The following is an entirely off-the-cuff “review” of a movie I did not intend to see. It is not meant to be all-encompassing or a work of deep critical insight, just a place to put some scattered thoughts about a work of “art” that annoyed me SO MUCH.
I saw Pacific Rim on Friday, and for crying out loud, you guys, it was terrible.
There was this brief moment at the beginning: It’s two o’clock in the morning, and there’s a monster attack — the premise of the movie is that there are giant monsters that come through an interdimensional rift in the bottom of the ocean, and humanity builds giant robotic suits of armor to fight them; the main character is one of the giant-robot pilots — there’s a monster attack, and it’s time for the Main Character and his brother (they are partners, because you need more than one person to pilot the robots) to get into their robot and fight it. And the brother is all like, “Awright, bro! It’s time to go MESS THIS MONSTER UP.” And the Main Guy is like, “LET’S DO THIS.” And then they talk over their communicator to their buddy who sits at a computer at headquarters and monitors things, and they’re like, “HOW’D YOUR DATE GO WITH LEEEEEEEESA?” And Monitor Guy shoots back, “She liked me. BUT HER BOYFRIEND DIDN’T.” HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, MUCH LAUGHTER. You sly devils.
Anyway, for this brief moment, I thought: What if right now, just before these bros could get into their giant robot, the monster struck, and it ate every single one of them? And it turned out the whole film was actually about an entirely different set of characters? That would have: (1) been hilarious and (2) blown my expectations out of the water.
That did not happen. In fact, it would be accurate to say that Pacific Rim did not just not blow my expectations out of the water, but entirely contained them, in a small child’s wading pool, and actually nudged them into a more conventional shape. Every opportunity that Pacific Rim had to do something interesting or subversive or just mildly creative, from a story perspective, it took a pass on. Had they paused the movie every five minutes or so, and given everyone in the audience a pen and paper to write down what we thought would happen next, I think the only thing that would have interfered with our predictions was the thought that No, they would never do that, because that’s been done literally dozens of times before.
Here are some things about this movie:
- There is one woman in it. I mean, there are I think three other women who appear in the movie, but between those three, they get about five lines. I’m not like a big “political correctness” guy who thinks a story succeeds or fails based on how gender-equitable it is. But come on. The best part of it is that the Woman Character is a highly skilled hand-to-hand combatant; that is one of the three character traits she is assigned (everyone in the movie gets three traits, and that is their whole “character”). But then when A JERK says something mean to her, the Main Character fights THE JERK on her behalf, while she just stands there. At this point in movie history, it would have been a cliché for her to shoulder the Main Character out of the way and take THE JERK out herself. But Pacific Rim has to go hoarier and actually have the Main Guy do the punching for her.
- There is A JERK. He doesn’t like the Main Character, even though they are supposed to work together. THE JERK doesn’t have any good reason for it; he’s just A JERK, because there’s supposed to be A JERK who doesn’t like the hero in this kind of movie. Here’s a good review of Pacific Rim that quotes a line from another review: “I’m interested in movies where character drives story. Movies where story drives story don’t really interest me.” This whole movie is driven by story. There are no characters, just maximally lazy stereotypes.
- There’s a funny dog! You will forget about the dog until the end, and then the camera focuses on him and he woofs, and HAHAHAHAHA, CINEMA COMEDY GOLD. I have to give director Guillermo del Toro some credit here, he does make the artistically bold choice not to involve the dog in the fight against the monsters. But was that by choice? Or will the deleted scenes on the DVD feature it jumping onto a kaiju’s back (the monsters are called kaiju) to distract it so that one of the good guys can take it out?
- There are a pair of Wacky Scientists. One of them is a little crazy and sloppy, and no one takes him seriously, even though he is apparently THE ONLY PERSON ON EARTH seriously studying the kaiju, and I mean, he was brought in to help the whole operation. The other one is fussy and anal, and he IS OFTEN FRUSTRATED AND UNAMUSED by the sloppy scientist. BUT BY THE END, YOU GUYS, THEY ARE BUDDIES. WARMTH.
- There’s a scene where a minor character stands right in front of a supposedly dead monster’s monster-face bragging about how tough he is, but it turns out the monster is not quite dead, and it eats him. This is not a spoiler, because fifteen seconds into the scene, it is apparent, if you have ever seen a movie before — and I think you have — what is going to happen.
Annalee at io9 really liked this movie, and I’m not sure why. She says: “There is no undercurrent of American patriotism, the way you get in Transformers or Independence Day. It’s just humans against monsters. No nation or group can do it alone.” But that is only true in the most superficial way. Yes, there are a Chinese robot and a Russian robot — and literally from the moment they are introduced, it is clear that they exist solely to get destroyed by the kaiju, so that the REAL HEROES can save the day. The real heroes are the Main Character, THE JERK, and THE JERK’s dad — three blond white guys — and then Helpless Lady Character, who is Japanese, and Idris Elba, whose job is to be a commander no one listens to, and then to Die Bravely. Keep in mind that the Wacky Scientists and Monitor Guy are also white guys. So, yes, no group can do it alone, unless that group is Mostly White Men Who Are the Product of Western Culture (American, British, and Australian guys), with a little help from Asian Lady Who Knows Her Place (“Oh! So shy and nervous! Tee hee hee!”).
Above and beyond that, the whole thing about this movie is that every problem is solved with PUNCHING. (This is a criticism that braak and Holland at Threat Quality once made about a graphic novel, and it’s one that has stuck in my head, because if you pay attention, you might be shocked to discover just how many “creative” stories solve all problems with PUNCHING.) I think of Pacific Rim as an exemplar of what we might call the World War II Narrative: There are some bad guys and they are UNQUESTIONABLY BAD; there isn’t even any point in trying to negotiate, because they’re EVIL, just like Nazis. And then there are the good guys, who must put aside their entirely cosmetic differences and to join together and defeat the bad guys BY HITTING THEM OVER AND OVER, and eventually dropping a gigantic bomb on them.
The problem with this setup is that the paradigm has shifted. Regardless of what John McCain and Dick Cheney believe, this is no longer a world where bad guys are unquestionably bad or where we can solve problems by hitting things hard enough. If the kaiju are supposed to be a metaphor for climate change, as I’ve read in a few places, they are a shitty, terrible, useless metaphor. We need creative, imaginative solutions to the challenges facing planet Earth; we need a lot of thoughtfulness and empathy and self-examination. It’s not just that punching is a flimsy metaphor; it’s that we actively need less punching if we’re going to make it through the next century.
And Pacific Rim doesn’t provide any hint of that. It’s so by-the-numbers that I kept wondering if it were an incredibly subtle parody. But what would be the point of making a parody so subtle that it resembled exactly the thing it was parodying? And I couldn’t even enjoy it as just a big, dumb, fun popcorn movie, because it is so entrenched in the conventions that there was nothing exciting about it. I mean, I saw Independence Day in the theaters twenty years ago; I didn’t need a brand-new movie that walked me through the same beats. The story is so formulaic that the only way it could be redeemed is if it turned out to have been entirely written by a computer. Even then, it would still be a crappy movie, but at least an impressive technological achievement.