Friday, May 16, 2014
A Look Back at Pacific Rim
Time for a thought exercise.
I want you to imagine a child. A kind of small, impressionable young boy. He's playing in the bathtub with toy boats and rubber ducks and basically having a real fun time. And then he's like, oh man, what if the boat was a boat and the duck was a Godzilla. And he smashes the duck into the boat, making fake Godzilla roars with his mouth and just reliving the same moments he just saw on TV in black and white, but, like, it's him doing it. And he's pretty happy about it.
Now I want you to imagine that the kid has grown up and their name is Guillermo Del Toro and they're given millions of dollars to do the duck and boat thing but instead of a rubber duck and a toy boat in a bathtub, it's a real boat and a giant CGI duck in the Industrial Light and Magic office. And instead of making fake Godzilla roars with his mouth, it's Tom Morello making weird cool noises on his 'lectric geetar on the soundtrack. You've pretty much just imagined how Pacific Rim was made. Probably.
I love Pacific Rim a lot. It's probably too much. It's probably to the point of obsession. I didn't love it quite as much when I first saw it. I thought the film was great and dense and beautiful but I kind of was disappointed that it was all for the sake of putting big robots and monsters against each other and making them fight. Like, that was disappointing to me. I was basically the guy who showed up to The Avengers expecting the Justice League might show up. Sure, it's the vein of the right idea, but I still leave the theatre woefully disappointed.
Picking up Pacific Rim on Blu-ray, my love for the film began to grow. A lot. That's ignoring the fact that the transfer seemed to have brightened up a lot of the more murky and dark parts of a film which is set almost exclusively at night. In particular, though, special features: watching any footage of Guillermo Del Toro doing and talking about... well, anything. I want you to take the time to watch this footage from a Japanese morning show in which they show Del Toro around a Gundam museum. He just kind of gawks at statues of big robots with his mouth open. He's like a child in a candy store, but instead of candy, it's Gundams, and instead of a store, it's a museum.
See, I get the impression that Del Toro is a really smart man. Like, perhaps the smartest man. He is perhaps the smartest filmmaker in Hollywood; he's certainly one of the most visually attuned directors. His movies are so rich in detail, and the way he frames his elements are so artistically and technically refined that no matter what kind of film he makes you can at least bet that it'll be strikingly beautiful. But he's a smart man without pretentiousness. He is a smart man that is making films for his inner child. He's making films like Hellboy and Pan's Labyrinth, and sure, they're kind of thematically subtle and they have great actors in them but when you get down to it, they're both about being children. Hellboy is a big kid who loses his dad and has to struggle without a father figure. Ofelia is literally a child who is burdened with all manner of weird, crazy, occult shit, as well as fascists who just don't like anyone or anything. And a big frog that lives in a tree.
My point is that Del Toro does not make films from the perspective of A Smart Man. He makes films from the perspective of children. Whether that is himself as a child, like in Pacific Rim, or other children, like in Pan's Labyrinth, it is nontheless a rare perspective - especially considering his clout and talent. As the world grew up around him, he made sure to stay true to his own roots. This all, of course, culminates in Pacific Rim, which is essentially just "all the stuff I liked growing up but is now a film".
I want you to consider the influences of Pacific Rim and see how deep this rabbit hole goes. Obviously we have the mecha genre; the anime of the 70s, the tokusatsu series like Super Sentai. Then you got your kaiju genre; the classics, of course, the Japanese Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Gamera, but then you also got your Western stuff like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and Them!, as well as your adventure films like Jason and the Argonauts and Flash Gordon. Then you got a very heavy Lovecraftian influence; visions of Hell and Hellbeasts, madness, insanity, all that. And of course there's heavy doses of Mexican wrestling, War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still, right up to more modern sci-fi like Star Wars and Independence Day. There's even elements of techo-thrillers. Then you throw in Del Toro's signature art deco-esque aesthetics and you got yourself what we call a "melting pot".
