Why Pacific Rim Works

pacific rim

This is one of those movies that shouldn’t exist. It’s too expensive for an unproven property. It’s too silly for a wide audience. It’s too risky to put in the hands of the director of Hellboy. Pacific Rim should have been a creative and financial failure of epic proportions and it probably would have been if it were not for the giddy passion-infused vision of Guillermo Del Toro and numerous uncredited script rewrites. Instead of repeating all the same mistakes as other big Hollywood spectacles, this film gave us a story worth watching, appreciating, and rewatching.

Of course, no film of this type should be expected to please everyone. Although the average cinema goer would probably lump this together with another recent and very profitable sci-fi franchise (which shall not be named as not to lend it legitimacy), Pacific Rim is anything but that special brand of lowest common denominator inanity. Although it may seem to share a similar visual makeup , inflated sense of scale, and core concept, the differences couldn’t be greater.

Please don’t mistake me for saying that Pacific Rim is high art. It is not. What it is actually is a more rare animal, one almost unheard of in massive productions like this. It is something rare enough that we don’t have a good name for it: a self-aware unpretentious non-pandering genre film that doesn’t pretend to be more than it is, yet achieves its purpose with so much joy and clarity that it’s turns a central premise which should naturally devolve into stupidity into a much more earnest human story.

Let’s talk about all the things that Pacific Rim absolutely got right.

Careful World-Building and Set-Up

Most movies of this nature start with the conflict right as it initially arrives. Everything is fine and then a monster appears to shred that world to pieces. Wisely Pacific Rim begins 8 years after the attacks begin. This is not a movie about monsters attacking. It is a movie about a world where monster attacks are normal. And that is far more interesting.

We also don’t just see robots fighting monsters. We see glimpses of how it affects the economy, international politics, and the crews behind those machines. We see what it’s like to run for your life to an underground shelter and what it’s like to be a lost little girl during a Kaiju attack. We hear ineffectual politicians on television promising that the Wall of Life will protect them and then later hear how people should flee to the Safe Zones that we know, of course, cannot keep people safe. We meet the scientists that study these creatures. Best of all, we see the shady underworld that gathers around the fallen corpses to harvest organs, bones, and other tissues for a profit. We learn that even the Marshal makes deals with these guys to keep the Jaeger program afloat. Pacific Rim gives us the real deal, not a half-baked jumble of ideas buried under flashy battle sequences.

Relatable Human Characters

I won’t tell you that Pacific Rim has incredible deep and memorable characters. But I will argue that these feel like real characters with real motivations and a real stake in what happens in the Kaiju war. Stacker Pentecost is unbreakable, forceful, expedient. Mako is determined, respectful, aggressive. Raleigh is wary, hopeful, unpredictable. Supported by a pair of argumentative scientists and cohorts of stone-cold pilots, these people function coherently as well as dramatically. Although they might not provide deep currents of Shakespearean pathos, neither are they mere cardboard cutouts .

How many visual effects-driven films like these do you watch where you can even remember who was in them, what they wanted, and how they changed? These characters are more than archetypes, and if they are not much more, should we not be thankful that they did not attempt to be? They are human characters designed to fulfill their function in an utterly make-believe story. Casting issues aside, I’m not you could ask for much more. If the human aspect didn’t work and the characters were not grounded in some kind of relatable reality, there would have no reason to root for the giant robots. That is why so many other films of this type utterly collapse on a story level and why this one doesn’t.

Expertly Planned Plot Turns

This movie follows all the rules of tense plotting. Everything from each Kaijus’ arrival following through to the subsequent battles are about establishing equilibrium and then upsetting that equilibrium. It works as follows:

A Kaiju appears and heads toward a populated area (SAD)
The humans send a Jaeger in response (HAPPY)
The Kaiju knocks over the Jaeger (SAD)
The Jaeger punches the Kaiju in the face (HAPPY)
The Kaiju is barely hurt by the punch and roars (SAD)
The Jaeger loads its plasma cannons (HAPPY)
The Kaiju rips off the arm with the plasma cannon (SAD)
The audience screams in terror.

