A lot of good movies came out back in 2013. American Hustle was a glorious whirlwind of unhinged, light-speed dialogue; Gravity was one of the great technical achievements in cinema history; and 12 Years A Slave blasted into new dramatic territory with the force of an emotional battering ram.
But my favorite movie of the year wasn’t any of those. It wasn’t even Spike Jonze’s Her, with its beautiful, heart-melting weirdness—and which I would have chosen as the Best Picture of that year, if such things were up to me. Instead, my favorite was Pacific Rim, a loud, dumb action movie that was, by almost any critical standard, not nearly as good as any of those listed above.
I saw it the way such movies should be seen: spontaneously, with friends, not completely sober. And in terms of pure enjoyment, it was one of the best moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had, in any year. I walked out of the theater wearing a stupid ear-to-ear grin that stayed with me for the rest of the day—entertained in the purest sense of the word.
And yet afterwards, even as I watched and appreciated many better movies, I found myself thinking about Pacific Rim far more that I would have expected. In the six months after that first viewing, I saw it two more times, and it never felt like too much. I still return to the action scenes again and again. It’s a feeling I’ve grown to recognize: love for a favorite movie. So what’s going on?
First, Pacific Rim belongs to a category of movies for which I’ve recently gained a special appreciation: those that aspire to work within the conventions of their given genre as well as they can. In too many such movies nowadays, there is a tendency to pretend to some higher level of sophistication—that is, to give us not only the entertainment we expect but also a profound meditation on some fundamental aspect of life itself. This is especially prevalent in the most popular genres, such as action/adventure movies or romantic comedies—in other words, expensive big-studio releases looking to make a lot of money. One can imagine that these days, a movie wouldn’t have much chance of making past the initial pitch without at least claiming to go beyond genre conventions. (“It’s not just an action movie…”). But it very often feels awkward and heavy-handed, since such serious themes are in many ways at odds with the movie’s primary goal: fun, diverting escapist entertainment.
So I have great respect for movies that embrace their genre roots without a lot of thematic and emotional frills. Any genre—no matter how worn-out it may seem—can be done well, and one can find many examples even only in recent years. Comedies like Superbad and Clueless; escapist thrillers like The Ghost Writer and Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies[i], as well as darker ones like David Cronenberg’s back-to-back masterpieces A History of Violence and Eastern Promises; adrenaline-pumping sports stories like Rush and Miracle; revival westerns like True Grit or 3:10 to Yuma, uplifting family movies like Frozen and Ratatouille; and, of course, straightforward action flicks like Skyfall, all three Bourne movies, or if you want to be truly stunned, the Indonesian martial arts blowout The Raid.
And so on and so forth. The question is: what do all these movies have in common? And the answer is relatively simple: an engaging story, a good script translated concisely and competently to the screen, and, most importantly, a certain level of self-awareness. It’s not that serious themes are absent, but any sentiments about honor, love, believing in oneself, etc., are limited to whatever grows organically out of the story. Nobody involved in these movies was trying to make the most profound film since The Godfather. That wasn’t the kind of story they were telling.
Pacific Rim is a paradigm of this sort of narrative self-awareness, and the genre to which it belongs is even more narrowly defined: the big-budget action blockbuster. The story pretty much demands that sort of movie: Earth is attacked by enormous alien sea monsters (called Kaiju), and mankind’s collective response is to build equally enormous human-controlled robots (Jaegers) to fight them in hand-to-hand combat. Unsurprisingly for those familiar with his work, the main creative force behind the movie is Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican director who has made a career out of creating such comic-book-style fantasy words. He has made relatively serious and intimate movies before (Pan’s Labyrinth and the recent Shape of Water), but he is equally famous for his large-scale action movies (both Hellboy pictures) that both amaze and exude a sense of fun that their counterparts often lack. With Pacific Rim, del Toro knew exactly what he was making—a loud, CGI-drenched action extravaganza—and his goal was nothing more or less than to make that kind of movie as well as it could be done.
All the expected genre tropes are there. The protagonist is a skilled but cocky Jaeger pilot who suffers a great loss in the beginning and finds himself reluctantly pulled back into the fight. He is surrounded by the usual supporting characters: a love interest, a rigid but ultimately sympathetic commanding officer, an obnoxious rival pilot who will eventually be redeemed. There is a comic relief subplot involving a pair of geeky, bickering scientists. And, of course, lots of 25-story-tall monsters and robots—stunningly brought to life by special effects—beating the crap out of each other with maximum collateral property damage.
