Arrival (2016)

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If intelligent beings from outer space ever do visit us, it’s safe to assume they might be a little creeped out. Looking at our pop culture from their perspective, it would seem we’ve recently developed an ardent obsession with them; as long as we’ve known that other planets exist, we’ve been imagining their potential inhabitants. You’d think we would’ve exhausted the possibilities of such stories long ago, but there’s just something about aliens. We can’t get enough of them, especially in our cinema, so perfectly suited to the subject as the medium is. Movies about extraterrestrial life are as old as film itself; the first science fiction film—and one of the first narrative films, period—was A Trip to the Moon, which the French illusionist George Méliès conjured up in 1902, less than ten years after the Lumière Brothers’ 45-second vignettes, widely considered to be the first true films ever made. Funny, boisterous, and full of charmingly rudimentary special effects (which nevertheless must’ve blown audiences’ minds at the time), A Trip to the Moon is still fun to watch over a century later; you can sense the giddy exuberance of a skilled entertainer just beginning to discover the possibilities of a brand-new art form.[i] And of course, as his protagonists explore the fantastical lunar landscape, they encounter some wacky local inhabitants. Méliès, who still had one foot in the aesthetic of 19th-century fantastical theater, imagined them rather like feral mimes, and in the hundred-plus years since, movies have depicted extraterrestrials in all manner of ways, from friendly humanoids to immaterial spirits to monstrosities straight out of our worst nightmares. With technology now able to put pretty much any creature you can imagine up on the screen, and a glut of movies each year doing exactly that, it’s reasonable to wonder how a movie about aliens could possibly feel original anymore. But that’s exactly what happened in 2016 with Arrival, a gorgeous head-trip of a thriller that manages to evoke something like the sense of wonder and discovery that Méliès’ audiences must’ve felt in those earliest days of film. So how did it happen?

It certainly helps to have exceptionally compelling source material—in this case, a sublime, mind-expanding short story by the revered sci-fi writer Ted Chiang.[ii] That’s already impressive; Chiang’s work is uncommonly thoughtful and moving, but he leans heavily into the ‘science’ part of science fiction, resulting in dense, heady (yet somehow compulsively readable) stories that don’t translate easily to the language of film. He’s been around for decades, but this is the first of Chiang’s stories to make it to the big screen, and if nothing else, Arrival is a model of smart, imaginative adaptation from a difficult literary source. Screenwriter Eric Heisserer makes significant changes to the story, adding and subtracting characters, altering timelines, and even inventing an entire subplot that provides a great deal of dramatic tension and significantly expands the thematic scope of the narrative. But the movie nevertheless feels wonderfully true to its source material in the ways that matter; the changes serve to transmute the intellectual curiosity and wistful soul of the original story into a form more suitable to the more visual medium of film.

This is perhaps the first and foremost reason why Arrival feels so distinctive. Aliens are everywhere in our pop culture, but they often fall into two broad categories, especially onscreen: either enemies to be defended against (from War of the Worlds to Independence Day to Alien and its successors) or everyday inhabitants of an alternate universe living side by side with humans, as in the worlds of Star Wars, Star Trek, and Guardians of the Galaxy, to name just a few. Arrival falls into a smaller sub-category: the ‘first contact’ story, in which Earth is visited by aliens who don’t automatically want to exterminate us, and the human world (usually not markedly different from the real one) tries to make sense of it. The best-known example would probably be Steven Spielberg’s 1977 classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but the cinematic tradition goes at least as far back as The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951. It’s not surprising that the analytical, scientifically-minded Chiang would go this route, or that he’d construct his narrative around the basic challenge of communicating with an unfamiliar alien species, with his characters using roughly the same approach that they would with a newly contacted human society. So the very nature of the story it has to tell sets Arrival apart from most other movies about extraterrestrials, and even compared to other first contact movies, its willingness to delve into the practical nitty-gritty of cross-species communication makes it unique.

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It also helps that the person bringing all this to the screen is one of the smartest, most technically accomplished directors working today, as Denis Villeneuve most certainly is. The French-Canadian auteur’s rise to prominence is fairly recent, and he can be a polarizing figure, hailed by some as a visionary and dismissed by others as a cynical, cold-hearted manipulator. I tend to fall somewhere in the middle; his consistently outstanding craft is refreshing, but it can lend his movies an air of intellectual seriousness that’s not always warranted, and his relentlessly bleak worldview can get a bit exhausting and pretentious. As great as it looks, I don’t understand anyone who actually enjoyed Prisoners (2013), a trashy revenge thriller disguised as a philosophical meditation on the need to buckle down and torture the hell out of anyone you think might know something about your missing daughter. The Oscar-nominated 2011 drama Incendies, which catapulted Villeneuve onto the directorial A-list, is a similar case: very well made, and so unrelentingly brutal that I don’t intend ever to watch it again. On the other hand, I was captivated by the Sicario (2015), which managed to explore classic themes of the western amid the horror of the contemporary drug war along the U.S.-Mexico border. (Although I think its success is due at least in equal part to a brilliant performance by Benicio Del Toro, and to the musical wizardry of composer Jóhan Jóhansson—more on him later.) Same with the gloomy, visually stunning Blade Runner 2049 in 2017, which proved a worthy successor to the classic original (if not quite its equal), and provided a small measure of justice by finally securing an Oscar for the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. But Arrival is still Villeneuve’s best work, precisely because the story, by its very nature, tempers his darker inclinations. There’s drama and tension, even emotional anguish, but these don’t arise from physical violence, and the story is anything but despairing.

