The majority of films can take the real world as their basis. We don’t need to spend too much time figuring out how the world works in Amour because we know, more-or-less, about getting old and everything we don’t know is going to be explained by the story. A film like Casablanca is just a tiny bit trickier, because you need to know a little about the refugee trail out of Europe – so they provide that in the opening credits. Things quickly get out of hand though, once there are big changes or complex situations. So it’s necessary, in some senses, to sit through an X-men to get to an X2. Sometimes there’s more explanation than you need, so Batman Begins, is best described as a great trailer for The Dark Knight. The idea is that you need to go through a certain amount of exposition so that you can understand the situation well enough for the filmmaker to tell the story. The most relevant possible example here should be the tedium of watching Hellboy so that you can fully appreciate the setup for Hellboy II.
Pacific Rim is film 2 in the Kaiju Monster Movie series – they just didn’t bother to make the first film that did all the boring exposition and set up the juicy stuff. It does have a 2 minute or so fly-by of the “need to know” stuff, but I think the filmmakers understand that we understand the basic idea of the film and don’t need too much hand-holding. So, straight away, the film is suggesting that we need to trust the filmmakers, that the world is going to hang together – all the questions the first film might have made clear just need to be taken on faith. It’s a bold move, and I approved – I’d rather take a leap of faith than sit through 2 hours of exposition and wait 2-3 years to get to the real movie.
This approach also saves the tedium of having to justify every little divergence from the real world; which is lucky, because Pacific Rim‘s got some ‘splaining to do. There is hardly a single scene in the film where someone comparing the fiction to reality won’t have some kind of question. Almost all of these glide under the radar, with only the absolutely honking description of one of the Mecha as “analogue” being universally called out as going too far. If nothing else, it is an impressive display of the power a filmmaker can have in setting the terms of engagement with a film, and how successful that can be. There aren’t the kind of glaring problems that I thought marred Man of Steel. The consensus in my neck of the woods is “it does what it says on the tin, plus a bit.” Which is to say, it’s one of the best popcorn films in years, while simultaneously being del Toro’s worst movie since Hellboy and a giant retrograde step from Pan’s Labyrinth or Hellboy 2, because while those films played by their own rules, they also dragged in wider concerns. Pacific Rim is hermetically sealed.
What’s inside the package then?
We start with the exterior, which is constructed to the expected standard for a big budget CGI extravaganza; there are none of the CGI problems that marred Blade II, and there was perhaps a slight improvement compared to Hellboy II. The visual design of every element was good, and interesting. The mecha looked great. The monsters looked great. The sets looked great. Movement was realistic. That meant that there was no occasion where there were immersion-breaking problems with the look, and the great design lent weight to the experience. You want to believe in robots that beautifully designed fighting monsters that stylish and exotic.
Beyond that, I have some problems trying to identify why I enjoyed the film. I liked that it was set outside of the continental USA, with a pair of Americans rather than an America Saves the World ensemble. Their multi-culturalism was not all-embracing, but was better than usual. I enjoyed most of the performances, especially Ron Perlman’s cameos. I liked that they didn’t shoehorn a romance story into the film… but, all of that is, and should be, icing over a core of something.
In my response to Hulk, I often find myself talking about Iconic, rather than Dramatic Heroes… but this film didn’t really have either. The characters begin, or are set up, with particular traits, and then do get to express those traits. But the application of those traits was not really particular, as far as I could tell, to the characters. Instead of a story, we have a sequence of fights. One of my friends likened it to one of those fighter pilot movies from the 1980s (Topgun, Iron Eagles, and their ilk). That feels about right – and I think for the uninitiated the differentiation you got between piloting styles in those movies was minimal. Which leaves you comparing other obvious fight-sequence based films, my favourite of which is Hero, whose whole story mechanism is to differentiate characters based on their combat styles. To my uninitiated eye, this was no Hero.
It seems strange to say it, because the characters were all distinct and identifiable, and all those good things. But to a large extent, they had nothing much to do in the story. If we are thinking about story as the way a situation changes, and the reasons it changes, then this film’s “story” is thinner on the ground than even the usual popcorn flick. The bulk of the screen time comes back to the sequence of set-piece fights. Structurally, they remind me most of a WWE “event”. Plenty of personality, plenty of flair, but almost couldn’t be simpler in narrative and characterization terms.
I can’t help but feel like one of the reasons that Pacific Rim is getting a pass from a lot of critics is that we can at least understand the story. It’s evaded the uber-complexity elaborated by Hulk recently. “A simple story, well told”. That’s not something you can really say about virtually anything else del Toro has had a hand in – Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy II are “enormously complex stories, well told”. We’re comparing Pacific Rim to Transformers, when we should be holding del Toro to the standard he himself has established.
There is no question that I, along with everyone else, is giving Pacific Rim a passing grade. It does what it says it will, and a little more. However, if you were in a combative frame of mind, the film does have a few soft spots.
There were some interesting contradictions inside the story. The main one is the way that the Marshal represents himself and his effort as the last stand against the apocalypse. The factuality of this is reasonably well established – he is down to the last few war machines, while his scientists calculate an exponential expansion of threat. Yet… the world government has discontinued his efforts, and the rationale they’ve used is an alternately viable option of building a wall around the entire pacific. My problem with that is not so much that this is obviously silly – the fiction tells us that this resource allocation and decision making make sense. My problem is that it means we have different elements in the story pulling in different directions – a world government promising the Marshal all the resources they can afford, but which happens to be virtually nothing due to the massive expense of the Jaeger, unifies the tone and mood, reinforcing it. As it is, we feel like the Marshal is the only one with this apocalyptic play-book, a feeling reinforced by the apparent lack of existing massive damage to Hong Kong once the Kaiju arrive there. A number of work-arounds seem obvious to me, so this must be a deliberate decision, and I can’t quite figure out the reason for it.
Only slightly less important was the lack of gender equality. Where are all the women? Two factors seem to have largely nullified this vector: the lack of any sexualisation of anyone. Secondly, the main female protagonist is an extremely cool character that is very likeable. I don’t have too much to add on that topic, except that the very lack of obvious gendering for most characters makes this decision even less explicable.
If I were looking to change the film, to get it out of the “pass” and into the “really good”, a decent number of changes need to be made, and according to my tastes and prejudices that means cracking some holes in the perfect boundary conditions of the film. That means making significant cuts in the length of the fights to explore the implications of “drifting” for human relationships, of going to some effort to make Hong Kong look like a city at war, exploring the human cost of piloting this kind of device and straightening out the two main soft spots pointed out above. Nothing radical or fundamental. In some ways though, what this film really needed was to actually be Part 2 of a two-part experience.
The conclusion? If you’re going to bother seeing just one of the big “summer” films, this is likely to be my pick for 2013.