So far so good. But Pacific Rim starts to get interesting when we examine how these familiar elements are deployed. Because even as he skillfully adheres to the conventions of the action blockbuster, del Toro also finds numerous subtle ways to poke fun at the genre. One example is the amusingly offbeat names of the characters, which tend to provide a perfect indication of their owner’s personality. Who else could a name like Raleigh Becket belong to, if not a cocky, wisecracking action hero? How could a guy named Stacker Pentecost be anything but a rigidly straight-laced military commander? Who could Hermann Gottlieb be, if not a brilliant, wildly eccentric Kaiju expert? Or my personal favorite: Hercules Hansen, who was destined from birth to be a hard-boiled veteran Australian Jaeger pilot.
The same sense of levity can be found in the dialogue, which is basic and unsophisticated, with an often-amusing dose of camp, and yet somehow perfectly suited to the story. Similarly, it’s hard initially to know what to make of Charlie Hunnam’s lead performance as Raleigh; when I first heard him in the opening voiceover, I stifled a laugh, as did many other people in the theater. It sounded like a textbook bad performance, a British actor trying too hard to project classic American movie machismo. But the more time we spend with the character, the more the apt the performance seems, and one imagines that del Toro instructed Hunnam to ham it up a bit, the better to fit the archetype of the badass, slightly meatheaded action hero. We have the subplot with the brilliant scientists who make a crucial discovery, just to prove that the solution isn’t all about punching things. But we have one of them, Newton Geizsler, being played by Charlie Day, with pretty much the same persona as his character in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, suggesting a lack of seriousness that many other action movies would avoid. Everywhere we look, del Toro seems to be intentionally dialing up the blockbuster tropes, pitching the tone of the movie close to (but not quite over) the line between sincerity and parody. He’s not cynically critiquing the conventions of the genre so much as winking at us behind the movie’s back, giving us an engaging story while acknowledging that it’s all rather silly. By not taking it too seriously himself, he encourages us to adopt the same attitude.
But del Toro’s engagement with the genre doesn’t end with simple teasing. Even in a movie as ostensibly conformist as Pacific Rim, he actually manages to subvert a few blockbuster conventions in interesting, even progressive ways. Raleigh is the standard white American male protagonist, but the rest of the cast relatively international: Stacker Pentecost is black and British; Dr. Gottlieb is presumably German; Raleigh’s co-pilot and love interest, Mako Mori, is Japanese. Raleigh’s is the only American Jaeger—the others are Australian, Chinese, and Russian. Much of the film takes place in Hong Kong, and there’s a distinctly East Asian vibe (albeit a rather half-baked one) in the film’s sentiments about combat and honor. In fact, Pacific Rim’s closest cinematic ancestors are not American action movies, but two subgenres of Japanese film: the kaiju (in English: ‘monster’) genre, of which the original Godzilla is probably the best known example, and the mecha genre, which focuses on humanoid robots controlled by people and has occasionally made it to American shores, usually in animated shows such like Gundam Wing. I’m not familiar enough with these genres to catch most of the references that del Toro makes, but he’s clearly tipping his hat to his movie’s lineage, and positing that what will save humanity is not star-spangled American badassery, but international cooperation. It’s the only reason I can think of why everyone in the movie (even the flyboy-jock Raleigh) can speak Japanese.
The movie is at its most subversive, however, in the characterization of Mako Mori, a protégé of Stacker Pentecost who becomes Releigh’s co-pilot, and who poses subtle challenges to the blockbuster trope of the female love interest. She is not the protagonist, but she is arguably the movie’s most interesting character; having lost her family to a Kaiju attack as a young girl, she is torn between her desire for revenge against the Kaijus and her respect for Stacker Pentecost, who raised her after her parents’ death and is reluctant to let her put herself in harm’s way. Not Shakespeare, but certainly more interesting than Raleigh’s conventional suffer-a-loss/mope/find-the-strength-to-become-a-great-warrior-again character arc, and it’s not giving anything away to say that Mako eventually gets her chance and finds the strength to prevail. When she yells out, “For my family!” before striking a killing blow, it’s both funny and exhilarating—a perfect example of the sincere yet lighthearted tone that makes the movie work. Del Toro also finds a clever way to treat her and Raleigh as fighting equals. In an inspired touch, the Jaegers are too big to be operated by a single pilot; instead, two pilots, each controlling one side of the machine, are joined in a sort of mind-meld called the ‘neural drift.’ Mako is a less experienced fighter than Raleigh, but he cannot operate the Jaeger without her. (As if to underscore that point, their Jaeger spends most of the final battle having lost the arm on Raleigh’s side, moving Mako to the forefront of their joint fight).