Meanwhile, the movie still benefits from Villeneuve’s exemplary, seemingly instinctive command of the medium. He almost always elicits compelling performances from the talented actors who flock to him, and even in collaboration with different cinematographers—three times with Deakins, here with the super-talented Bradford Young—he has developed a beautifully distinctive visual style. His shots are mostly steady, his camera movements fluid and precise, his framing meticulous and full of subtext, yet uncluttered and easy to wrap your head around. He also holds shots longer than many of his contemporaries, long enough for us to consider it as a deliberately crafted image, rather than simply another visual piece of an unfolding plot. There is, for lack of better terms, a unique visual grace to Villeneuve’s movies, but crucially, this goes hand in hand with an instinct for understatement and restraint. He stages and films action in a matter-of-fact sort of way, and he’s perfectly willing to let a moment play out or establish tone in a single shot if it’s getting the job done. It’s not that he’s doing his utmost to minimize the number of shots—a laudable impulse given the current epidemic of scissor-happy editing, but one that can easily turn into a gimmick—he’s simply confident enough in his images that he doesn’t feel the need to cut unless logic or artistry demands it. The result is a compelling visual aesthetic: carefully calibrated, even stylized, but also straightforward and instinctive, edited without a lot of flash—a closer-than-usual approximation of the way we might watch this stuff happening in real life.

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This signature visual style, highly polished yet firmly rooted in the real world, is a perfect fit for the kind of high concept sci-fi that Arrival represents. It may seem odd to speak about realism in a movie that features seven-tentacled aliens arriving in 1500-foot stone vessels shaped like skipping stones and teaching our protagonist, Louise, an entirely new language that lets her see the future—and save the world while she’s at it. But the realism is there, and it’s a key reason why Arrival works so well; this is an alien movie that thrills us not with an interspecies war or visions of a multi-species universe, but with a vivid depiction of extraterrestrials visiting an Earth that feels tantalizingly similar to our own. Villeneuve makes judicious use of special effects; the cavernous, otherworldly interior of the so-called ‘heptapods’’ ship is almost entirely CGI, but Louise’s house, her office, and the hallways of the university where she works have the ineffable but unmistakable feel of real locations, as opposed to sets in a studio. And the Montana field where the heptapods land is unmistakably a real field (actually in Quebec, but still), with CGI providing only the massive bulk of their ship, a significant but relatively simple and unobtrusive addition to the setting. The silent, stationary vessel is amazing, yet so unassuming that after a while, it starts to feel almost like a regular feature of the landscape; Villeneuve uses special effects not to create a new world, but to enhance the real one.[iii] Even the military’s small tent-and-trailer city beneath the ship feels true to life, despite the fact that very few of us know what such a thing would actually look like. The tightly organized cluster of heavy machinery and cramped, utilitarian structures full of state-of-the-art technology, convey what feels like an accurate combination of impermanence and cutting-edge sophistication. There are numerous small details it this unfamiliar setting that, taken together, ground it in the world we know: the hydraulic construction lift that raises the humans into the ship, the generic pickup trucks that transport them there and back, or the neat tablet app, presumably whipped up by military programmers, that Louise uses to construct sentences in the heptapod language.

The military encampment also contributes to a sense of realism that pervades the movie on a broader scale. Like the best sci-fi stories, Arrival only asks us to make a few suspensions of disbelief—pretty substantial ones here, but still, only a few—from which everything else follows quite realistically. This invariably makes the story more thrilling and engaging; we recognize that if this wildest of situations were ever to happen, this is more or less what it would look like: the government/military is in charge of things, but since the aliens aren’t attacking us, our principal envoys are the world’s top scientists and linguists—the people best equipped to communicate with and learn from them. The movie even has the guts to take a convincingly unflattering view of the general population, who react, quickly and across cultural divides, by losing their heads on a massive scale. To be fair, humanity’s political leaders aren’t much better; while mostly unseen, they’re forcefully present as a bunch of ignorant, overbearing supervisors, impeding Louise and her team’s progress and seemingly itching for an excuse to declare the heptapods our enemies and start attacking them. Given the global political shitstorm of the past few years, the tension feels more legitimate than ever.

Here again, Villeneuve’s knack for concise, understated storytelling is a huge asset. The movie unfolds on an epic scale, but he stays focused on its dramatic heart: the effort to learn the heptapods’ language and its effect on Louise. He makes a point of not taking us on distracting detours away from the encampment, conveying the chaos beyond its borders only through brief, evocative news clips. Some excellent supporting performances play a key role here; in lieu of a bunch of interchangeable political leaders, government oversight is efficiently represented by Michael Stuhlbarg’s snooty, officious CIA officer, while Mark O’Brien, as the team’s menacing military escort, Captain Marks, comes to embody a fearful humanity’s urge to lash out violently at what it doesn’t understand. For the more sensible side of humankind, we have Forest Whitaker as Colonel Weber, the mission commander. His accent is a bit mysterious (Boston? New York? Somewhere else on the Eastern Seaboard?), but we get used to it, and its air of levelheaded authority fits well with the character. The excellence of Whitaker’s performance is easy to miss; he makes Weber first and foremost a paragon of unflappable military discipline, but it’s always clear that there’s a human being beneath that tough exterior. He’s revealed to be a shrewd and effectual leader, by turns boldly authoritative and gently encouraging, deferential to the scientists’ expertise yet willing to override them if he feels he has to—whatever is needed to keep the mission on track and making progress. He’s a stabilizing presence, and a realistic one; if this ever actually happens, you’d expect and hope the military would have someone like him running the show.

