My favourite moment in PACIFIC RIM was predictable. Not predictable because of my towering intellect or my rapacious consumption of popular culture either. It was just predictable. In fact, lots of things in PACIFIC RIM were predictable. For years, my father would utter lines in a TV show or a disappointing film just before they came out of a character’s mouth, and would then beam while saying “I wrote this.” My parents are not writers, but they know when they’re being fed a load of rubbish. People use terms like “derivative” and “lacking in originality” to describe films, books and games that do this. Simply put, doing the same old thing is lazy and the audience can tell. It’s a frustrating experience. A film that telegraphs its entire plot at the ten minute mark isn’t much fun. Usually, anyway. Clever filmmakers and writers can pull it off. There are classic tales, classic tropes. There are heroes and there are villains, there is young love and there is loss, there are traitors and there are surprises in our midst. Bad works of art take these tropes and throw them at you, expecting you to swallow them because people have been doing that for centuries. Good works of art take these tropes and respect them. They place them in the centre of the room and take them seriously. It’s not much of a leap from there to taking your audience more seriously.
People understand creators that respect them. One of the things that continuously baffles me about the success of the TRANSFORMERS and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films is that those films don’t respect the audience at all. They just throw slop at us and expect us to come back for more. In general, however, people don’t take well to it. Audiences appreciate films and books and other works of art that understand the audience is coming into the cinema or the theater or opening the page with certain expectations and certain hopes and desires. This is where PACIFIC RIM excels. To use that utterly horrifying term so ubiquitous in film criticism, it “delivers.”
What does it deliver? Well… this is a little simplistic, but that also feeds into the kind of film that PACIFIC RIM is… it’s fun. I had a lot of fun watching the film. Now, there are different types of fun. There are some who argue that TRANSFORMERS films are harmless fun. The disturbing racism aside, those films are not harmless. They are aggressively stupid, anti-intellectual and condescending. The TRANSFORMERS films hand the audience a piece of garbage that is really loud and not much else. Guillermo Del Toro is a man that respects the audience, a man that knows we will respond to something better. He wants to make a good film, end of story. PACIFIC RIM is a good film. It’s loud and lots of stuff happens on the screen, and the story is simple; but the sense of scale is immense and immediately impressive, and the story is being played out between believable characters. Simple characters, yes. Believable ones. A father that loves his son, even if the son is a bit of a dingbat. The taciturn commander and father figure (not just to one, but to all) that ultimately conveys his approval. A good guy who will save the day, a man that isn’t perfect but that is still something special. A young woman who wants to prove herself and whom, ultimately, the good guys cannot do without. Simple stuff, engaging stuff. If I had to pick a word, just one, to describe this film I would probably pick “honest.” PACIFIC RIM isn’t trying to fool you or talk itself up, it is what it is and you can take it or leave it.
That’s why I love PACIFIC RIM.
Now, my favourite part? Our hero, after the standard early setback, has been sidelined from an important battle. Things go wrong, and he is put in at the last minute, just as we all know he will be from the moment his commander turns to him and gives him the “you’re sitting this one out” order. The advanced Jaeger piloted by our dingbat quasi-antagonist has run into some trouble, and in the background the hero’s Jaeger is dropped into the ocean as we get ready for him to enter the fray. I got so excited I think my heart skipped a beat. I lifted a little out of my chair. That hasn’t happened to me in years. And I knew it was coming. There was nothing even remotely surprising about this turn of events in the least, and I wanted to punch the air like a buffoon. That takes some serious skill on the part of the filmmaker.
When a film like this does such a great job of recreating classic archetypes while still entertaining, it creates its own type of suspense: an acute sense of anticipation. The battle of which I speak is a magnificent spectacle and achievement of special effects, design and directing effort. It’s already a fantastic scene before the hero makes his entrance. However, the audience knows the hero is going to get involved. So, we know it’s going to ramp up from there. We end up with the fantastic experience of enjoying a fantastic action sequence while knowing that it is going to get better in only a few minutes. That’s rare. It’s much more common to find yourself getting distracted or bored, knowing that there’ll be some kind of upping of “stakes” in the next few minutes.
Furthermore, the action in PACIFIC RIM generally fits in with the story. Our hero has to come back from a traumatic event. High prices have been paid by humanity in this story and more will be exacted. A victory for one of the Jaegers over a Kaiju isn’t just another crash-bang-wallop sequence; it’s a personal victory for the pilots of that Jaeger. They vindicate themselves, and we root for them to do so.
Nevertheless, high prices are paid. Again, Del Toro more or less telegraphs key dramatic moments ahead of time. He’s comfortable doing this because he knows that we are not idiots and that we have seen this kind of film before. We know that certain dramatic moments are coming. He uses that knowledge to create anticipation. It’s a far different sensation from the cringing groan produced by melodrama that purports to be in a vacuum where nobody has ever seen a film where character x falls in love with character y or character z dies in tragic circumstances. This is why I loved PACIFIC RIM, because it’s a movie that tells a simple tale, that knows its tale is simple, but understands its audience will appreciate a story told with respect and a modest level of sophistication. It’s not all about giant robots fighting giant monsters.
The giant robots helped, though.