Tuesday 23 July 2013

No, Pacific Rim is not another dumb action movie

I haven't written up a review of Pacific Rim yet, but I will tell you that I loved it. I loved it for so many different reasons, but mostly because it hearkened back to 1980s Saturday morning cartoons - it's full of energy, character and heart. But for some reason it's seen by some critics as an unintelligent film because of this.


There are spoilers ahead. You have been warned.

Right now it's sitting at 72% on Rotten Tomatoes. I realise RT isn't the be-all and end-all of film criticism, but it's generally a good gauge at what the press are saying about a movie. The detractors are generally saying it's another dumb blockbuster. Mark Ramsey of MovieJuice! said: "As I watched Pacific Rim I could literally feel myself shedding IQ points the way Kate Hudson sheds a big lunch in the bathroom of the Beverly Hills Hotel." We also get multiple comparisons to Michael Bay's Transformers flicks: "PACIFIC RIM speaks the disaster language of the original Godzilla, yearns to be in the same league as Star Wars; but unfortunately its style over substance ethos delivers Transformers results."

This is bullshit.

Sam Keeper at Storming the Ivory Tower has written an exceptional analysis of the visual storytelling in Pacific Rim. Please go and read it. Sam and his girlfriend have identified some fantastic visual cues that very subtly tell an intelligent tale beyond big mech smashing big monsters.

Mako isn't the weak, uninteresting character that critics make her out to be. As Sam points out, all you have to do is look at the subtext - the shock of blue in her hair and her grey shirt directly tying to the memory of everyone that she knows and loves being killed by a kaiju. In this memory the colour scheme is very grey and she is wearing a bold blue coat. Mako is carrying her vengeance with her everyday - it's part of her.

Similarly, when Stacker rescues Mako he is bathed in golden light, making him an almost angelic figure. This shows how significant Stacker is to Mako and why her decision to go against his wishes upsets her so much but also shows how utterly determined she is.

Sam explains much more, such as the characters of the Kaidanovskys, the Russian pilots. They probably get a total of 30 seconds screen time in the whole film, but in this half minute we find out a lot about their relationship and their characters just through visual cues.

People forget that the guy at the helm of Pacific Rim was Guillermo del Toro. He's not exactly known for his dumb films. He's a smart guy and there's nothing that he does without putting thought into it. Everything is done for a reason. Critics forget to give him credit.

If you've seen Pacific Rim and didn't pick up on any of this then go and see it again. I didn't realise many of these aspects, but now it's so obvious. Pacific Rim cannot be said to be a dumb movie. Transformers is a dumb movie - these two should not be equated.


  1. I absolutely loved this movie. Saw it on opening night and would love to see it again. I loved it not only for the action scenes (which were spectacular) but because of the depth the movie conveyed on its own. As one of my favorite reviewers said, the whole Drift system worked so well because instead of getting character development tacked onto an action movie, it made it an unavoidable yet embraced part of the action. Essential to how everything worked.

    1. Absolutely. I loved the Drift system. I love the whole mythology behind the movie.

  2. I don't think I picked up the visual clues you are talking about and yet I had no trouble figuring out Mako's motivations and personality (not that I would have any problem even if she actually was a weak character - weak characters are often the most interesting of the lot - but I agree with you that she isn't).
    If I'm not wrong, there is a sequence were Mako reveals that she doesn't defy Stacker out of affection and respect and that hints very stronly at her oriental origins and the Confucian perspective on filial piety and social order. So, in a way, the initial clashes between Raleigh and Mako don't seem to be caused by differing personalities; they might instead be considered as a manifestation of the difficulty in communicating with people of a different culture (even if Raleigh appears to be acquainted with Japan - he speaks Japanese after all - and so he should have known better). It's a pity that this topic, like a few other interesting ones that are briefly introduced in the movie, is not developed in a nuanced manner and is instead only used in support of the action-oriented priorities of the show, in order to spice up what is an otherwise pretty bland story.

    To me, the problem with Pacific Rim is not that it's hard to understand or that critics underestimate its complexity. The problem is that there is little to understand and almost no complexity at all: the plot is paper thin, the characters are 2-dimensional and stereotypical (in a bad way, with the exception of Mako... maybe...) and the whole movie feels more like an excuse to show off the latest stunning development in SFX technology than an inspired storytelling vehicle. The visual clues cannot solve this problem because they are - at best - a clever way to show us the characters' issues, but they can't make those issues compelling or nuanced in any way.
    In my opinion the redeeming quality of the movie lies in the irony and humor that permeates it. It's what prevented me from feeling like I was watching a pretentious work that takes itself way too seriously (like the second and third episodes in The Matrix trilogy).

    The reason I was disappointed is that I approached the movie without knowing anything about it, while being told from a friend that it was like "Evangelion - the movie" (and this is entirely my fault). So I expected something very different, much more nuanced, a work grounded in characters' psychologies and personalities. Instead I met a purely action oriented movie with little meat on the bone, whose existence appears to be motivated mostly by long "gigant robots vs big monsters" fighting scenes.
    Had I been prepared for what was coming, my reaction would have been different because as an action movie Pacific Rim works well enough... nothing memorable, yet fun enough to invest a couple of hours to watch it. But I can't really blame anyone who is going to criticize it for being shallow.