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As we’ve mentioned, this sense of (relative) realism provides a certain inherent thrill on its own, but it also has a compounding effect on other, more common techniques for creating tension and excitement. Villeneuve has always been a skilled manipulator of audience emotions, and in Arrival, he does a masterful job of creating a captivating aura of mystery and anticipation—a nice change from his usual vibes of horror and despair. He gives us a vivid sense not only of what first contact might look like, but of how it might feel. Especially in the first act, there’s a palpable atmosphere of threat and wonder in equal measure, and like Louise, we feel both at the same time and vacillate between them. All first contact stories traffic in such emotions, though; Villeneuve’s great achievement is to keep them sustained and slow-burning through large chunks of the movie. He does this through skillful deployment of a simple storytelling technique, similar to what Spielberg did in Close Encounters: instead of one big, shocking reveal—‘Aliens have arrived! Look how bizarre and cool they are!’—he doles out information in small bits, letting the situation build at a deliberate, almost agonizing pace. Louise walks into work to find a hubbub in the halls and her classroom almost empty. She turns on the TV and we see her shock, but not the images causing it. We get a few indications of growing panic: evacuation of the university, a fender bender in the parking lot, a pair of jets screaming overhead, and a tense phone call between Louise and her mother. The next day, she finds the university totally deserted, and the news channels describe worldwide chaos. Every aspect of the story develops this way: in baby steps, often concurrently with other aspects. The government mission to the aliens appears first as Col. Weber in Louise’s office, dressed in civilian clothes; then as a helicopter thundering out of the night sky; then as the Montana encampment, which also expands as we see more of it. We hear vague descriptions of the ship and catch glimpses of it in news footage before we fully see it—and even then, it remains in the distance for a time. Before the characters go inside, the ship gets closer and closer until the scale becomes impossible to fathom, then there’s a slow lift ride up, and finally a close-up of our awestruck characters touching the hull. We hear a brief snippet of garbled alien-speak before we actually see the heptapods, and even then (in an especially clever touch), they remain partially obscured by mist until much later, when we finally see their massive upper body. Their language goes from unintelligible noises to mysterious symbols to a written language that our characters begin to understand, until finally Louise is speaking fluently with them. Et cetera, et cetera—there’s a constant feeling of rising action and new discovery. And the drive for verisimilitude is what allows Villeneuve to proceed in such small steps without losing our attention; any given development, even one that’s fairly insignificant on its own (and that anyone familiar with the basic premise could halfway anticipate) is charged with sense of awe that it would carry in real life, because it’s happening in a world we recognize. In Villeneuve’s hands, realism and wonder need not be mutually exclusive—in fact, they’re mutually reinforcing.

Not to mention the fact that amid these thrilling moments, there are curveballs thrown in—developments that are genuinely wild and unexpected. Which ones these are is subjective, but a few stand out to me: that beautiful, drawn-out shot of the initial approach to the Montana site; the trippy reorientation of gravity within the ship; the first glimpses of the heptapods’ elegant, calligraphic script; and the third act revelations, when the Louise’s comprehension of the language, and the newfound conception of time that comes with it, are finally made (mostly) clear. As effective as the more routine story beats are, these bursts of true originality are an essential part of what makes Arrival exceptional. They’re delightful to watch, for one thing—the sorts of moments that film can capture in a uniquely compelling way—but they’re also crucial in engendering the sense of wonder that’s essential to any great sci-fi movie. We may not be able to fully wrap our heads around the heptapods’ language (I certainly can’t), but in experiencing moments so unlike anything we’ve seen before, we feel the same way as the characters that can: like our intellectual horizons are widening. That such a gifted filmmaker is crafting these moments for us only enhances their sublime impact. Other efforts are crucial to all this as well, notably Patrice Vermette’s elegant production design and Joe Walker’s crisp editing, but especially at moments like these, Villeneuve is aided immeasurably by the efforts of composer Jóhan Jóhansson. Arrival was one of the last scores Jóhansson did before he tragically died in February 2018, at the age of just forty-nine, and he was one of the few truly original composers in the industry, well on his way to becoming one of the greatest of all time. His score for Villeneuve’s Sicario is, for my money, the best of the past decade or so (I swear, those throbbing, infinitely deep bass tones could inject a sense of doom into anything), and he does similarly compelling work here. There are strange, trippy electronic tones, otherworldly vocals, bursts of sound that seem instrumental one moment and entirely synthetic the next. I don’t know nearly enough about music to describe how he did it, but the score is both enchanting and unnerving, highly unconventional yet never grating in the way that experimental music often can be. It’s hard to describe, clearly, but the quality that runs through it all is beauty and a sense of strangeness and awe. It is, in other words, the ideal musical complement to the vibe that Villeneuve generates through other aspects of filmmaking—an appropriate soundtrack to a radical expansion of the boundaries of human experience.

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All this excellent technique wouldn’t amount to nearly as much, however, without such a quietly commanding lead performance to anchor it. Amy Adams has done excellent work in all manner of roles,[iv] but her performance as Louise Banks is in a class by itself. As always, her ability to convey emotion is impressive; she makes the opening sequence of her daughter being born, playing around, and dying young about as devastating as any actress could in less than five minutes, and convincingly projects not only the intelligence of an accomplished linguist—one of the world’s most prominent, given the reverence with which her team greets her—but also the sorrow, self-doubt, and reticence of a damaged individual. And this skillful navigation of the movie’s emotional beats, combined with her natural air of openness, make her a uniquely accessible and empathetic set of eyes through which to experience this story. We believe that she’s a brilliant academic with a great deal of esoteric expertise, but we can also relate, each in our own way, to her sense of melancholy isolation, not to mention the roiling cocktail of emotions that she’s feeling when the aliens arrive—her performance, embodying the way we’d feel in similar circumstances, is as important as Villeneuve’s technique in creating that mesmerizing aura of fear and wonder that rings so true to life.

She also helps to keep us oriented when the complicated work of deciphering the heptapods’ language begins in earnest. The movie doesn’t delve as deeply into the intricacies of linguistics as Chiang’s story, but the translation process can still be difficult to follow, despite screenwriter Heisserer’s rigorous attempts to streamline and simplify it. Perhaps the problem is that he overdoes it a bit; the big breakthrough, from realizing how the language works to being able to communicate in it, is the one part of the movie that doesn’t quite feel sufficiently developed. But I think that’s mostly because the heptapods’ script is so aesthetically pleasing, and the central conceit (that every stroke and whirl in the logogram conveys meaning, all at the same time) so intriguing that we naturally want to learn more about it. Meanwhile, Adams’ magnetism allows us to run with it without feeling too lost—we trust Louise, in a sense—and in broader storytelling terms it’s a minor issue, because the main focus of the narrative is not the process of learning the language per se, but the radical new perspective that the process gives to Louise. (It also helps that while this is pure fiction, it’s based on a bit of actual linguistic theory called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, even if it does take the concept farther than any linguist would.[v]) Arrival succeeds as a realistic and thrilling vision of first contact, but in the tradition of all great sci-fi, it manages to find, amid all that spectacle, an emotionally powerful exploration of the human condition. Chiang has stated that the original story arose not from speculation about aliens or even linguistics, but from philosophical questions about time and memory, the emotional consequences of knowing the future, accepting the inevitable and finding a way to live even if you know that tragedy lies ahead. Villeneuve and Heisserer wisely follow Chiang’s lead in making these universal questions the thematic core of the movie, and Adams brings them vividly to life onscreen.

