When I saw ads for Pacific Rim, I thought, “Wow, what a stupid movie.” When I saw that Idris Elba of The Wire, Luther, and Thor (barely) was in it, I thought, “Wow, what’s Idris Elba doing in such a stupid movie.” When I learned that Guillermo del Toro of Pan’s Labryinth fame wrote it, I thought, “Wow, I want to see this movie.” When I saw Pacific Rim, I thought, “Wow, why did Guillermo del Toro write such a stupid movie?”
I can’t answer that question, but because I blew $13.75 to see it in 3D, I’ve earned the solemn privilege to complain about it on the Internet.
MANY SPOILERS BELOW
If you’d call it that. Once you know the premise, you know the plot, leaving little to spoil.
So starting in 2013, the Pacific Ocean floor opens up and a colossal, armor-plated monster, subsequently called a kaiju from the Japanese for “giant monster,” devastates San Francisco and only dies after taking a near-week-long bludgeoning by the U.S. military’s heavy weaponry (always aim for the eyes). The world’s nations then band together to defeat the Kaiju by matching them in battle with giant robots called jaegers (the German word for “hunter,” which is odd as Germany isn’t in the Pacific) that are powered by a pair of human pilots. In a gimmick, these pilots operate the jaegers via a mind-meld cleverly named “the drift.” The more experiences the two people share, the better they fight.
Now the flaws:
The Kaiju Were More Like Robots Than the Jaegers
Seeing a few plays about (and even casting) robots this year has led me to the conclusion that robot takeovers will never come to pass because they impute to robots a robust, humanized survival instinct. A sentient robot should be completely indifferent to its own existence, unless it were programmed otherwise, and even then, it could at best be programmed to maximize a certain goal at the expense of all others. Robots could not decide one day to overthrow the earth, but they could, for example, extract all the iron ore at a mine with no regard for human safety. They would sociopathically ignore anyone communicating with them unless it either aided or hampered the robots’ objective. Don’t be scared about humans creating such monsters, we’ve had them for centuries and call them “corporations.”
The Kaiju, though, are very much like robots in this sense: They emerge from the rift, make their way to the nearest city, and then lay waste to it. Their very simple programming only starts to show complexity when they stop destroying cities to fight with the jaegers. Later on, they emerge from the rift in larger numbers, and they start coordinating their attacks, so there’s lack of clarity to how the Kaiju’ prioritize their objectives.
I can suspend disbelief for the Kaiju. Most monsters in movies defy the biological tradeoffs that occur in nature, and the Kaiju’re no exception. They are genetically engineered, which obviates most of these problems. They’re massive yet clearly endothermic (warm-blooded), but they don’t sit around eating continuously to support their mass. (The movie says they poop.) Maybe their creators send them to earth with filled stomachs, but they don’t appear to slow down and die of exhaustion after battering the world’s Pacific cities for days on end. In a way, I sympathize more with the Kaiju than the humans. They’re designed to do nothing but destroy and can’t break their programming.
The jaegers, on the other hand, while entertaining for fight sequences, are not how wily humans would or should design robots. With one exception that has three arms, the jaegers are perfectly humanoid in form, and masculine, which enhances my point. It would be much more helpful to give them six arms than two. More importantly, in a sense they’re designed with a human-like survival instinct and a human-like biology. A jaeger that loses an arm appears “broken” and must be repaired, but robots need not function along those lines.
This conventionalism shows a lack of imagination, especially the kind that goes into robotics today. It’s perfectly conceivable, and strategic, to create disposable robots with deliberately disposable parts. If a kaiju bites off a jaeger’s hand, fuck you monster, it’s filled with explosives. The Kaiju, being giant animals, should also be susceptible to other kinds of unconventional and deceptive tactics. If they “prioritize” targeting jaegers over cities, then build “scarecrow” jaegers filled with explosives, or even use non-lethal weapons like pepper spray to slow them down. That, or fake them out with phantom cities to attack.
It goes without saying that a giant robot takes a lot more effort to develop and maintain than an army. Like, if a fuse blows, you’re multi-billion-dollar robot is wasted along with your cities. The movie’s premise of robots vs. monsters falls apart when you pick apart at it, but writing the movie with more creative humans might make it more “democratic.” What do I mean by this?
