Yesterday, I went to see Pacific Rim with my offspring (ages 10, 15, and 17). We’re pretty much all fans of anime and Japanese pop-cinema in general, so we’re pretty familiar with the “Giant Mecha” genre and the “Kaiju” genre. This film is both, and it’s very much a genre work. So if you hate these genres, you probably won’t like “Pacific Rim”. However, for those of us who do like the genre, this film absolutely rocks. And if you’re not certain, I’d suggest you give it a chance and go in with an open mind.
It is not particularly original — the main originality comes simply from the perfect live-action-style realization of the genre. The story contains pretty much all of the tropes you’d know from the genre, but it’s big and flashy, and it feels really real. This does for the Mecha genre what the Richard Donner/Christopher Reeves Superman (1978) did for Superman — it makes you believe it, at least for the two hours you’re in the theater.
From an engineering perspective, of course, the whole idea of giant mechs is preposterous. Even if giant animals like the Kaiju could exist (and they can’t — they’d collapse under their own weight), trying to do martial arts with these giant robots would be an incredibly dumb way to fight them. You’d be far better off with a computer-guided tactical nuclear missile. This was a thought that occurred to me more than once during the film, because I am a hard-science-fiction fan, and currently engaged in a hard-SF film project of my own (Lunatics!), and so I like to think about things on a literal plane like that.
But forget I said that. Because it’s not the point. Mecha stories, like superhero stories, are best understood metaphorically.
Unlike the superhero, the mecha is fundamentally artificial and it’s the product of a group of people acting as a team. Although by this, we include the entire support group as well as the star “mecha pilots”, it’s a common trope of the genre that even the pilots have to operate the machines in teams (pairs in Pacific Rim) — operating in perfect synchronization. It’s a very Japanese concept of teamwork, and Pacific Rim really takes the spirit of this idea, and makes it palatable to American audiences.
The “kaiju” of course (basically “giant monster” — Gojira/Godzilla being the prototype of the genre), is the same as the dragon in Western mythology — a monstrous beast which represents an abstract problem to be overcome (whether it’s the threat of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, or giant corporations). The mech is the monster we have to build to defeat the monster (the opening narration in Pacific Rim even makes this analogy) — possibly a corporation or a team or an organization of some kind, but fundamentally more human that the kaiju that must be overcome (but also borrowing a little of its shape, threat, and intrinsic dangers). This is why the mech has to have the shape and behavior of a human, despite the impracticality of its scale — it symbolizes humanity augmented to enormous proportions to overcome problems of enormous proportions.
Inherent in the metaphor are all the dynamics of this situation we often find ourselves in in our lives: the need for teamwork, the danger of becoming as bad as the things we’re fighting, the need to stay human in the face of it all.
Pacific Rim is not stellar in terms of progressive values — it’s pretty much consistent with the mech genre from which it derives. And the characterization is simple and mostly visual. Nevertheless it works. You pretty much come away liking all of the characters, and feeling good about the human race. Even Hannibal Chau — a Hong Kong gangster who trades in Kaiju remains — despite being clearly untrustworthy is presented as an almost likable scoundrel. The scientists are presented as geeky/quirky stock “mad scientist” types, and perhaps are the least appealing to me, but even there, you come away with a sense of respect, and that’s part of the beauty of this film — it creates stark contrast and compelling conflict without strongly siding or demonizing anyone. That’s a challenge to do. The hero characters – Raleigh and Mako – are strong and satisfying as protagonists.
So I’d say that, despite not having a whole lot of complex dialog, Pacific Rim is well-written. Which is becoming a rarity for big-budget sci-fi films these days.
The soundtrack is stirring in an unabashed way that I haven’t heard in quite awhile. It’s almost corny that way, but I never had the chance to feel self-conscious about it — it just kept working.
Other minor points: there are a lot of subtle genre tropes and cultural references if you’re paying attention. Mako even has red shoes (“Akai Kutsu“) in her flashback/back-story. I was a little worried about my youngest, because I thought the story was pretty scary and emotionally intense, but my 10-year-old daughter (who also loves superhero movies) thought it was simply awesome, so I guess it wasn’t too intense.
Relating it to my own project
Of course, working on a film project myself, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons and be a little bit intimidated by something that works as well as this movie. I did think about both the similarities and differences with what we’re trying to do with “Lunatics!”: both stories are very human-positive and progressive, with an aspect of the “grand human endeavor”. Our story in “Lunatics!” is mostly meant to be taken on a literal plane, though, with attention to the real science and technology of spaceflight integral to its identity.
And in one sense, the scale of our story — about two families living on the frontier — is a lot smaller. On the other hand, just doing that on the Moon gives it an adventure aspect. “Lunatics!” is not a war-story or even really an adventure story as such, so it’s certainly not as intense that way. I like to point out that our “body count” in “Lunatics!” is extraordinarily small for a science-fiction series — if I remember correctly, there is only one actual death in season one, although there are quite a few scrapes.
But then, part of the point of the story is that the danger of space is over-hyped — if you are properly prepared. And our characters are extraordinary in that they are the type of people who are prepared for the dangers they face. Nevertheless, simply living on the real space frontier without sweetening it with fantasy or hyperbole is adventure enough for real people, and that’s what “Lunatics!” is about.
And of course, I have to say that the sheer audacity of trying to create a production like “Lunatics!” as a free-culture / free-software project, coming completely from the outside, with an entirely different production culture, collaborating over the internet to get it done, and basically having no budget to speak of (even if our Kickstarter does succeed, let alone if it doesn’t*), does makes me feel a little overwhelmed. It’s a good feeling to see the humans succeed against the monsters up on that screen — makes the real tasks seem a little more possible.
*Yeah, that’s a plug. I regret nothing. We really could use some help getting off the ground, so please come check it out. 🙂