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Which makes it especially impressive that the movie also manages to expand upon the source material in significant ways. The subplot about rising global tensions and General Shang of the Chinese Army is almost entirely invented, and here again, Adams’ sympathetic performance is a key reason why it works. In the face of the mind-bending challenge of communicating with the newly arrived heptapods, Louise’s shock and uncertainty are easy understand, but her intellectual curiosity is also contagious—we identify with her and her view of the situation as an opportunity for intellectual growth, rather than with certain other characters who see it as a threat to be overcome. One fascinating thing about Arrival is that it has no clear villain. General Shang and Captain Marks could fit the role, but only at certain points and not in any thoroughgoing way; instead, the main antagonistic forces are simply our own worst impulses. Suspicion, fear-mongering, misunderstanding and willful deception, lashing out in panic at the unfamiliar ‘other’—these are the threats to be overcome. It’s another thematic facet of the story that Chiang only touched on, and one that’s downright starry-eyed by Villeneuve’s standards. On top of everything else, Arrival is an ode to the power of communication, science, diplomacy, and learning from one another.

It’s a message that we need more than ever these days. And we still get all the fun of aliens and spaceships and time-bending shenanigans along with it.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] A fun fact to consider is that the actual moon landing occurred only 67 years after the film was made, meaning that a not-insignificant number of people probably lived to see both—not to mention two World Wars and a radical transformation of human civilization in general.

[ii] The enigmatic Chiang happens to be one of my favorite contemporary writers. Reticent, self-effacing, and willing to immerse himself in a subject for years before writing about it, he has kept his day job as a technical writer for a software company throughout his nearly thirty-year career, during which he’s published just fifteen short stories and one novella. Not bad for someone widely considered one of the best and most influential sci-fi writers of his generation. The New Yorker did an interesting (and intriguingly sparse) profile of him last year: https://www.newyorker.com/culture/persons-of-interest/ted-chiangs-soulful-science-fiction

[iii] Although he can certainly bring an entirely fictional world to life as well as anyone, too. I refer you again to Blade Runner 2049, preferably on a big screen; one area in which the movie equals, and occasionally even surpasses, Ridley Scott’s original is in the way it uses the latest cinematic wizardry to create a stunningly convincing vision of the dystopian Los Angeles of the near future.

[iv] Watch this and American Hustle back to back, and marvel that it’s the same actress in both movies.

[v] An interesting discussion of the movie and the heptapods’ language with one such linguist can be found here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2016/11/22/a_linguist_on_arrival_s_alien_language.html

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

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I fully understand how it would be easy, at first glance, to dismiss this movie as just another one of the forgettable, CGI-drenched blockbusters that Hollywood churns out each summer. In the poster, Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt stand poised in futuristic exoskeleton-cum-battle-suits with war raging behind them. His forearms bristle with large-caliber weaponry; she slings an outsized, cleaver-like sword over her shoulder. They look into the distance with grim determination. The title, Edge of Tomorrow, is typical of these sorts of movies—vaguely epic, but essentially meaningless once you stop and think about it. Nevertheless, it’s not hard to guess how the story will unfold. Our handsome hero will fight a war with the nifty, advanced technology of an imagined future. Emily Blunt will pay her Hollywood dues as the secondary female comrade. The two of them will probably start out at odds, then find common ground and work together. It looks like they’ll save the world. Probably from aliens.

The thing is, that’s all pretty much correct. The impression we get from the poster isn’t so much inaccurate as incomplete. Only the tagline, “Live. Die. Repeat.”—which is, for some reason, more prominently displayed than the title[i]—hints at the time-travel antics and wry, winking tone that make this movie exceptional. It’s no great masterpiece like The Godfather, but it is a great summer blockbuster: exciting, solidly acted and cleverly written, not to mention smarter and more emotionally resonant that it initially appears.

None of which will come as a surprise to those familiar with director Doug Liman, who’s been a skilled cinematic showman throughout his career, from early cult classics like Swingers and Go to the action flicks that he has mostly made since. Sometimes his movies work (The Bourne Identity, Fair Game, or the recent American Made), sometimes not so much (Jumper, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), but Liman always makes the screen crackle with an infectious verve and energy. His enthusiasm and lightness of touch are perfectly suited to a movie like Edge of Tomorrow, with its frequent, often darkly comic battle sequences and its tongue-in-cheek vision of the near future. Working with an engaging screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie and Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, and with lively visuals by cinematographer Dion Beebe and editors James Herbert and Laura Jennings, Liman continually finds entertaining new dimensions in this twisty sci-fi story.

Even in the initial exposition—related via a newsreel montage of general calamity and the pronouncements of a brusque Irish general (Brendan Gleeson) in the first scene—there are indications that Edge of Tomorrow is not just another mindless blockbuster. Start with the alien invaders, first glimpsed in the vividly hectic battle sequence that rounds out the opening half hour. Dubbed ‘Mimics’ for their uncanny ability to anticipate our actions, they’re tough, merciless, and refreshingly bizarre—typically visible as little more than whirling, seething masses of tentacles, with heads and legs vaguely discernible on the rare occasions when they stand still. While perhaps not truly frightening, they’re genuinely convincing as an existential threat to humanity, emerging from underground burrows and zipping lethally around the battlefield; it takes a great deal of firepower to kill even one of them, and their shape-shifting limbs quickly decimate entire squads. Indeed, the writers seem to have conceived the Mimics with the explicit goal of silencing skeptics. Don’t believe that the nations of the world would band together in fairly uncomplicated fashion, with every able-bodied human desperately needed for the war effort? Check out these monstrosities—if we’re ever going to create a ‘United Defense Force’ (UDF), this is what it would take. Just to hammer the point home, the Mimics have landed in Germany and quickly steamrolled most of mainland Europe. The conflict is never given a name, but it might as well be called ‘The Perfectly Unquestionable War of Self-Defense.’