This fine balance of give and take, creating expectations and shattering expectations, creating new expectations and twisting them around, all build toward an exciting sense of simultaneous discovery and terror. The Jaeger has elbow rockets! But the Kaiju has a tail! The Jaeger has a sword! But the Kaiju has an EMP! But the humans have an analog Jaeger! But the Kaiju can fly! But wait, the Jaeger has a sword!

At the beginning of the film Raleigh is sent in against a Kaiju and it’s the first ever category 4. He loses his brother and his Jaeger. His next battle years later he is sent in against two category fours at the same time, the first ever double event. Also, Mako is possibly unstable in the drift. Against crazy odds, they win. And in their next battle? They now goes in against two category fours with a surprise addition: the first category 5 and the first triple event. This is the constant escalation of stakes, difficulty, and danger. It’s called sharp plotting.

The people who watch this movie and tell me there’s no story are overlooking the essential narrative logic at play. The people wrote made the story knew what they were doing and you can tell. That is exactly what makes this film so much better than that “other franchise”.

Varied Setpieces

The creative team refused to make the same scene twice. All three of the major fight sequences have a totally different setting. The first battle takes place entirely at sea somewhere off the Alaskan coast and ends with Gipsy Danger collapsing in the snow. The second battle starts off near the shoreline of Hong Kong and then moves into downtown Hong Kong and then heads into the atmosphere. The third and final battle is fought deep under the ocean near the rift between worlds and concludes with a sneak peek of the alien world on the other side.

In addition, we get a few glimpses at the devastation in San Francisco, Manila, Sydney, and Tokyo. This a global threat, irrespective of national borders or political alliances, and so it is presented as such. We never have to see the same place twice nor the same type of battle twice. No shortcuts were taken here and it pays off in the finished results.

A Clearly Stated Theme

So many movies like this don’t even attempt to make any type of rational or moral statement. Instead we get a bunch of self-absorbed spectacle. But Pacific Rim insists through its story on saying something. Is it deep? No. Should it be? I don’t know. But there is a coherent and intentional message, and it’s simple yet effective in a manner that so many crappy movies are not.

Here it is: people of different backgrounds can come together to overcome the big challenges that can come at anytime and strike anywhere. This is not a recruitment video for the armed forces and more unnecessary wars. It’s Marshal Pentecost and his rangers, not General Pentecost and his robo-marines. It’s about togetherness, not militarism.

We don’t know when the next financial crisis, the next tsunami, the next earthquake, the next terrorist attack, the next genocidal dictator, or the next civil war is coming. But togetherness, cooperation, and personal human connection offers us hidden strength. It helps us become resilient.

The prime metaphor for this is the neural connection of the Jaeger pilots. Two pilots who physically cannot operate their machine without the other. They need each other to fight Kaiju. They can’t just work together, they must become absolutely in sync with each other. They must open themselves and experience each other’s hopes, fears, memories, and traumas. If they can’t do that, they fail. Simple yet effective.

Co-workers don’t have that level of intimacy. Neither do close friends, family members, or even lovers. People don’t have those type of connections. We hide from each other. We run from each other. Yet that connection is exactly what is needed to fight the monsters.

You can tell me this is a dumb movie, but I assure you it’s only as dumb as you want it to be. If you come to see robots and monsters and nothing else, you can walk away satisfied with whatever you think you saw. But if you care about thoughtful storytelling, about coherent theme, about meaningful narrative decisions, about expert moviemaking, and about things that might actually have applications for this messed up world we live in, you could do far worse than watching Pacific Rim a couples times.

Advertisements

The End of the Movie and Its Narrative Purpose

20140109-144602.jpg
Spoilers for many recent films below!

The ending of a movie wraps up both the final moments of the story as well as all its major thematic elements. A story’s conclusion offers a brief emotional summary of everything that been said throughout the course of the narrative. What the audience walks away with in those few minutes is a reminder of what this whole endeavor has all been about.

