classic on a pedestal and shout, “more like this.” What we get never seems to live up to expectations e.g. X-Com versus XCOM (I don’t agree with that notion, but I know it’s a popular one.) Of course, the audience is less to blame than the studios and publishers who take our “more like this” message and translate it into “more like that thing they like, but make sure we can sell it to everybody.” Be that as it may, our part of the conversation could benefit from citing the things we loved as benchmarks to be surpassed.

Why can’t we have a game that is better than X-Com: UFO Defense or Alpha Centuri? Go ahead, developers of the world; if you build it, I will buy it (or attempt to weasel a review copy). Putting it another way, Citizen Kane might be brilliant, but that doesn’t mean directors and writers stopped innovating after its release. In terms of spiritual successors, my hope is that these are a creative oasis. We can stop and drink deep of the refreshing waters that remind us of home. But let us then make the longer, harder journey to bigger things.


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Podcast Episode 31: Hits and Misses of 2013 with Sam Maggs

Remember when I said that Friday’s post would be the last of 2013? I lied.

I thought to myself, why wait until 2014 to end a rather lengthy and unexpected podcast hiatus? And fortunately for me, the sublime Sam Maggs agreed to join me for an hour long chat about the best and worst of 2013.

This podcast is also the first ever sponsored episode of the Page of Reviews Podcast. Since production of the Wing Commander Riff Cast is running a little long, not too long mind you (but I was a fool to think I could get work done on a creative project in December) I decided to use today’s podcast as an opportunity to start making good on the rewards to my backers. On that note:

The Page of Reviews is proud to announce that Matt Moore, author of the new short story collection Touch the Sky, Embrace the Dark, is the official sponsor of this episode of the podcast. Touch the Sky, Embrace the Dark is available as an e-book through the following venues.

- Amazon: US Canada UK

Kobo

- Barnes & Noble (Nook)

- Sony eReader

- Apple iBookstore

- Google Play Books

- Smashwords

Onward and upward. Here are the topics under discussion for today’s podcast.

- High water marks in gaming for 2013

- The importance of narrative in gaming, up to and including GTA V

- Sam and Adam agree on movies of the year, but nearly get into a fight over the Stargate franchise

Gravity, Pacific Rim, and The Hunger Games trilogy, because why not?

- Mutual disdain for Man of Steel and Star Trek into Derpness

Orphan Black, Doctor Who, Under the Dome, and Hello Ladies.

- Praise for Sam’s web show “The C_ntrollers”

Check out all of Sam’s work on her website. And once you’re done listening to the podcast, why not take in an episode of her show.


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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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Podcast Episode 29: The Kaiju-sized Military SF Episode

Featuring the voices of Adam Shaftoe and K.W. Ramsey

It took a couple weeks of planning and schedule jockeying, but K.W. Ramsey and I were finally able to sit down to record an extended length podcast on military science fiction.

What could be finer than two white guys talking about the quintessential post-colonial white guy sub-genre? Am I right?

Seriously though, we begin the discussion by drawing upon Damien Walter’s Guardian piece on overly simplistic military science fiction. From there we jump back and forth between military SF on film and in literature. As with most ninety minute discussions, nothing gets resolved, but I think we come up with a few decent ideas on how military SF can evolve to reflect a slightly less antiquated world view.

Make sure to check out Mr. Ramsey’s blog at The Left Hand of Dorkness and follow him on twitter @kwramsey

Topics under discussion include,

- The ideology of the Federation and Starfleet’s role therein; also that time David Nickle trolled us on facebook about Cumberbatch’s character in STiD

- David Weber’s love affair with the 19th century and why military SF at large needs to get past the British Empire

- John Scalzi as the wild card of military SF – also included there is the story of the first time I met Scalzi and went from zero to fanboy in eight seconds.

- Mr. Ramsey’s very compelling theory on why I think Ender’s Game is a crap novel

- A discussion on how to responsibly consume art when the artist is a horrible person

- Robert Heinlein, kooky but honest

- How Pacific Rim does military SF in a slightly different sort of way

- Class and education as factors in crafting protagonists in military SF

Cold Intro Music: The Lady of Vastness by Dan-O at DanoSongs.com

Theme music: Bionic Commando stage 4 (Dale vs Wray mix) (NecroPolo) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0


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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.