Bulletpoints: Pacific Rim

There will be spoilers, and also squee.

  • Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes so very yes.
  • But also no.
  • Um.
  • Okay, so this movie has all the flaws of many other big summer movies. It’s incredibly cheesy, respectable actors are forced to mouth the stupidest of lines (poor Idris Elba with his “cancelling the apocalypse” speech), we never come anywhere near passing the Bechdel test, entire cities are destroyed without it seeming to matter to us that people’s lives are being torn apart because explosions are pretty, our hero falls in love with the sole female character.
  • The thing is, though, some part of my consciousness is just so immensely satisfied by giant robots punching giant monsters.  I think this might be how Michael Bay wants us to react to his films, at a level that is far removed from the intellect … I want to say something about lizard brains, but then I suspect I’d be more in favour of kaiju punching giant robots. I do not respond to Michael Bay films in this way. Here I was smiling throughout, even while groaning at the cheese.
  • There’s a moment when the young Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako is terrified and shaking and she sees Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost step out of his jaeger and he takes his helmet off and the sun is behind him and all you can see is golden light and that is what looking at Idris Elba is like and this movie gets that.
  • The fight scenes were at their best when they were at their silliest. Of course the kaiju can pick up a jaeger and carry it nearly into space; of course the jaeger has run out of weapons except for an actual sword; of course the vengeance-hungry woman co-piloting the jaeger screams “for my family!” while wielding it.
  • During the interval we (I watch movies with the best people) had an argument over whether someone involved in the film was a Lovecraft fan or a China Mieville fan. Del Toro loves his monsters which to me must indicate a familiarity with Lovecraft, but what with the breach under the ocean (The Scar), the occasional giant bones with cities built partially around them (Perdido Street Station) and the two-people’s-brains-required (Embassytown) …
  • The women, sigh. All …three (?) of them. There are a bunch of minor characters who could have been women without it causing some massive change in the script but no. Three women, of whom only one gets a name that is repeated so that one actually remembers it. There’s the Russian jaeger pilot who speaks maybe one word in the entire film, the nameless woman in Hong Kong who speaks to one of the scientists, and Mako, who is one of our heroes. Mako can take on our other hero in a fight, and is apparently supremely qualified to pilot one of these machines. Except that she has emotional issues that compromise her (and that nearly get a lot of people incinerated) and that somehow the men around her still feel the need to defend her honour (our hero gets into a fist fight). The men often treat her as delicate and inexperienced (and she is inexperienced, but the film chose to write her that way), and from the moment she gets into the machine Raleigh seems to take over.
  • The frustrating thing is that Mako comes so close to being the hero of this film (and see this for a more charitable reading than mine of how her character is treated). She has odds to face (her own personal demons that hold her back from being the brilliant pilot she’s capable of being), things to prove, daddy issues that aren’t really daddy issues because she and Pentecost mostly have what seems a respectful adult working relationship, more backstory than her co-star Raleigh (though I liked that he was also emotionally damaged). And I genuinely like that she doesn’t have to be a Strong Female Character and show a consistent ability to be tough and sassy and brilliant at everything. But. Pacific Rim isn’t necessarily interested in a traditional hero arc (and most of the time I think this is a really good thing about the movie); even the giant robots that power the story need two pilots with linked minds. And so Mako gets what feels to me like a raw deal; she gets the earlier obstacles and failures of the hero story, then as the narrative builds up to the point where she can prove herself, the focus shifts and we remember that this is not a hero story. She gets her big moment (it is cheesy and involves swords and I laughed a lot and it was great), but it’s followed by Pentecost’s big moment and Raleigh’s big moment (which involves near- sacrificing himself for The Woman He Loves) so it no longer stands out.
  • Most of the time Pacific Rim is entirely critical of the hero narrative, in any case. The jaeger pilots with their twinned minds and the need for emotional compatibility between them. The coming together of the various nations that we’re told of at the beginning– more on this in a moment. The heroes that think of themselves as heroes and act according to traditional lone wolf narratives, such as the younger of the Australian pilots, are horrible people. If this movie has a protagonist at all (considering the central plot is GIANT ROBOTS ARE PUNCHING GIANT MONSTERS) it has at least two, and possibly four.
  • And yet it insists on its heroes. Raleigh has to be willing to sacrifice himself to save Mako and the human race, douchebag Australian younger guy has to sacrifice himself as redemption, Pentecost has to sacrifice himself because Idris Elba is too perfect for this world, our small but dedicated team of heroes is going to Save The Day (shoutout to science dudes, who also helped). This isn’t so much teamwork as it is a collection of individual hero stories– and if I find myself struggling to articulate what the difference between those two is I’m not sure how much of that is my own incoherence and how much it is a general problem of not having those narratives to draw on for examples.
  • At io9, Annalee Newitz suggests that this film is somehow international, “a fairy tale for the global age”. She says ” There is no undercurrent of American patriotism, the way you get in Transformers or Independence Day. It’s just humans against monsters. No nation or group can do it alone … we need to stop identifying as Americans or Chinese or Russians — we need to identify as humans”. And agreed it’s  lacking most of the America, yeah!ness that characterises many big budget action films. But this is setting a low bar, and let’s not do that. The jaegers we see are American (but run by one American and one Japanese pilot), Chinese, Russian and Australian, okay. Pentecost has a British accent. And most of the film is set in Hong Kong. Surely this will be the smart, multicultural film the world needs? But the Chinese characters don’t talk, the Russian characters don’t talk; apart from Mako (and I don’t even know how citizenship works in a post-giant-monsters world; would Mako have taken on Pentecost’s citizenship at some point in the last howeversomany years?) all the dialogue is between English guys, American guys and Australian guys. Quite a reasonable proportion of the people in the background in this picture (via Vulture.com) are black, and maybe we can choose to believe that most of them are from countries other than England, the USA and Australia–it’s not like we can be proved wrong, since they don’t get to speak. The movie is unable to get away from the reality of the actual population of Hong Kong, but they barely speak either. And this is the thing–we can’t forget that we’re “Americans or Chinese or Russians” when being only one of those things is a guarantee of being heard, and when the people celebrating the global diversity of movies like this somehow fail to notice that most of the world doesn’t get to speak. So is it possible to make a movie where two out of three of the main actors are non-American people of colour, set it in Hong Kong and still provide a vision of the future in which England and America (and white Australians, because they’re not The West but they kind of are) are the active parties who save us all? Apparently.
  • Right, back to short, bulletpoint-sized points. What was with all the shoes? If baby!Mako was wearing one tiny red shoe and carrying the other, surely this meant she had both shoes? And what was with Ron Perlman’s character losing a shoe and having someone pick it up? Is this a world where people just randomly take other people’s shoes as souvenirs? Is it secretly Cinderella fanfic in some clever way I haven’t understood?
  • Possibly the one aspect in which this film shows restraint is in its refusal to give us more than a glimpse of the alien world from which these creatures come. I respected that. I also wished I could have seen a Del Toro fantasy landscape though.
  • We terraformed the world for monsters. Whoops. It’s information provided in a  throwaway line that doesn’t turn itself into a Message, and somehow becomes the more effective for that.
  • I genuinely thought the baby kaiju was going to think comedy scientist guy was its mother. I feel like that comedy subplot was not taken to its full potential.
  • There is a dog that lives. There is an awkward confession of love right before the glorious last stand that the characters will probably not survive. There are awkward confessions of parental love as well. Cliches are embraced with an enthusiasm that (mostly) makes them incredibly endearing.
  • No one makes a “once more into the breach” joke, despite ample opportunity to do so. This is a genuine loss.
  • A nerdy English scientist wears a bowtie and says “by jove!” I will forgive many movies many things for this.