The ending is our final destination. It is where we’ve been headed from the start even if we were unaware of where exactly we were off to. Here we see with clear perspective the precise reason for how the story began and what its real purpose was. Like the conclusion to a college essay, most endings do not contain new information or surprising changes in opinion. Rather, they are the summation of all that has come before. Endings are a tiny moment of catharsis that wraps up that great turbulence that has just transpired in a tender moment of reflection and understanding. By tender, I don’t mean boring. I mean something meaningful, something with firm intention.

Endings are also a bold statement. Although during the narrative is it okay to play with ambiguity, wrestle over what is right and wrong, compare two opposite ways of doing something, at some point you have to take a stand. The end is a good place for that to happen. And in order to build to a satisfying conclusion, a story better achieve some kind of lasting resolution.

Some movies pull this off really well, leaving you with a sense of accomplishment and definitive proof that the central characters and the overall story have arrived at new stage of awareness and growth. Other movies really botch this up, somehow undoing and unsaying the very things they promised they would do and say.

Let’s look through some popular films from this past year and evaluate how well their endings deliver a satisfying unifying thematic message. Of course, beware of spoilers.

Pacific Rim

How it ends: Raleigh and Mako survive the first triple Kaiju attack and close the rift between worlds. They float together on the ocean, powerfully embracing but without a hint of romance.

What it means: This entire Kaiju war has been about the outmatched Pacific nations coming together against the odds to prevent the extinction of the human race. Raleigh and Mako are the prime example of this, their teamwork and mutual trust becoming the decisive factor in both the battle of Tokyo and the closure of the rift. They have been inside each other’s heads and learned how to work in harmony, an experience as intimate as the closest of human relationships. What need is there for kissing when they have so much respect, understanding, and compassion for one another. Saving the world from destruction calls for a hug.

Verdict: A little thin, but definitely classy.

Thor: The Dark World

How it ends: Thor tells his father Odin that he does not want to rule Asgard as king, preferring to return to Midgard and Jane Foster. It is revealed that Odin is actually Loki in disguise.

What it means: All of Loki’s character development was actually a ruse, a trick to escape prison and take over Asgard. His alliance with Thor and his heartfelt sacrifice were just more trickery. He has only changed his status, not his nature. The fate of Odin is unknown. This twist uproots the relationship we have just seen nurtured for two hours.

What made Thor and Loki’s fraternal struggle so moving was that here at the loss of their mother facing down a terrible evil, Thor and Loki are forced to trust each other again. Unlike Iron Man 3 or even The Avengers, the ENTIRE universe is at stake. Yet the impact on the characters and scenery is so minimal. Loki is still the trickster. Thor is still the exiled son. Asgard is still the shining city. We’re left unsure of how Malekith’s devastation affects anybody in any significant way, save for Thor’s unsurprising abandonment of the throne and Loki’s unsurprising grab for power. This ending comes across as nothing more than an advertisement for more Marvel movies.

Verdict: A comic book ending full of comic book nonsense.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

How it ends: Katniss wakes up in an aircraft, dazed and weak. Haymitch and Plutarch are there, explaining that the games were staged as part of an elaborate plan to rescue Katniss and groom her as the new leader of the revolution. Also, everyone was in on the plan except her.

What it means: Not only had Katniss been manipulated by President Snow and the Capitol, but also her friends. They neither trusted her nor sought her consent in events that deeply affect her. Their plan not only requires her to become the face of their revolution, but also has resulted in the decimation of her entire district. Essentially everything that has happened has happened outside the control of the main character. Her courageous actions in the Hunger Games are seemingly nullified as her agency as a character are stripped from her. Katniss comes across as a political pawn not a rebel leader.

Verdict: Are we watching the same movie, people?

Frozen

How it ends: Princess Anna freezes over trying to save her estranged sister, Queen Elsa. Her act of true love melts the curse and thaws the permanent winter over the kingdom of Arendelle.

What it means: Sacrificial love is of higher value than romantic “love”. Separated from her sister for so long, Anna demonstrates the lengths to which she would go for Elsa by running out onto the ice, her body consumed by ice. With no thought for her personal safety, she goes to rescue the sister who has shunned her at at every turn. Sacrificial love becomes Anna’s salvation.

