Monday, July 29, 2013

Luke Versus Jeff in an EPIC ROBOT ALIEN SHOWDOWN (or, they debate the finer points of "Pacific Rim")

Jeff and Luke were talking about Pacific Rim last week, and it turns out that there was quite a bit to talk about. Instead of yelling at each other on the internet, we chose to have a civil discourse and share it with the masses. Agree? Disagree? ROBOT SMASH?! Let's find out!

Jeff: Okay, so you and I were talking about Pacific Rim, and you seem to have a lot of issues with it. As someone who is, I suppose, technically *on* the Pacific Rim, I'm interested in your point of view on this as someone who saw the movie and thought it was nearly perfect in what it was trying to achieve, which is "Large robots beat the crap out of large aliens for reasons that only exist because movies need some semblance of a plot to get greenlit."

Luke: My first question is WHY was it greenlit? Why did Del Toro - who has made some intimate or quirky indie movies - suddenly get more money than he ever has to make this giant robot movie. I would argue that it's BECAUSE Transformers - another giant robot movie franchise - made literally billions of dollars. And Del Toro is a smart filmmaker and I don't think any of his previous films have been as dumb and as broad as Pacific Rim was. The human characters are all wretched and emulate the forced quirkiness that Michael Bay imposes on the human characters in his film. I find it hard to believe that Del Toro - with that much money in play - wasn't encouraged to make his characters just as broad and quirky.

But beyond that, Jeff, I can't help feeling that you're more likely to accept this vision because it places the American mech Gypsy Danger in the lead with a bunch of foreign stereotypes supporting it, thereby reinforcing a weird American idea of control. The problem is that the stereotypes aren't remotely accurate. The Australians are played by a New Yorker and an Englishman who struggle to even approximate an Australian accent. Even children I've spoken to have recognised this and have a problem with this. It's frankly a stupid and offensive oversight in this day and age, especially when actual Australians are in so many major films. This film is not effective for a global audience because it's so narrow-minded and dumb.

So my follow up is why did this get a nerd pass when Transformers or Battleship, or equally dumb films didn't? Why do people use the word "perfect" when the humans are just as stupid and offensive as a long list of other films that nerds hate. Why is this better than, for example, Prometheus, which is beautiful to look at but also is filled with stupid humans? Why do we accept this and not the Star Wars prequels which are also filled with dopey wretched humans? Del Toro crafts truly wonderful action sequences and if this was a silent 60 min. film it would be brilliant, but everything else drags it down.

Jeff: First, I'd probably say that Del Toro has created a bit of a niche for himself - between Pan's Labyrinth, his almost-stint with The Hobbit, and his vampire novel trilogy, he's become a name that works. He's been attached to a film version of HP Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness" for some time, and there is a *lot* of parallel to be made between the Cthuhlu Mythos and the basis of Pacific Rim's "universe-portal-in-the-bottom-of-the-Pacific-Ocean-where-world-eating-creatures-come-from" conceit. This might be the Cthuhlu movie that no one (to this point) will let Del Toro make.

What's interesting about your take on the movie, though, is that you've clearly put a lot more thought into the angle of stereotypes and human characters and, frankly, the plot in general than I suspect even Del Toro did. I felt the film kind of laid it out to begin with: monsters started coming from the ocean, so the world united to save it by building massive robots. In other words "you came for giant robots fighting giant aliens, so here's the reason we're doing this."

And in a sense, you're right! While the cultural stereotypes may not have impacted me much at all coming from the opposite side of the planet where it didn't really matter (and there's a lot of speculation in American press that the movie was actually designed more for an Eastern/Asian audience, for a contrast), the sloppiness of how those things are handled are part-and-parcel with the paper-thin plot for me. The film is about giant robots that needed some sort of script to go along with it, so we'll appeal to our most basic storytelling tropes to get us from robot battle to robot battle. In a way, it's a perfect homage to classic Godzilla/Ultraman films and shows from ages ago. I couldn't tell you the first thing about any specific Ultraman plot, but it turns out I can still visualize those monsters really well, and that was a TERRIBLE show. Yeah, maybe in 2013 we should be past the stern German and the idea that every Asian person knows martial arts, but there's more to it than that, I think, and here's why:

Transformers is terrible because we have a nostaligic point of view regarding the franchise that Michael Bay effectively took a dump on, to use the best analogy to a more current film with giant robots. Pacific Rim works, and is great, because it respects, rather than rejects, what makes its source material great. It's closer to a Tarantino homage to exploitation cinema than a poorly-done tentpole blockbuster because it's self-aware, because I felt like, generally, I was in on the joke. I don't see it as a "nerd pass" any more than it's simply a pass on basic expectations for films because Pacific Rim is trying to achieve something very basic, and is hoping you don't pay too much attention to the fluff in the middle of the giant robots.

