She’s moving up, going right through my heart… Pacific Rim is half good #reviews

Pacific Rim Locandina
Pacific Rim Locandina (Photo credit: Debris2008)

Next Tuesday week, a portal will open deep in the ocean through which will come enormous beasties, ‘kaiju’.  As the kaiju destroy coastlines and cities, humanity will pool its resources together to build enormous robots to battle them.  Hooray!

Pacific Rim is a story about responding to existential threats.  The opening fifteen minutes of the film is an amazingly subtle, nuanced, and insightful exploration of how we as a culture would respond to such crises.  When the kaiju struck, we panicked and mourned the dead.  It became increasingly difficult to understand our experience of terror when the threat failed to subordinate itself to reason.  This tension results in escapism: the kaiju threat becomes a joke in popular culture.  People get tattoos of the ‘favourite’ monster.  Stuffed toys and television shows soothe our tension.  More importantly, the people tasked with confronting the threat become increasingly cavalier.  The robots built to destroy the kaiju are decorated with pin-up girls and anti-kaiju sentiments.  When the pilots are called up to take these robots into battle, they cheer at the chance to have ‘fun’.

In many respects, it’s a shame that this opening exploration doesn’t pervade more of the film.  Guillermo del Toro nails our culture’s aversion to grappling with big issues, preferring instead to trivialise threats to our status quo.  Best of all, he doesn’t do it through clunky or ham-fisted exposition.  In a world full of giant robots fighting giant monsters, del Toro makes the reaction of our society feel entirely plausible, natural, and organic.

The problem with del Toro’s world — and, ultimately, the problem with the film overall — is the individuals who occupy this environment.  The protagonist, Aryan McBlando, pilots one of these giant robots with his brother.  Piloting the monsters requires two minds to be connected.  The pilots share memories, instincts, and thoughts in order to control the robot.  It is hinted that the two pilots reflect the two hemispheres of the robot’s brain — one pilot allows the robot to do maths, while the other pilot takes control when the robot needs to make a crayon drawing.  The brothers are given their orders by the military commander of the robot infantry (played by Idris Elba): go to a set location and stop the kaiju from making landfall.  Instead of doing this, the brothers go off to save a ship full of people and fight the kaiju directly.  Pumped up on macho and hubris, they declare a victory against the kaiju… only to discover that the kaiju isn’t dead and that the kaiju is still quite capable of destroying the robot.

Thus begins the story arc of Aryan McBlando.  The kaiju has killed his brother, he spends several years hiding from the world, but he must return to pilot the giant robot for great justice.

The Angry Young Man plot is as old as The Iliad and is often a satisfying story.  The character begins in a state of glory, falls, and then has to regain his former glory.  The crucial ingredient in this stock plot is an angry young man.  And that’s where Pacific Rim makes its first slip.

I don’t know in which $5 bargain bin del Toro found Charlie Hunnam, but I rather wish he’d left him there.  Hunnam is painfully bad in the role of Aryan McBlando and simply fails to convince the audience that he’s protagonist material.  Idris Elba, on the other hand, is superlatively wonderful and thoroughly dominates every scene that he’s in.  About a quarter of the way into this film, I wonder why his character is not the protagonist.  He is clearly the most intelligent, sensible, and rational person in the story, and yet his advice is routinely ignored by every halfwit wannabe cowboy and bean-counting bureaucrat.

English: Charlie Hunnam at the 2011 Comic Con ...
English: Charlie Hunnam at the 2011 Comic Con in San Diego (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following the death of his brother, McBlando has gone into construction work on ‘The Wall’.  Instead of fighting the kaiju directly, the governments of the world have decided to create an enormous wall around the problem area to contain the kaiju.  Building the wall is — inexplicably — dangerous and the labourers work without safety equipment in exchange for food rations.  There’s something oddly perverse about these scenes.  In the future, we will be able to connect people psychically and build enormous, plasma-shooting robots… but we won’t be able to have consistent Occupational Health & Safety regulations.

Meanwhile, Idris Elba is having more interesting difficulties.  Building, maintaining, and using the giant robots is fantastically expensive and the League of Multicultural Bureaucrats do not think the expense is justified.  They want to spend more money building the wall and less money financing the boneheads who ignore orders and wreck robots.  Although clearly intended as a ‘We don’t give the military enough money; what would bureaucrats know about anything?’ message, having seen the way the robots are managed, it’s difficult not to agree with the pencil pushers.