So Pacific Rim wears its influences very much on its sleeve. Is there original material in there? Well, I like to think so. Reading back-up material like Tales from Year Zero reveals a meticulously rich world that has been crafted for Pacific Rim; characters like Stacker Pentecost are granted a larger degree of depth and intrigue, and a lot of technical details are explained in considerable detail, in particular why Jaegars were considered a viable option for fighting the Kaiju at all. It's all very smart and writer Travis Beecham at least understands the minute factors that go into making a believable sci-fi universe.
That's not what I'm here to talk about, though. I could rave about Pacific Rim's intense genius in terms of its lore (and its score... and its cinematography...) for a long time; there's a lot to talk about, and it's all much larger than a single film would imply. It isn't what makes Pacific Rim so intensely likeable, though. That stuff is all so cold, and calculated - it's filling in blanks created by something that is essential to Pacific Rim's success. Pacific Rim is a great movie because it is so overjoyed to exist. Not a cynical bone in its entire body. Every robot, every monster, every human character that has any time in the script, Pacific Rim is happy about. Del Toro's perspective as a director lends the entire production a reverence and a joy... a humanity.
This is what impressed me when I first saw the film. I really did enjoy that it was a story about rising up against impossible odds, showing pretty much every corner of the Earth rallying together for a common cause. It's a feel-good movie! Very few monster movies are feel-good, and even with Pacific Rim's obvious horror influence, there's never a moment the film isn't at least a little bit fun. It's part of what makes me think that the new Godzilla film can't possibly out-do Pacific Rim at least creatively - I mean, I've watched Gareth Edward's Monsters, and I think he's a very clever guy, but Godzilla is going to be a very dark, very scary film. Pacific Rim is more of a cartoon by comparison, and it's every bit the richer for it, at least by my tastes.
The proof is in the pudding. Of Pacific Rim's very, very large cast, all of them end up overcoming their personal story arcs and coming out on top. Err, except for the ones that die, I guess. But even then, their deaths are very much not in vain; a lot of effort is put into making sure that we, the audience, understand that their sacrifices are very much meaningful. There are parts of Pacific Rim where characters know all hope is lost and decide to go and spit death in the face instead of mull about it, because it's what their friends would want of them ("we could take those flares and do something really stupid"). Oh, and every character interaction that is initially hostile ends up being positive by the end of the film! In particular, the two scientists of Newt and Gottlieb; they hate each other intensely at the start, and their entire arc is them learning to love each other. Love! I'd say "no homo," but probably a little bit of homo! It's very uplifting!
And I don't want to sound like I don't like loathing and horror and fear and sadness - especially in monster movies. Why, Godzilla (the original - Gojira, if you want to be specific) is very bleak, and very mournful. It takes itself seriously and I honestly find it depressing as hell. And that's great. That's awesome. I mean, years later we get Godzilla in films like Son of Godzilla and I sure as hell am not praising that for being jovial and upbeat; to the contrary, if Son of Godzilla had a ruthless bludgeoning of Minilla to death, I'd be far more approving. Pacific Rim, though, comes at a very good time. I don't think it would work a few years earlier or later; surrounded by releases like Man of Steel and The Dark Knight Rises and the new Godzilla... the positive worldview is endlessly refreshing (in particular from a Warner Bros. film).
Here, though, is my epiphany. When I first saw it, I had not considered that Pacific Rim's fight scenes carried the same optimistic excitement. I believed the film was at its most comfortable when pilots were out of their Jaegars. And still my favourite scene in the entire film is that of young Mako stumbling through a ruined Tokyo, shoe in her hands, tears of pain-stricken loss rolling down her cheeks. That there is Pacific Rim's heart, and a film as goofy as Pacific Rim needs a heart. I had just not considered that the heart had actually found its way into the clashes between the Jaegars and Kaiju.
There really are only three set-piece fight scenes in Pacific Rim, if you don't include ancillary footage like Striker Eureka in Sydney. The first fight sets up Raleigh's conflict in the film. The second wraps up a lot of the resentment between human characters and shows that they are still capable of fighting back. And finally, the third one is a suicide run to destroy the breach and put the whole thing to bed. The key fight scene is of course the Hong Kong one; it's certainly the longest and most original, and is the most enjoyable by a fair margin - to say nothing of varied; it starts in the ocean, works its way to the shore and into the city, and soon finds itself at the edges of outer space.