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Things aren’t looking good for humanity, but we join the story at a pivotal, relatively hopeful moment. New weapons (those badass exoskeletons) have given our troops a fighting chance, and some have even mastered them to the point of becoming true super-soldiers. Chief among them is Blunt’s Sergeant Rita Vrataski, whose heroics have led to a crucial, improbable victory at Verdun,[ii] buying time for a retreat across the English Channel. At the outset, the UDF is preparing to launch a massive, last-ditch counterattack—landing on the Normandy beaches, no less!—and Sergeant Vrataski has become an icon, lionized in the media as the ‘Angel of Verdun’ and known to the rank and file by the half-derogatory, half-admiring, very semantically satisfying moniker ‘Full Metal Bitch.’

And if you still find yourself thinking, “Okay, that all sounds fun, but… Tom Cruise, really?”—well, I’m right there with you. I’m definitely against him as a human being, and pretty torn on him as an actor. He’s almost always an engaging screen presence, but it can be hard to tell if you’re actually watching a good performance, or simply appreciating the fact that he’s so clearly giving it everything he’s got.[iii] The wonderful thing about Edge of Tomorrow is that you don’t need to like him—indeed, Liman almost seems to be banking on the fact that many people don’t.

Cruise plays Major William Cage, a smooth-talking military PR officer leading the effort to drum up public support for the impending attack, and at the beginning, he’s thoroughly unlikable: vain, self-absorbed, and a coward to boot. He’s happy to look pretty and project confidence on TV, convincing millions of people to enlist in a war against a near-invincible enemy, but he balks at the idea of going anywhere near combat himself. When Gleeson’s General Brigham assigns him to film the landings in France (only mildly dangerous, since the beach appears to be undefended) he dodges, flashes a million-dollar smile, and does everything he can to wheedle his way out of it. Whatever Cruise’s limits as an actor, he excels at this sort of thing, and it’s worth pausing for a moment over that smile. It’s central to some of his best roles (Magnolia, Jerry Maguire) and one of the keys to his overall success—a strange but beguiling mix of sleaze and genuine charisma. Anyone can see that there’s manipulation behind that smile, yet you can understand how people would still fall for it. It’s a perfect fit for a character like Cage—the confident grin of a man who has coasted through life mostly on his good looks and his ability to charm and disarm. (In a satisfying dig at a few other deserving targets, we learn that before the war, he was an ad executive from New Jersey.) It’s not as if no other actor could have played this role well, but Cruise’s presence dovetails perfectly with the cheekily self-aware tone that makes the movie work.

This is still a summer blockbuster, so we know that Cage will eventually learn his lessons, become a better man, and rise to the occasion. After an ill-advised attempt to blackmail his way out of combat, he finds himself stripped of his rank, thrown in with the grunts of J Squad, and dropped, in a dizzying single take, out of a troop transport and into battle. He’s completely ineffectual, but he manages, mostly through dumb luck, to kill the Mimic that massacres the rest of the squad. In a lesser movie, this would be his wake-up call, and he’d quickly acquire a sense of duty, master the battle suit, and generally become a skilled and honorable soldier—all in time to single-handedly turn the tide and save the day. But wait, now a half-dozen more Mimics are gathering nearby… maybe they won’t notice him? That would be a little hard to believe. But nope, the big blue one sees him! He has the presence of mind to grab a claymore and blow its face off, but—yikes, now his own face is a mess, and apparently Mimic blood corrodes like acid. Until a movie finally goes there, you don’t realize how rare it is to see an A-list leading man like Cruise die painfully onscreen, and Liman has fun lingering for several nasty seconds on the blood burning through Cage’s face and liquefying his brain—just to remove any lingering doubts that, yes, this guy really is dead.

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Then Cage wakes up back at the base as if from a bad dream, and we have the movie’s central conceit: he’s trapped in a time loop, doomed to live the day of the battle over and over again. And this trippy-est of sci-fi plot devices has the welcome effect of making Cage’s character arc, and the story in general, a great deal more convincing. The UDF really does have no chance on that beach, and Cage doesn’t magically become a super-soldier in the course of a single battle. If a clumsy coward like him is eventually going to do his duty and help save the world, it makes sense that he’d have to be dragged kicking and screaming into it. It’s the perfect role for the polarizing, sometimes overly ingratiating Cruise; those who like him still get to watch him carry the movie and do the action-star stuff, while those who hate him get to point out that he becomes a hero only when all other options have been exhausted, and watch him die dozens of times along the way.

The time-loop gimmick is also central to the movie’s sense of humor, allowing Liman to eschew the kind of trite solemnity that often pervades big blockbusters when the fate of the world is at stake. (Think of the two needlessly dour Matrix sequels, which had eye-popping action galore but lacked the original’s anarchic sense of fun.) Cage’s first death is shocking in both senses (graphic and unexpected), but once dying has become a mere minor setback, Liman is free to stage most of the subsequent deaths with a healthy dose of slapstick comedy. He puts Cruise through quite a gauntlet; Cage is crushed, drowned, blown up, slashed by Mimic tentacles, run over by large vehicles in two different contexts, and, once he begins his ‘training,’ repeatedly clobbered by whirling Mimic simulators and unceremoniously put down by an impatient Rita Vrataski. It’s amusing, and even becomes rather profound as the deaths keep piling up. Viewed a certain way, Edge of Tomorrow is an oddly powerful meditation on the absurd, arbitrary brutality of war—to survive, you need either incredible luck or an unlimited number of chances to get it exactly right.