Idris Elba is given eight months’ worth of funding, but somehow finds an extra source of funds to establish a ‘resistance’.  Despite having dozens of young pilots waiting to get their hands on one of the giant robots, Elba goes to find McBlando and offer him the opportunity to fight kaiju again.

Elba’s organisation is populated with a menagerie of defective characters.  There’s the stuffy English scientist (played by Burn Gorman — the ugly looking guy from Torchwood), there’s the extremely enthusiastic unconventional scientist (played by Charlie Day, impersonating a much younger Bobcat Goldthwaite), there’s the Angry Australian With a South African Accent (played by Robert Kazinsky from EastEnders), and the Less Angry Australian With a South African Accent (played by Max Martini).  Every second that these guys are on screen is a second that we don’t see giant robots thumping giant beasties.  Indeed, their acting is so robotic that you can’t help but think of the wonderful mecha-kaiju clashes.  Each one of these people is excruciatingly bad and left me with the sincere hope that the kaiju would wipe them all out.

Although we can suspend our disbelief to watch robots versus monsters, the very idea that Idris Elba would employ this collection of utter imbeciles offends every principle of commonsense and rationality.

But the icing on the turd cake is brought by Rinko Kikuchi.  Kikuchi plays Mako Mori, Elba’s right hand who is smarter and more physically capable than all of the meatheads piloting the robots.  So why isn’t she piloting a robot?  Because Mako is an Asian woman and it would be somehow disrespectful to her ancestors to challenge the decisions to keep her off the team.  Fortunately, McBlando is here to champion women’s equality in the film.  He’s an angry young man who rejects authority (which, if we remember, resulted in the death of his brother), especially when it comes from a non-white leader.

Mako’s character sits at the intersection of several racist fantasies.  When she’s not talking, she’s fantasising about a beefy white male.  When she is talking, she is not interrupting or demonstrating any kind of insubordination.  She’s quirky and shy; strong but non-threatening.  Despite establishing that Mako is a formidable fighter, when she’s mocked by a beefy white male, she obediently withers into the wallpaper while another beefy white male defends her honour.  When she and McBlando do something amazing, McBlando gets the credit.  Mako is there to make him look good.

But the most confusing aspect of her character is the reason why Idris Elba doesn’t want her piloting robots.  Mako, you see, has A Past and women with A Past are broken, damaged, and likely to freak out if given a weapon.  This is what divides women from men in Pacific Rim: where McBlando was sought out because of his past, Mako is consigned to the scrap heap because of hers.

The only good thing about such terrible characters is that you’re not really that disappointed when they die.  It’s a reverse Game of Thrones phenomenon.  You are happy to watch the robots battling kaiju because you don’t care who wins.

As the plot meanders on, we discover that the kaiju exist for a purpose: evil interdimensional aliens have built them as war machines to wipe out humankind.  The aliens manufactured both the portal and are penetrating into our universe.  Clearly, the only response to this violation is to penetrate into their universe with a nuclear bomb, thus reasserting our masculinity and restoring the order in the multiverse.

The film works best as a parody.  Every so often, it manages to ascend into the heavens of being extremely funny.  It’s these moments that you can see what sort of film Pacific Rim might have been: clever but silly, insightful but utterly insane.  Instead we get a film which is peppered with these moments which seem almost out of place.  Oh, the kaiju has grown wings at the end of the battle?  Oh, the robot have a hitherto unmentioned weapon which would have been useful ten minutes ago?  I wonder if all the robots will combine to make a massive mega robot?

But because the acting is — on the whole — terrible and the characters are so repugnant, it’s difficult to go along for the ride.  Idris Elba makes everybody around him look like rank amateurs.  He’s the only person in his scenes who seems to go with the anime-style melodrama.  It’s a shame that he and Ron Perlman don’t share any scenes — Perlman plays a shady underworld figure who trades in the body parts of kaiju, and fits the insanity of the role extremely well.  Instead, it’s Charlie Day who shares scenes with him, drowning and floundering in his presence.

And, of course, there’s Ellen McLain as the GLaDOS-inspired voice of the AI.  Fantastic.

Overall, it’s a dud of a film.  Where the usual complaint about blockbusters is that the CGI ruined the solid story, Pacific Rim ruins the CGI with a rubbish story.

Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based PhD student, writer, and policy wonk who writes about law, conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

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