Luke: I guess that's the main area where we differ, because I just didn't feel like there was a joke to be in on. It frankly just felt like lazy screenwriting, and as you said, filler to pad out the space between the robot/monster fights. And I love the monster/robot fights and I can see Del Toro's love for them on the screen, and I agree that the film is a fitting homage in that respect at least. Did he not pay much attention to the filler human scenes? I think we both agree that he didn't, but the problem I have with that is that they still make up half of the film and we're required to sit through them.

I think we all have different tolerances though and nostalgia does indeed play a part of that. If Pacific Rim's kaiju tribute is specifically in your wheelhouse then I can totally understand the desire to brush over the weaker parts. For example, Star Wars punches me right in the nostalgia button so hard that I can watch the prequels despite their own shitty characters and terrible writing. Because I still get a buzz when someone turns on a lightsaber and that's enough for me. So if Pacific Rim's monster fights are enough to make it one of the best genre films of the year to someone else then I can understand that. Perhaps the difference is that I'm prepared to admit that the prequels are terrible in so many respects. I'm not blinded enough by the good bits to try and convince anyone they're great films - I merely acknowledge that they entertain me on some level. I've been hearing people saying that Pacific Rim is a near "perfect" film, but in my mind it's far from it.

Despite all this I enjoyed a lot of the film and was amped up by the action. I just expected better from Del Toro and am still convinced that he was urged to play safe and broad because of the huge amounts of money involved. I think they wanted the film to be understood by the largest possible global audience and that does usually result in some necessary dumbing down. And I absolutely find the casting and portrayal of those "Australians" to be alienating and condescending and think its inexcusable in 2013 when we're all so readily connected. How would Del Toro feel about an Australian playing a lazy Mexican in futuristic sombrero and poncho while doing a poor imitation of Speedy Gonzales. (In truth he'd probably have a better sense of humour about it than I would).

Jeff: When I say Pacific Rim is "near perfect," I say that because of rather than in spite of the flaws in the plot and the narrative. I admit I could be reading the film entirely wrong, but a good comparison might be the Tarantino/Rodriguez Grindhouse compilation. I have my issues with Death Proof in that its a rare time that Tarantino overshot his hand, but Planet Terror was, quite simply, not a good film, but a nearly perfect movie in that it sets out to do one thing (ape a 1960s/70s sci-fi schlockfest) and it succeeds in doing it well. Death Proof is more like, say, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in which it understands what it is trying to mimic, but misses the mark. Maybe we disagree in how well Pacific Rim hits that mark in terms of its overall intent, but it's the difference between why this succeeds and the late 1990s Godzilla fails - the more you think about it, the more you might be missing the idea.

To kind of beat the dead horse about the stereotypes/tropes thing a bit, it may be useful to look at Del Toro's other original work:

* The Strain: entirely wooden stock characters with a stock, but modern, view of vampires. They're fun books (although the third was entirely tiring), but they're not groundbreaking, either.
* Pan's Labyrinth: Movie with entirely unmemorable human characters existing in a world that appears to be created solely to make weird fantasy monsters.
* Mimic: a failed sci-fi film where Del Toro actively states that the film is more a vehicle for his interest in underutilized horror tropes.

I'm not familiar with The Devil's Backbone at all, and obviously working with licensed properties like Hellboy and Blade come with their own constraints, but if there's one common theme behind Del Toro's work, it's that it's not exactly subtle. He has a very specific vision for the work he does, and Pacific Rim is part of that. Characters and characterization are secondary to the artistic choices he's making in terms of his desire for cool genre stuff, and perhaps his reliance on tropes or stereotypes is reflective of the secondary nature of the plots and human characters in his works rather than any conscious...anything. Maybe this makes me an apologist for sloppy, insensitive storytelling (and perhaps that possible insensitivity/ignorance that may be portrayed would become outright problematic in a Lovecraftian adaptation given Lovecraft's feelings on the matter of race). Maybe I'm completely wrong about it. At the very least, I can see where it lines up in Del Toro's career over the years, good or bad.

At the very least, I do think we agree on a base level: aliens + robots = fun. Even dropping 15 minutes from the run time might have significantly improved the film's overall feel (Charlie Day running around Hong Kong felt more like an excuse to give Ron Perlman airtime than anything specific, my one real complaint), but I do think, like the warmup noise of a lightsaber, there's something immediately compelling about a robot fighting an alien.

Luke: Just when I think we're beginning to enter the drift together on Pacific Rim, I have to take slight umbrage with the notion that Pan's Labyrinth has "entirely unmemorable human characters"! The General is the most memorable thing about that film for me, and he is far scarier than any of the monsters! One of the greatest villains of all time, in my opinion, and maybe it's because I know that Del Toro is capable of a film like that, that I was disappointed with the scripting on Pacific Rim.

But yes, let's agree that monsters vs robots is fun. It is what it is, and while the humans are not dissimilar to other mainstream genre fair, I do commend Del Toro for ramping up the outrageousness of the action. It's a film that's certainly best when it's at its most imaginative.

Are our minds in sync now? We can go punch a monster?

Jeff: Just don't judge me too much. Things might get a little weird in my drift...

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