Anti-Democratic, Elitist Plot
Although Rim is clearly a plot-driven story, the character interactions are greatly expanded through the “drift” literary device mentioned above. It’s a clever conceit. Without it, Rim‘s character interaction would be an even more boring ego-fight between the pilots like Top Gun. (Don’t waste your breath mentioning Goose, he died and you forget about him by the end of that movie.)
As you can imagine, the problem, though, is that the drift brings the character dynamics to the forefront, and they’re not terribly interesting. And don’t get me started on the dialogue and acting, save Elba’s. People in the theater were laughing at some of the lines that were being dropped. The massive infrastructure required to operate the jaegers is depicted, but it’s almost all faceless people sitting at computer terminals, driving carts around hanger bays, or just running around. If Rim taught me anything, it’s to be wary of the “ground control” trope, which is meant to show that the protagonists’ work is so important that they need to have an army of anonymous people supporting them.
Thus, most of the time, the ground control trope is used to elevate the main characters into superheroes, which twists reality because ground controls can be very democratic and not elitist. Take for example Apollo 13, where the men wearing thick glasses in Houston sit in a large control room, smoking cigarettes and triple-checking one another’s slide-rule calculations because that’s the best they had at the time. Apollo 13 was a more democratic movie. The heroic astronauts were nearly helpless, and it’s the ground control crew’s professionalism and creativity that saves them. In Rim, the ground control represents the sub-citizens.
The only time when Rim takes the proles’ prospective is towards the beginning when you see the men (and it’s only men) building the “Wall of Life,” which is an Atlantic Wall designed to shield humanity from Pacific monsters. It’s dangerous, grueling work, but you empathize with the workers more than the peons running around the jaegers’ hanger bays with no discernible tasks to perform.
Speaking of the Wall of Life, it’s another example of Rim‘s elitism because it illustrates the utter cynicism the movie holds for politics. In the first 15 minutes of the movie, the politicians from the countries along the Pacific Ocean inform Elba’s jaeger marshal that they’re terminating his program in favor of the Wall of Life. These politicians, as well as the workers building the Wall, promptly disappear from the film, and even the world’s Kaiju experts consist of only a pair of academics who could have been eliminated from the story entirely instead of a NASA-ful of PhDs. It’s the “Neville Chamberlain/Democrats-don’t-support-the-troops-and-are-soft-on-terror” trope, which has been cropping up in movies like Immortals (which is a truly awful movie): The political elite, blinded by their dirty hippie ideology, adopt a patently self-defeating policy of appeasement. Leaning heavily on this trope, Rim clearly believes that democratic polities and their elected leaders are too stupid to realize that they’re in a final war for their own survival, and they must be rescued by elitist militarists.
A democratic Rim would have focused more on the insights of less comical experts, the sweat of real workers, and the bold, conscientious actions of real statesmen, and less on the frivolous character development of a bunch of pseudo-Jedi. I could even forgive the movie for building the tension by allowing the Kaiju to adapt to the pepper spray, chlorine gas, rat poison, armor-piercing depleted uranium shells, and long-range acoustic device attacks to the point that they have no choice but to unleash the robots. Maybe the humans could figure out a way to turn the indestructible Kaiju back on their own masters as a kind of allegory against militarism?
That kind of originality was lacking from what is considered the only “original” action movie of the year. No comic-book heroes, no sequels. And that’s to Pacific Rim‘s credit. Media broadening, increased flexibility in television plotlines, and lack of consumer purchasing power all sap Hollywood’s willingness to sell us interesting stories. But in the end Pacific Rim wasn’t that original: It had the premise of The Avengers and much of the politics of Independence Day. The action wasn’t that great either. I found the rainy, nighttime fight scenes difficult to follow and unconvincing. (I don’t think there’s much point to a giant robot smashing a cargo ship into an armor-plated monster’s face; it just crumples on impact.) 2012’s The Avengers was much more plausible, easier to follow, and more fun, even if it was a superhero comic book movie.
Here’s hoping Gravity is better.