But I loved it. And I have Issues. And I want to watch it again just so I can watch my friends watch the fight scenes because pure, childish glee is something I find I value a surprising amount.

 

9 Comments to “Bulletpoints: Pacific Rim

  1. …I think I love your bulletpoints.

    I’ve been too distracted to get to the cinema to see Pacific Rim, yet. But I do want to see robots vs monsters soon.

  2. Saw an interesting case for visual presence, as opposed to lines of dialogue, as a measure of character importance (Mako and Sasha Kaidanovsky being the relevant examples) at http://stormingtheivorytower.blogspot.com.au/2013/07/the-visual-intelligence-of-pacific-rim.html?m=1

    Thought you might find it interesting. And this: http://slythwolf.tumblr.com/post/56091910363/pacific-rim-and-the-bechdel-test

    • I’d read the first link and I think it makes some excellent points (such as the thing with Mako’s blue hair, I loved that detail) but I don’t really see how pointing out that Sasha Kaidanovsky’s body language in the minute or so she’s onscreeen is pretty cool changes the fact that she gets a minute or so onscreen.

      As for the second–sure, I see lots of good things about how the movie deals with Mako’s gender and I mention some of them above, but does having one (mostly) excellent woman character really excuse a world in which literally three women exist? I’m not even necessarily asking for major characters here (though that’d be nice)- just some more female extras would have drastically changed the look of the film for better.

  3. “I genuinely thought the baby kaiju was going to think comedy scientist guy was its mother. I feel like that comedy subplot was not taken to its full potential.”

    Agreed. AGREED.

  4. It certainly isn’t a perfect film (we acknowledged some of the same issues on The Skiffy and Fanty Show). But boy is it a lot of fun!

  5. “But I loved it. And I have Issues.”

    This, very much. I’m never getting tired of watching the Jaeger/Kaigu smackdowns, and still gritting my teeth for big chunks of the character stuff. But it is so visually smart and the level of imagination involved is still quite staggering, and so much fun, I’m still trying to let go of the fact it could have been smarter character and dialogue-wise.

    And I’ve seen it three times now, and those are my three favourite Mieville books, and I can’t believe I didn’t see the similarities… which are really obvious, thinking about it now.

    Oddly, considering the lack of women in the film, the graphic novel prequel is full of female characters (although still only barely passes Bechdel) – two fighter pilots, one of which is Pentecost’s sister, and the other one ends up being his co-pilot (basically all of Pentecost’s narrative turns out to be driven by these two and Mako); the framing narrative is centred around a female journalist, and then the scientist who invented the Drift interface is also female. And *then* she ends up piloting the first Jaeger. It kind of feels almost like they emptied out the film narrative and they all ended up in there instead.

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