This setup is hardly original; several other recent movies have put their protagonists through similar existential wringers. The most obvious parallels are with thrillers like Déjà Vu and its much-better, criminally lesser-known cousin Source Code, which sees Jake Gyllenhaal trapped on a doomed commuter train until he can identify the terrorist who blows it up. In spirit, however, the closest companion to Edge of Tomorrow is probably Harold Ramis’s classic comedy Groundhog Day. The settings are wildly different, but both movies feature an arrogant protagonist forced to relive the same day until he learns not to be a selfish asshole. Liman wisely doesn’t try to hide this, opting instead to be cleverly self-aware about Edge of Tomorrow’s relationship to its obvious antecedent. A clear example is the way the two movies signal the day starting over. Bill Murray, effortlessly magnetic even when acting like a jerk, wakes up in a cozy bedroom to a soothing Sonny & Cher ballad. Tom Cruise, somewhat grating even when he’s doing his utmost to be magnetic, gets a literal kick in the ass and a drill sergeant in his face, yelling, “On your feet, maggot!”

Liman also follows Groundhog Day’s fine example by not getting too bogged down in time-travel mechanics. Ramis recognized that such explication wasn’t necessary for his story, and didn’t offer any. Liman can’t quite get away with that, but he knows that the movie’s appeal doesn’t lie in the specifics of how the time loop works. He gets most of the explanation out of the way in a few efficient scenes, mostly from the mouth of a dotty scientist played by Noah Taylor, who unfortunately isn’t given much else to do.[iv] Even here, Liman doesn’t push too hard; Taylor’s Dr. Carter simply tells Cage that there’s an ‘Omega’ hidden somewhere, which constitutes, along with those big blue ‘Alphas,’ the central nervous system for all the Mimic drones. It’s the standard Achilles heel of invincible alien invaders—destroy it, and we win the war. Cage got that blue blood into his veins the first time he died, so now he can reset the day, because, well, “The Omega has the ability to control time.” Even when sci-fi movies do flood us with esoteric terms, inventing whole branches of pseudoscience to make things sound plausible, the exposition essentially boils down to the same thing: this is just how it is. Suspend your disbelief and let’s get back to the fun stuff.

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Taylor may get stuck with a largely functional role, but not so for the other supporting actors, most of whom play Cage’s sardonic J Squad comrades. Liman and the screenwriters take care to give them at least rudimentary personalities, and find ample humor in their increasing confusion as Cage learns more and more about them, while they keep meeting him for the first time. The mostly unknown actors have fun with their hammy dialogue, and everyone gets at least one laugh line. Tony Way gets several of them as the archetypal overweight slob, and those who recognize her will be amused to see Charlotte Riley, best known for embodying the upper-class English charm of bygone eras, clearly enjoying herself as a scrappy, foul-mouthed grunt. (At one point, she even gets to grin at Cruise and yell, “Hah! Jinx, bitch!”) The late Bill Paxton probably has the most fun of all as an uptight, built-Ford-tough platoon sergeant, spouting southern-fried platitudes about the glory of combat that evoke militaristic philosophies of the early 20th century.

Such sentiments aren’t just amusing characterization; they’re central to the appeal of the movie’s imagined future. The outlook for the human race may be grim, but Liman’s inclination to keep things lighthearted leads him to imagine humanity in a way that rings weirdly true. The soldiers of J Squad (and, by extension, the rest of the UDF) aren’t terrified conscripts; they’re fully and enthusiastically immersed in the military mindset: the human race on all-out war footing. Assuming the pre-war world was as morally murky as ours is now, it makes sense that they might find the simplicity of the situation perversely refreshing. Faced with the prospect of annihilation, humankind hasn’t just united, but morphed into a slightly brasher, more cocksure version of itself. They almost seem to be relishing the role of the underdog: if we win, it’ll be a truly epic triumph; if we lose, at least we’ll go down swinging. Either way, the choice is clear: get out there and kick some Mimic ass. This is the world of all sorts of punk-inflected sci-fi, especially video games and comic books (the screenplay is adapted from a Japanese graphic novel with the delightfully barefaced title All You Need Is Kill) and Liman imbues the movie with a heightened-reality vibe that echoes such influences.

One of these parallels is particularly striking. Even among other time-loop protagonists, Cage is uniquely similar to a whole other category of fictional characters who find themselves temporally imprisoned, even when their stories don’t revolve around it. I’m talking, of course, about video game avatars. It might seem like a stretch to compare these controllable masses of pixels to the richer, more autonomous characters of traditional fiction, but as technological advances have made games ever more impressively photorealistic, the line has become increasingly blurred. The biggest contemporary video games feature settings at least as vividly detailed—and characters as intricately expressive—as those of early 3D-animated movies, and the scale of the creative enterprise has grown in concert, with crews, budgets, and revenues often rivaling those of the biggest movies.[v] The stories have a mostly deserved reputation for being lazy and hackneyed, but most games do have a narrative framework, and game developers, equipped with ever-improving visual tools (and faced with ever-rising financial stakes) have increasingly invested creative resources in sophisticated narratives, decent dialogue, and complex characters—sometimes including top-tier actors to supply their voices.[vi] I’m no expert on video games, but as they continue to proliferate, diversify, and be taken more seriously as works of art, the similarities with other creative industries are striking. Game categories increasingly resemble those of film; the big, action-focused blockbusters look amazing and offer simple escapist thrills, but rarely have much of a soul, while scrappy ‘indie’ games are less dazzling, but make up for it by being smarter, wittier, and more emotionally stimulating.[vii] And we haven’t even touched on the now-ubiquitous practice of adapting movies into video games, and vice versa.