The movie also makes a noticeable effort to avoid sexualizing Mako in the way that women in action movies so often are. She is gorgeous—no one played by Rinko Kikuchi could be otherwise—but her primary role in the story is as Raleigh’s co-pilot, not as his love interest. The romance that develops between them feels almost like a narrative afterthought, an inevitable result of the deep psychological compatibility that is apparently required between the Jaeger pilots for the neural drift to be successful. Del Toro drives this point home in the movie’s final shot, with Raleigh and Mako on a floating escape pod in the middle of the ocean, having finally triumphed over the Kaijus. In any other action movie, this is the point where they would kiss, but they don’t; instead they sit facing each other, arms at one anther’s sides, foreheads resting against each other—a gesture of affection between comrades-in-arms as much as lovers. And del Toro also has a squadron of fighter jets fly over them, just because.
But to read too deeply into a movie like Pacific Rim risks losing sight of what makes it great. Whatever subtle critiques del Toro may make about the modern action blockbuster, he understands the simple principle that truly makes the genre work. It has to do with the above phrase: “just because.” As I mentioned, studios today seem to need their blockbusters to mean something (or at least, pretend to mean something, which is usually as far as they get), but a fundamental part of the appeal of the film medium has always been its ability to show us sights or feats that are impossible in the real world, for no other reason than to provoke in us that wonderful reaction of gleeful amazement. Practically as soon as film was invented, a French stage magician named Georges Méliès was using rudimentary special effects and editing tricks to wow his viewers. His films had plots, but as in a magic show, the primary goal was to astound. Similarly, the great silent-era comedian Buster Keaton became famous for his remarkable stunts, many of which would have killed him had he screwed them up. His film The General was already hilarious; was that death-defying stunt with the railroad ties[ii] really necessary? No, it wasn’t, but he did it anyway, because it’s awesome.
In The Dark Knight, the Joker rampages through Gotham in a tractor-trailer, until Batman finally stops the vehicle dead in its tracks, flipping it over lengthwise. How did that work, exactly? He shot some cables into the front bumper and then wove them through some lampposts and stuck them into the pavement? Would that really have been enough to flip an entire semi truck? It doesn’t really make much sense, but when I watch the scene, that’s the last thing on my mind. I’m too busy marveling at the slow, spectacular arc of that truck as it flies through the air and crashes to the ground. In her review of The Dark Knight in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wondered how a movie so ostensibly bleak could be so much fun to watch. Her answer was simple: “no work filled with such thrilling moments of pure cinema can rightly be branded pessimistic.” Guillermo del Toro understands this well, and the sense of fun that pervades Pacific Rim, the thing that finally makes it work, is his commitment to creating as many of these moments as possible. He understands that one of cinema’s greatest gifts to its audience—not the only one, certainly, but an important one nonetheless—is amazement for its own sake, without worrying about what it all means or whether or not it makes sense. The Jaeger’s hand turns into a giant plasma cannon? Why not just have that out from the beginning, and shoot the Kaijus from a distance? Because then we wouldn’t get to see Jaegers punching Kaijus in the face, or at one point, smashing a Kaiju’s head between two handfuls of shipping containers. At a critical point in a battle, Mako presses a button revealing that their Jaeger has a retractable sword. Why didn’t they take that out before they almost got killed? Because taking it out now yields the coolest shot in the movie, that’s why. (In another sly wink to the audience, the Jaeger has the sword out for the rest of the movie—no reason to hide it anymore.) And that part with the container ship… there really aren’t words for it, but you know what I mean.
How can you not love a movie that will give you moments of such awesomeness?
© Harrison Swan, 2019
[i] Throughout his career, Soderbergh has been one of the best in the business at making genre films very well, and he’s managed to cover a great many genres, too: topical thriller (Traffic), ruminative sci-fi (Solaris), stirring biopic (Che), satire (The Informant!), labyrinthine mystery (Side Effects), straight action (Haywire), and disaster horror (Contagion), to name just a few.