Cancelling The Apocalypse: The Importance Of Pacific Rim
Caution: Minor Spoilers for Pacific Rim In a summer where disappointments, loud noise, and juvenile humor have taken over your…
Caution: Minor Spoilers for Pacific Rim
In a summer where disappointments, loud noise, and juvenile humor have taken over your local theater, one film has finally come along to show them how modern popcorn entertainment is done. It also happens to feature 200 foot tall robots punching extraterrestrial giant monsters in the face. Yes, of course I’m talking about Pacific Rim, director Guillermo del Toro’s love letter to the Japanese subculture of kaiju, mecha, and anime.
Made with passion and affection rarely seen in this age of market researched and overly analyzed risk free studio films, it is exactly the kick in the balls to wake us up from the cynicism hammering us into submission. By now you’ve heard many a people gush about the amazing visual style, the incredibly detailed world building, and the unbelievable scale of the action scenes. For fans of Japanese monster movies, such as myself, it is not hyperbole to say it was one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen. Every frame is meticulously crafted with a child-like wonderment that captures what it felt like watching those films at such a young age. Even for those who haven’t seen a kaiju movie or mecha anime in their life will see things they’ve never seen before; reason enough for the layperson to venture out of their comfort zone to see this movie. If you haven’t seen Pacific Rim yet, do yourself a favor and please do.
However, Pacific Rim has a bit more importance in relation to cinema than you may think. It has automatically been written off as a dumb, fun monster vs. robot movie by even those who love it, and not without valid reasons. The film lacks complex characters, supplementing them with classic archetypes and cartoonish personalities. The plot is paper thin, consisting of a simple “blow them up with a big bomb” objective seen in countless other movies. The action scenes are over the top and childish, championing scale and weight over realism (anyone looking for realism in a giant monster movie is looking for the wrong things). In other words, you will not find anything of real meaning to contemplate after seeing it. The film’s detractors have labeled theses as negatives, and while I personally don’t take issue with these aspects of the film, I don’t begrudge those who do. A certain mindset is to be taken going into this movie in order to get the full effect, and some just can’t adjust their brains that way.
With all that being said, regardless of what anyone says in trying to criticize this movie, it is not dumb. Simple does not mean dumb, nor is the use of archetypes necessarily a negative. Some of the greatest blockbusters of our time are simple and use archetypes to fill its character roles, the original Star Wars being a primary example. Its plot is as simple as it gets, and its characters lack any nuance while fitting the most basic of archetypes. What makes the first Star Wars special is its heart and positive message, and in this way, Pacific Rim is special as well.
The scene that most demonstrates this is the flashback of young Mako running for her life while an enormous kaiju destroys the city. In mere seconds, you feel for the kid. The scene so effectively sets up the scale that there is an intimacy to it that makes it one of the most terrifying monster rampages I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot). You feel her fear as the monster bares down on her. It was like watching a child running from a tornado; her only means of survival is to cover her head and wait. The comparison of kaiju to forces of nature has been a thematic element to the genre for decades, and Pacific Rim, like everything else it does, calls back to the concept with love and reverence. The scene ends with her being saved by a Jaeger, and the reveal is framed with such childish awe and wonderment that anyone who loved giant robots at any point in their life can’t help but smile. That is heart. It may not be emotionally complex, but it makes you feel something positive. How long has it been since a modern blockbuster made you feel positive in any way?
However, the film has more going for it beyond its heart. In many ways, Pacific Rim couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. We live in a very tumultuous era. There is an uncertainty to the future, and as time continues marching forward, it continues to look more and more bleak for many people. People are scared, and understandably so. So many agendas are flying forward and backward that together appear to halt the progress of human existence, with people fighting for which direction to go in. Overpopulation, climate change, the global economy, the income gape and class separation, environmental destruction, and political infighting are some of the biggest obstacles we’ve ever faced, and on a bigger scale than we’ve ever experienced. As a result, it’s not just this nation or that one that faces these challenges, but all of them. No more are we cut off by vast oceans or geographical superstructures. We are connected to each other more than ever, as are our fates. Our lives depend on one another now more than ever.
We will be facing monstrous odds going into the future, and like the kaiju films of the past, Pacific Rim uses its giant monsters as living manifestations of all our modern fears. For anyone rolling their eyes thinking it is ridiculous to analyze a monster movie in such a way, know that the entire genre became prevalent because of its ability to use monsters to represent large scale fears in a fantastical way. The biggest kaiju of them all, Godzilla, began not as a monster saving the planet from the bad monsters in silly man-in-suit fight scenes, but as a direct response to Japan’s growing fear of nuclear weaponry. The original film, Gojira, is a dark and somber movie that depicts Godzilla laying waste to Tokyo, burning people alive and setting the entire city ablaze with chilling apathy. It wasn’t until several films and years later that his role started changing, and whether he was savior or destroyer, it was always in relation to the social context with which he existed. In other words, Godzilla’s depiction always depended on the cultural and societal standards of the time. This is the essence of the kaiju genre.
Pacific Rim may not be as dark or tragic as Gojira, but like the films that inspired it, the movie as a whole is a product of its time. In this case, it is a response to our growing fear of the large scale issues that cause us to question our future. Despite the film building a rich and detailed history of a kaiju infested Earth, the plot picks up at the tail end of the war. Man has been fighting these monsters for a long time, and for quite a while, we were actually winning more often than not. We are only given brief glimpses of this more optimistic past, while the plot itself begins when human extinction is a certainty. Some have commented that the film feels like the finale to a television show we never got to see, and in many ways this is true. This was no doubt deliberate. In a universe with many potential stories to tell, Guillermo del Toro purposely chose to tell a story of a resistance, of one final attempt at reclaiming our future from monsters that have pounded us into the dirt. It is through this narrative framework that del Toro is able to show how humanity can save itself from assured destruction, and it is developed through one universal theme: unity.
Unification and teamwork are central to everything in Pacific Rim. Ever since the rise of the kaiju, the various nations of the world have stopped fighting and come together to build massive robots to combat them. This concept in itself is charming and just plain cool, but Pacific Rim goes even further by having the operation of the Jaegers depend on teamwork. Since one person’s mind can’t handle the connection to the Jaeger on its own, it is necessary to have at least two people connected to it together. This process is called the Drift, and both pilots enter each others’ minds to sync their actions together. Not just anybody can Drift together, as doing so requires immense trust and openness to the other person. This idea, while being an interesting sci-fi concept on its own, is a literal manifestation of the film’s core themes, personalizing it for the characters while making teamwork absolutely necessary for fighting the kaiju. Even the film itself is a means of unification; bringing us together in our love of spectacle and giving us the privilege of seeing sights and sounds that make us drop our jaws in wonder. It is a film where people of all ages can come together and have fun, pure and simple.
Believe it or not, togetherness is a concept rarely seen in films these days, especially summer blockbusters. This is of course a reflection of our times. Despite being more connected than ever, it feels like we are divided more than ever. As a result, we’ve grown cynical, as have our films. Modern heroes are torn and complicated; full of angst and self-loathing. They are confused about their purpose, spending their time searching for answers. Pacific Rim is a refreshing experience because it shakes its head at this cynicism and gives us clear cut heroes that, while certainly emotionally torn in many ways, don’t wallow in angst while the world goes to hell. It makes the case that when big problems need to be solved, you shouldn’t let self-doubt and petty infighting stand in the way of taking action. This is an important message to take considering the kaiju sized problems we will have to face in the future. It is only through working together and trusting one another that we can cancel the apocalypse and secure our future.