But the more it churns in my mind, the more I realize how unique each scene is. Emotionally, visually... they achieve very important things. Some of those things are plot-related, this much is true. The opening scene is really just to highlight the beginning of the end; the first and greatest loss that would fell the titans. The middle one shows us that all hands are on deck to kick some Kaiju ass like the good old days. And the third one... well, it ends the movie. It's all quick and to the point. That point, however, can sometimes be as simple as... well... I think Guillermo del Toro, the man-child that he is, just wanted to see cool stuff happen.
Like, why is the last fight underwater? What impact does that have? Well, for one, in means the Kaiju get to swim around. It means a giant tentacled Cthulhu-esque Category 5 Kaiju gets to rise up menacingly from the depths. It means there gets to be an underwater nuke explosion. The second fight in Hong Kong explains itself. The first fight showcases some great "robot rescues boat" stuff. Do they fulfil story purposes? Sure, they do. But that's del Toro the director. What do these fights represent to del Toro the child? A chance to see some wicked awesome sweet stuff unfold. A chance to showcase the majesty and brutality of the Kaiju and the Jaegars. A chance to take those playfights in the bathtub and make them cinematic reality. Beautiful cinematic reality, at that - if I gush too much about how absolutely perfect Pacific Rim actually looks, this piece would be twice as long. I gotta focus, here.
Perspective really is important to the core of Pacific Rim. It's a film about scale, after all. Big things fighting big things; big things with smaller things inside of them, whether it be Jaegar pilots inside Jaegars or memories inside Jaegar pilots. After all, don't children see the entire world as big, scary, and full of giants? It's why the scenes of abject horror actually work (the death of Cherno Alpha springs to mind). It's why the film is allowed to be in awe of its own monsters. It's why, for all the spectacle of elbow rockets and Knifehead and Ron Perlman saying "where is my goddamn shoe!" and explosions... my mind always turns to the little girl holding her shoe - and her heart - in her hands.
The scene with young Mako is the scene in Pacific Rim. Nothing else matters. It all fades away, like dust in the wind, to reveal the true soul of the piece. It's all there - reverence and fear of kaiju. Respect and hope. A crying child, made to feel better by her knight in 500ft tall, shining armour. (Striking contrast between red and blue against a dystopian, hopeless grey - purely aesthetically.) It's important, I think, to truly understand Pacific Rim - it is not a film with kaiju and mecha in it. It is not a film that aims to update the genres in any tangible way. It is a love letter to the genres; more homage than anything. And the man making that film is really just a big, soft, boy-at-heart.
Pacific Rim is about kaiju and mecha. It's about how it makes people feel. It's about witnessing the glory and the scope from a position few of us are privy to relive. Many people criticize the film for being mere fluff - a popcorn blockbuster, heavy on style and light on substance. After all, its characters are all tropes of tropes; stereotypes within stereotypes. Its villains show no sign of heroism, and its heroes show no sign of villainy. It is completely played straight, even at its silliest. But that's the point. I don't think I've seen a film so respectful of its roots, so excited to exist, and so... heartwarming, conceptually. With so many action films relying on nosgalgia, Pacific Rim is unique in its being nostalgic. You know del Toro told Mana Ashida (the Japanese girl who plays young Mako) to call him "Totoro" because his full name was too hard for her? How can you hate this movie!!
I truly believe only the most cynical and stoic can truly claim to hate Pacific Rim. It's such an important film for me, and it has made me appreciate a lot more things in my life. Immaturity. Childishness. I've never been stranger to these things, but no director like Guillermo del Toro could prove how important these things are in a life. His film about giant robots and giant monsters only goes to prove that no matter how old we get, we should never lose the eyes of child. Because the moment we do is the moment we truly grow old.
Guillermo del Toro agrees: growing old sucks. Sit and play with your bath toys instead.