My point is simply that there is a considerable and increasing amount of overlap between movies and video games, especially the big action blockbusters of both mediums. The world of Edge of Tomorrow could easily be that of a first-person shooter—the Omega even functions as the requisite ‘end boss’—and the story makes the same demands of Cage that we make of our avatars. Welcome to the world! Now charge into the chaos of war. Die a violent death. Now do it again. (On your feet, maggot!) In the second act, Cage and Rita work, through lethal trial and error, to plot a survivable course through the battle, which is exactly what the player does in a game set to the highest (i.e. most realistic) difficulty. This is something that older generations often don’t seem to understand about the appeal of difficult games; it’s not just about killing and blowing stuff up, but about learning from your mistakes and mastering a sequence of actions: turn here, take cover there, get that one, move before that one sees you—over and over until you make it through alive. And for as long as digital avatars have looked even mildly realistic, artists have imbued them with human consciousness and imagined the tragicomic results. In fact, an entirely new video art form has arisen over the past twenty years, in which players record certain points of view in multiplayer games, effectively turning them into cameras. The multiplayer map becomes the set; the other avatars, plus recorded voiceovers, become the actors. Known by the unwieldy term ‘machinima,’ these stories are usually quite amateurish and juvenile, but the best among them imagine the inner lives of the avatars with genuine insight and humor.[viii]

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Working with flesh-and-blood actors rather than pixels, Liman explores how a more recognizably human character might be affected by the mind-bending absurdity of such an existence. And it truly is mind-bending; one of the hidden pleasures of Edge of Tomorrow is letting your imagination run wild with the implications of the time loop. The movie encourages such speculation; no sooner have we wrapped our heads around Cage’s predicament than Liman starts messing with our newly adjusted sense of time and scale. In a crucial early scene, Cage saves Rita from incoming fire, and as he kills a few Mimics with practiced efficiency, we realize along with her: he’s done this before. In almost every subsequent scene until Cage loses his power, Liman repeats the gimmick, dropping sly and frequently entertaining hints that although we’re seeing this part of the story for the first time, Cage has been here many times already. We quickly lose track of how many times Cage has lived and died, and Liman refuses to give us even a vague indication of the total number. Indeed, there’s no guarantee of continuity even within individual scenes; whenever a conversation or sequence of actions reaches a halfway plausible endpoint, the next thing we see could be many loops further down the line. The images we see aren’t a sequential story so much as a highlight reel lifted from hundreds—if not thousands—of iterations of the same journey. Cruise does a fine job of imagining what the effects might be; an almost imperceptible sag comes into his shoulders, and his face hardens into a grim mask as frustration gives way to resignation. The fact that Cage’s experience so far outstrips our understanding also makes the incremental rewiring of his personality all the more believable. Even as he becomes numb to death and destruction—he probably sees more of it than any other person in history—he’s inevitably growing closer to the people who are his only company in the midst of it, and whom he has to watch die every day.

None more so, of course, than Rita. The arc of their relationship is formulaic, but relatively plausible for multiple reasons, and Liman handles her character in refreshing, even subversive ways. Well, mostly. Three repetitions of that shot of her rising up in slow motion from a yoga pose is probably overkill, but you can understand the inclination. It’s a remarkable image, and one that says something about the movie’s attitude: even here, at the moment that most plainly objectifies Rita in the way action movies so often do to women, she’s attractive in a way that’s as much impressive as seductive. This is still Emily Blunt playing her, so Rita is gorgeous to an improbable degree, but she’s also strong and athletic enough that her in-story reputation remains credible. That is to say, she’s entirely convincing as a super-soldier who happens to be as gorgeous as Emily Blunt—still the kind of coincidence that happens only in movies, but she looks the part in a way that such characters rarely do.

She’s allowed to act the part as well. That thrice-repeated shot is easy to roll your eyes at, but it’s in slow motion for a reason: it’s the split second of simple curiosity when she first sees Cage, before reality and her personality kick in, and she greets him with undisguised contempt: “Who said you could talk to me??” The movie even allows her to play that icy demeanor for laughs, something only men are typically allowed to do. The one person who actually calls her by her vulgar nickname gets a turbocharged punch to the gut, and the one time Cage does bring up sex, her response is exactly what I presume most women envision for men who won’t take a hint. The dynamic between them is (mostly) a subtle inversion of the usual one between male and female leads in action movies; this time she’s the reticent, battle-hardened veteran subjecting the new recruit to brutal training regimens and instilling the values of duty and self-sacrifice.

She even gets to be—in a subtle, roundabout way—the real hero of the movie. The story is centered on Cage’s redemption, but if you think about it, Rita’s journey is far wilder and more impressive. Prior to their meeting, she spends an indeterminate amount of time as the only person on earth to have gone through the craziest experience in human history. She’s the only soldier in the UDF who truly understands the enemy they’re fighting, and as such, the only one who can formulate and carry out the near-suicidal plan that has a chance of winning the war. She has to charge into a battle that she’s virtually certain will be a massacre, while at the same time staying on the lookout (then and throughout the preceding 24 hours) for someone else who’s stumbled into the time loop. And she has to be mentally prepared to play her part at any point in the plan’s progression, while knowing that she’ll only actually experience a few possible outcomes: a slaughter on the beach, or an epic journey to kill the Omega. In either case, she’s unlikely to survive. If she does, then all she’ll probably ever know about her part in saving the world will be a story told to her by someone she’s just met. Just try to imagine her radical state of mind as the battle approaches; how beautifully apt that she trains by balancing on one hand amid giant spinning blades.

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Not to mention her emotional state; along with the near-certainty of imminent death, she has to be ready to meet and work with a stranger who already knows her very well. Here again, the time-loop premise makes the movie’s adherence to blockbuster conventions feel less arbitrary and more honestly earned. As tough and withdrawn as Rita is, it makes sense that she might open up somewhat to Cage; having been in the time loop herself, she understands that they’ve already spent countless days together. And while Liman doesn’t completely eschew the genre-prescribed romantic element, he notably downplays it. Cage falls in love with Rita because she’s beautiful and a straightforwardly admirable person, but his deep emotional attachment to her is more rooted in the intensely harrowing experience that they go through together. When Rita does kiss him, it’s a gesture not so much of romantic attraction as of respect for his bravery and gratitude for his assistance—the quick and perfunctory farewell of two warriors who know they’re about to die.