This runs parallel to Anna’s experiences with Hans and Kristoff. Although Anna believed she loved Hans, that superficial feeling faded away once his true intentions were revealed. On the other hand, Kristoff accompanied Anna on her search and proved himself a faithful friend, an act far greater than demonstrating attraction or romantic fancy. A proven friend who has learned sacrificial love is a far better illustration of love than a handsome charmer who dazzles the senses.

Verdict: A truly valiant effort, but one that doesn’t quite gel for some reason. The story tried too hard to avoid the true love’s kiss trope without really earning the emotional revelation needed. Perhaps if the entire main cast, Elsa, Hans, Olaf, and Sven also all sacrificed themselves it would have resonated more deeply.

Gravity

How it ends: Dr. Ryan Stone makes it back to Earth, her pod crashes into a lake and the control panel catches on fire. Forced to evacuate the pod, she struggles to escape the submerged vessel. Finally she swims to the surface and pulls herself to the muddy shore and takes her first step back on earth.

What it means: Stone has finally found a reason to live. After the initial catastrophe, Stone reveals that her desire to stop living began long before she was stranded in space. Her entire journey throughout the film is about recovering her purpose, overcoming her grief over her daughter, and deciding to survive. The audience knows that Stone won’t drown in that lake because she has already made the decision to live. The lake scene simply reminds us that her decision is permanent. Stone has already been reborn.

Verdict: Extremely effective.

Monsters University

How it ends: After discovering he did not legitimately win the Scare Games, Mike travels to the human world and finds that children are not scared of him. Sully goes after him and together they find a way to generate the biggest scare on record. Although they still get kicked out of Monsters University, their newfound confidence allows them to work their way up the corporate ladder to finally become professional scarers.

What it means: This entire movie is rebuttal to the idea that you can accomplish your dreams simply because you are special. Most movies would have ended at the final scaring contest when Mike outscared the other team through sheer willpower. That ending was completely hollow because it felt untrue. Willpower was never going to get Mike into the scaring major. Dreams don’t always come true.

However sometimes there is another way. At the end of the movie, Mike and Sully sort through mail and mop floors as they dedicate themselves to working at Monsters Inc. They succeed not because they are somehow uniquely gifted or because they got a lucky break at the Scare Games. They succeed because 1) they have managed to become legitimately scary in their own way, 2) they don’t give up, and 3) they work really hard to earn a spot in a highly competitive field. In essence, the ending tells us that “thinking you are special” is nothing compared to “knowing your true strengths, having determination, overcoming setbacks, and working hard until one day the right opportunity opens up.” Not a simple message, but a beautifully stated and deeply resonant truth.

Verdict: Best ending of 2013.

A Special Case: The Superhero Ending

Let’s talk about a special type of ending unique to the superhero genre. Recently superhero films have made an effort to add weight to their endings by concluding with a moment that signals either the beginning or end of the hero’s career to save the world. It’s so prevalent these days that this phenomenon crops in almost every superhero film. Look at the ending of these fairly recent superhero films:

The Dark Knight: Hero quits.
The Dark Knight Rises: Hero quits again.
The Avengers: Heroes start.
Iron Man 3: Hero quits.
Man of Steel: Hero starts.
The Wolverine: Hero starts gain.
Thor: The Dark World: Hero quits.

Whether it’s Tony Stark shedding his many suits or Clark Kent joining the the Daily Planet staff, superhero films like to end with a larger statement about their hero’s development. Heroes might sacrifice themselves like Batman or take up their mantle again like Wolverine, but either way it drives home the point of the entire story. Whether the hero returns to civilian life or comes back with renewed resolve for their mission, it attempts to give the narrative a lasting impact on that hero’s goals, identity, and future.

Does it always work? Not really. But sometimes it is used to great effect. It all depends on if the big decision is backed up by the actual narrative or not. When Batman flees at the end of The Dark Knight, there is no way he is coming back without some serious consequences and a real explanation. When Wolverine decides that he can move on from Jean and overcome his fear of hurting people for the sake of stopping bad guys, it feels right. But when Tony ditches his whole superhero gig at the end of Iron Man 3, is there really any doubt that he won’t be back in the suit once Downey and Marvel sign a new contract?