As such, it’s of a piece with the sequence it takes place in. The endings of time-loop stories are always tricky—even the excellent Source Code struggled to come up with an emotionally satisfying resolution that also made logical sense. The climactic showdown in Edge of Tomorrow certainly isn’t perfect; only a couple of J Squad grunts get a proper resolution, while the heroes, so realistically mortal beforehand, become more conventionally damage-proof once Cage is out of the loop. But the sequence is agreeably efficient and straightforward for an action blockbuster, and does a surprisingly good job of holding to the story’s internal logic. Meanwhile, Liman handles it with his usual panache; the action is lively and coherent, while the flooded, abandoned Louvre and Tuileries Gardens have a bleak and arresting beauty.

Nor does the movie overstay its welcome with extravagant scenes of celebration once the world is saved. Cage lands in London amid ringing church bells, watches a brief news report on TV, and just like that, he’s on his way to the place we know this scene is headed. He sees that J Squad is still alive, then walks into the training center to find Rita, who of course greets him just as coldly as she always has. In one final satisfying moment in a movie full of them, Liman leaves the interaction that follows up to our imagination. Cage just chuckles, and for once there’s no obvious manipulation behind that smile; he’s simply thrilled that a person he’s come to admire and care about isn’t dead after all. And when someone is that genuinely delighted onscreen, their happiness is inevitably contagious.

Even if that person is Tom Cruise.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] This was supposedly considered for the actual title right up until the last minute, then seized upon as a sort of alternate title in the studio’s attempts to re-brand the movie for home release after it performed badly at the American box office (as so many of the best ones do). The DVD release just went ahead and used both in concert, yielding the terrifically nonsensical title Live Die Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow.

[ii] Yes, that Verdun—the threat of the ‘Mimic scourge’ is such that it must be likened to the antagonist of not one, but both World Wars. It also confuses the allegory in subtly humorous ways; the Mimics are a merciless force of pure destruction, but maybe they’ve started this conflict due to fears of strategic encirclement, and the breakdown of a convoluted galactic alliance system.

[iii] My favorite assessment of his acting comes from Christopher Orr’s review of Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation: “You don’t overcome the ‘impossible’ by thinking it over a little more carefully… You overcome the impossible through the application of sheer, unvarnished willpower, a quality that Cruise has always possessed in abundance. Other performers might cry more persuasively, for instance, than Cruise did at Jason Robards’ bedside in Magnolia, but none will cry harder. Others may juke more gracefully in their underwear than Cruise did in Risky Business; none will juke with greater conviction.”

[iv] Taylor looks the part and delivers his lines well, as always, but I’ve found him much more compelling when he takes his eccentric demeanor in more sinister directions—most famously as the loathsome mercenary Locke, who cut off Jaime Lannister’s hand in Game of Thrones.

[v] For example, the latest Call of Duty game made $500 million the weekend of its release, and surpassed $1 billion within two months. Meanwhile, the video game industry as a whole grossed a staggering $74 billion worldwide in 2015, and continues to grow.

[vi] This trend is, of course, hardly universal; some older games—the Legend of Zelda, Deus Ex, and Thief come to mind—are known for their compelling storylines, while many contemporary games are as narratively vapid as ever. For interesting (and hilarious) commentary on all this, check out the Zero Punctuation YouTube series by Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, a motormouthed, flamboyantly profane British critic who articulately skewers weak narratives in his often scathing reviews of new games.

[vii] One of the most widely acclaimed games of all time, for example, is Portal, a bare-bones puzzle game with plain graphics and an impish sense of humor, in which the player uses a portal-generating gun to move through spaces that they otherwise couldn’t. I’ve heard of sniper simulators that take place in real time, so you might have to wait hours for the chance to land an almost impossibly difficult shot, and entirely text-based games about depression and suicide so shattering that they reduce the player to an emotional wreck. The cleverest indie game that I’m aware of is Papers, Please, in which you play an immigration officer at a checkpoint in a drab, fictional Eastern-bloc country, and must review paperwork for an endless parade of immigrants and returning citizens. You gain points for following the increasingly heartless and convoluted laws, and lose points for bending the rules or mistakenly letting in political undesirables.

[viii] As teenagers, my friends and I watched countless episodes of the best-known machinima series, Red vs. Blue, which turned the armored avatars of the Halo games into characters in a M.A.S.H.-esque sitcom. Stranded in concrete bunkers at opposite ends of a desolate box canyon, the lazy, dim-witted, and otherwise inept grunts in the eponymous armies have no incentive to actually fight each other, and spend most of their time the way real-life soldiers do: bickering and goofing off in an attempt to stave off boredom. The humor is often crass and immature in the ways one might expect from the gamer crowd, but when it’s good, it reaches impressive heights of screwball comedy and absurdist satire. When the Red and Blue squads each receive a new recruit, their separate attempts at hazing spiral out of control in classic sitcom fashion. The onboard computer in a massive tank asks to be called ‘Sheila’ and grows increasingly sassy as the story progresses. A mute soldier on the Red team turns out to be an android with a missing speech unit; he gets a new one and it promptly short-circuits, causing him to speak only in flat, robotic Spanish. And when one recruit asks why the flag at the base (the object of the ‘Capture the Flag’ multiplayer mode) is so important, his superiors falter: “Because it’s the flag, man… It’s blue, we’re blue…” A fantastic layman’s introduction to the series and to machinima more generally can be found in this rather charmingly dated article from 2005: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/08/07/magazine/the-xbox-auteurs.html

Pacific Rim (2013)

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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?

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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.

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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).

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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?

 

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© 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.

[ii] Seriously, check out this stunt, performed without any special effects whatsoever: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEDMO8iwLsM