As long as the decision to don or shed the cape falls in with the major themes of the movie, it can really work. But when it feels tacked on or not truly life-altering, that’s when it comes across as tired and tropey. The ending should convince us that this whole thing had a point. A solid ending is not new information or a clever plot twist or an advertisement for the next film, but rather serves as a lasting moment of closure that ties everything up with a sense of finality and progress. It should both release us from the story and yet continue to haunt us long afterward.

Top 10 Movies of 2013

Top Movies

Cinematic storytelling was alive and well this year with a strong year of record-breaking movies. That means it’s time for a list! Unfortunately I missed a few interesting-looking ones in the theater (Thor 2, Ender’s Game, The Lone Ranger, Saving Mr. Banks, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Anchorman 2, 47 Ronin, Her) but that’s not quite enough to stop this list.

I have a very simple criteria for the list. Movies I absolutely want to see again and will rewatch the most get ranked higher. Movies I want to rewatch occasionally but not often are ranked lower. Movies that I rarely or perhaps never want to rewatch are not on the list. Now shall we begin?

10) White House Down

Overshadowed by the eerily similar Olympus Has Fallen, this movie deserved better. A comforting throwback to the zany action hero films of the 90’s, it sadly has arrived 20 years too late to make an impact. But it’s okay. White House Down reminds us action movies don’t have to be so deadly serious (Elysium) or stupidly serious (G.I. Joe: Retaliation). They can just be a fun feel-good romp that, while not exactly entrenched in realism, still gives the audience an entertaining spectacle to behold.

9) The Wolverine

Poor Hugh Jackman has played this character so many times that you would think there is nothing left to say about the tortured mutant. But removing Logan from North America and dropping him off in Japan gives him a fertile environment for dealing with his damaged psyche. The ninjas don’t hurt either. While it may not be the most necessary movie of 2014, if Wolverine ever needed another movie examining the curse of his immortality, well here it is.

8) Gravity

It’s rare to see a movie with only two actors and has a trailer doesn’t give away the whole plot. What’s best about this film is how unexpected it is. It shouldn’t have been made. It’s too personal, too experimental, too expensive for such a quiet nuanced piece. How wonderful it is when a simple story like this can appeal to almost anyone.

7) Frozen

Last year’s Les Miserables was technically good but so dreary. Frozen is a reminder that musicals can be fun and that good non-Pixar Disney movies can exist beyond the nostalgic magic of Wreck It Ralph. Rather than handing us  a movie about an evil ice queen, Frozen told us about two sisters whose relationship has turned cold and distant. It’s the heart of the movie and boy does it press all the right buttons.

6) Iron Man 3

The Marvel Cinematic Universe is very interesting, but these are not the superheroes I grew up with. However Iron Man 3 continues to smooth things over not only by making up for the dreadful Iron Man 2 but by making me laugh and refusing to hide its main character behind his armor. Tony Stark is a hugely flawed person, no one’s first pick for a hero, but he rises above sappy sentiment and heroic idealism and stays true to his strength: he can tinker his way through trouble.

5) Monsters University

Unsure of whether I should expect a Cars 2 or a Toy Story 3, I’m glad to say that Monsters University surpassed all my expectations. The care and detail given to every single frame of this film, the absurd hilarity of monster higher education, and the incessant glimmer in Mike’s single hopeful eye all weave together into a coherent world for the story of two monsters who tried to be best at something. The brilliant final act of this film deserves a blog post all to its own.

4) Man of Steel

The Avengers was funny but the Battle of New York pales in comparison to the lightning fast Kryptonian brawl of Smallville, Kansas. This film is absolutely beautiful, the frenetic action scenes unparalleled in any other big budget comic book movie to date. While both critics and geeks voiced their complaints, audiences across the world rejoiced in something quite special: a Superman who actually fit on a big screen.

3) Pacific Rim

A rare original story to make a dent this year (alongside Gravity), Pacific Rim is Guillermo Del Toro’s dark creaturely passion brought to life. After losing his chance to make both The Hobbit and At The Mountains of Madness, it’s a giddy joy to see one of his unique visions realized. The Kaiju are terrifyingly powerful and watching the outmatched Jaegers prevail against them is quite sublime indeed.

2) Star Trek Into Darkness

Abundant character moments, memorable quips, relentless pacing, and plot twists galore create yet another valiantly wonderful Star Trek movie. Focusing again on the strange friendship between Kirk and Spock, the story grounds itself first in characters to support all the action happening front and center. Despite being quite a long movie, every time it ends I find myself longing for more time with these brave, talented and deeply hilarious characters.

2) Oblivion

Tied at number 2, Oblivion was sadly ignored by most people when in actuality it’s a beautiful meditation on the meaning of calling planet Earth our home. Always charming, Tom Cruise helms a story about forgetfulness and self-identity. Unlike so many action movies mentioned on this list, Oblivion gives us ample time to think and reflect as we enjoy the beautiful desolation of our destroyed planet.

1) The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

This film has the honor of being the only movie on this list that I haven’t actually seen yet. Not fair, you say? Well remember my only criterion for this list is how often I want to rewatch the movie. And considering I have seen An Unexpected Journey ten times and watched the 3 main trailers for The Desolation of Smaug several dozen times, I am fairly confident I will end up seeing this film more times than any other movie on this list. It is the best movie of 2013 and I haven’t even seen it yet!

I hope you enjoyed this list and hopefully there will be more story-centric blog posts arriving in 2014.

Some movies that almost made the list but narrowly did not:

The Croods
Oz the Great and Powerful
42
The Great Gatsby
The Internship
World War Z

Movies that weren’t even close to making the list:

After Earth
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
Jack the Giant Slayer
G.I. Joe: Retaliation
Now You See Me
Elysium
The Host
The Lone Ranger
Safe Haven

The Joy and Monstrosity of Pacific Rim

20130718-010202.jpg
That giant robot in the picture above is Cherno Alpha.

For six years, the husband and wife team who pilot Cherno Alpha successfully defended the Russian coastline from Godzilla-like creatures who have come here to mop up the human race.

Cherno Alpha has a massive fuel cell in place of a head, secretly protecting its pilots inside its torso but unfortunately also preventing them from being able to launch an escape pod in case of severe structural damage to their robot.

Now Cherno Alpha is rushing into battle to protect Tokyo in yet another battle against giants from the sea.

Not that you would learn much of that from watching Pacific Rim. No, those are just minor details I looked up on the internet, not really important plot points. Just some trivia from the fascinating world from the minds of writers Travis Beacham and Guillermo del Toro.

Pacific Rim is an incredible accomplishment, a movie about monsters and the humans who rise up to fight them. There is no grand metaphor here, just the rush of outmatched pilots out to save humanity in a world of sheer imagination.

I can’t understand why people who will stand in line for a fourth Transformers movie refuse to see this superior joyride. Still, as badly as I wish there could be a sequel and as unlikely as it that is, Pacific Rim is film enough to stand on its own and be remembered and cherished.

It is closer to Avatar than it is to Transformers, capturing a sense of wonder and pure thrills. Instead of exploring a new blue alien body, here we are learning how to mindmeld with our co-pilot and share our deepest memories together. Here we are turning fighting reflexes into coordinated and specific movements to wrestle a billion ton terror to the ground.

The battles are an onslaught. Luckily the kooky side characters provide a much needed relief from the unrelenting intensity of these sea battles. The Pacific Ocean feels cramped and tiny when filled with such monstrosities.

I hate the Kaiju, their repulsive body shapes and raw brutality creates a terrible injustice. They should not exist. They must be destroyed. They must be brutally put down.

They bring out the monster in me. They make me crave violence. It’s disturbing.

This movie makes me feel. It makes me laugh, shudder, squirm, and smile. Lots of the smile.

Why aren’t people seeing Pacific Rim? I have no idea, but they should. Wow.