The Joy of Dumbness.

landfall

Let’s get it out of the way right up front: this movie doesn’t have a single original rivet in its huge, skyscraper-sized, monster-nose-punching body. It is in fact a classic sort of monster in its own right, a crazy Frankensteinian chimera stitched together from the rotting corpses of so many other creatures you’d be hard-pressed to count them all. Transformers, ID4, Blade Runner, Cloverfield, every Godzilla movie ever made, every Robotech/Macross/mecha mashup that ever made it across the Pacific. For starters.

But two things:

First, Shakespeare was hardly the first guy to write about star-crossed lovers or treacherous kings, either. He just did it way better than most.

Second, you’re not gonna get literature for the ages when you let a kid loose in a sandbox full of plastic dinosaurs and toy robots. What you are going to get is a kid having an awful lot of fun.

Pacific Rim is Guillermo del Toro’s sandbox, and — as had been said many times this past weekend, by people with much bigger megaphones than I — it is a lot of fun. If I had to hang a fifty-dollar word on the thing, I would use exuberant.

It is not perfect. The plot is neither airtight nor logical, and as far as I can see it doesn’t try to be; that’s not what you’re going for when you play in a sandbox.  But I can embrace Pacific Rim’s joyful dumbness in a way that I could not embrace, say, this year’s Star Trek or last year’s Prometheus (especially last year’s Prometheus).

Prometheus wanted to be profound, and failed.  Star Trek wanted to be, well, Star Trek, and also failed (although not quite so badly as Prometheus). What neither of them even tried to be, as far as I can tell, was consistent.

You want to play with magical tech? Fine. Making a cell phone call from Klingon space to a San Francisco bar goes pretty far beyond the capabilities of classic Trek communicators, but then again, this timeline was forked into existence by the appearance of a mysterious time-travelling alien colossus that wiped out Starfleet’s finest in the time it takes to snarf a muffin. I’m guessing that threat may have bootstrapped a whole lot of breakneck technological advancement. Likewise, classic transporters wouldn’t be able to beam you directly from Earth to the Klingon homeworld — those things could reach from a planetary surface up to geosynch at best — but then again, Scotty-classic never developed a theory of transwarp beaming  while stuck on Delta-Vega, either (and for that matter, Delta-Vega-classic was way the hell out at the rim of the galaxy, not in a mutual orbit with Vulcan).

But.

If you want us to accept that Starfleet has matter transmitters with a range of five thousand parsecs, you don’t send your posse after the bad guy in some clunky old Edsel starship that’s just been rendered obsolete by the very technology your villain used to escape: you send them using the same instantaneous miracle-transporter that Khan used, or you damn well explain why you can’t. (While you’re at it, you can also explain why you need conventional spaceships at all anymore, for anything.) Likewise, if you want to make your villain some kind of dark-mirror Christ metaphor whose magical blood can raise the dead— welllllllll, okay, I guess. But given that you’ve already got seventy of his buddies in cold storage, all with the same blood chemistry, there’s no real need to risk the lives of senior officers in a running game of knock-down-drag-out-leapfrog played on the backs of flying garbage scows swooping and clanking through the air a thousand meters up. (And don’t get me started on the logic of that whole opening volcano sequence.)

See, I’m not completely anal-retentive about plausible science. You can declare any bullshit you like through authorial fiat, and I’m there; but once you’ve made that declaration, you fucking well abide by it. You don’t forget your own rules the moment it costs you a few seconds of cheap pyrotechnics.

PacificRim_ManilaAnd this is why I can revel in the dumbness of Pacific Rim where I could only snarl at those other pretenders; because having established his absurd premise, del Toro stays reasonably faithful to it. He runs with it, even interrogates it a little. How do you get rid of a monster the size of the TD Center, rotting in the heart of the business district? PR lets us glimpse a sight right out of Perdido Street Station, a metropolitan streetscape where vast bleached ribs arc up between reconstructed apartment buildings and office towers (Ah, sometimes it’s just cheaper to leave them where they are). Kinks and fetishistic subcultures  spring up around a black-market trade in monster body-parts: blue blood and faux aphrodisiacs,  exoparasites like chitinous isopods the size of poodles (whether they’re used as pets or for food is never established— but judging by the fervor of the teams that pick them off fresh carcasses, there’s obviously a thriving trade in Kaiju lice). Ron Perlman has an awesome cameo as a dealer.

(On the minus side, for all the joy inherent in monster-punching, you gotta wonder why the Jaeger-pilots didn’t just cut to the chase and use those chest-fired missiles right off the top.  Those seemed to work pretty well.)

neonAnd yet, even hamstrung by relative fidelity to its premise, Pacific Rim does not skimp on the pyrotechnics. These have got to be the coolest, shiniest, most eye-catchingly crisp visuals I’ve seen in years, maybe ever. The battle scenes aren’t just frenetic and eyeball-filling, they’re coherent. And all this glorious love and attentive perfectionism has been bestowed, let’s not forget, on a movie that exists for no other purpose than to show us giant robots punching monsters in the nose!!!!

I attended Friday’s showing in a group of three. Caitlin Sweet, to my left — literary fantasist, fiction instructor, abiding fan of deep characterization — who rolled her eyes at Iron Man and Man of Steel and Steel Irons and all those gritty Batman reboots —  leaned over at the halfway mark and whispered, “Just so you know, I’m absolutely loving this movie.” Leona Lutterodt, to my right, didn’t say much— but five minutes in she’d completely forgotten about surfing for Sharknado updates on her cell phone, which in its own way was even more telling.

As for me, no surprise, I loved it. Iron Man 3 was deeper, insofar as you can apply the term to a comic-book movie — thicker characters, more visual symbolism of the armored against the ones you love variety — but it got awfully cluttered and incoherent there at the end. (Although if Tony Stark ever loses his fortune and has to start over, he could always patent whatever went into Pepper Potts’s sports bra; that fabric was indestructible.) But in terms of sheer dumb popcorn-munching fun, no other movie I’ve seen in the past year comes close to Pacific Rim.

This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Wednesday July 17 2013at 02:07 pm , filed under ink on art . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

24 Responses to “The Joy of Dumbness.”

  1. Yes! During the first fifteen minutes I leaned over to my wife, “This is the most FUN I can remember having at a movie.” We laughed with joy the whole way through.

  2. Don’t know if you have seen Hitosi Matsumoto’s “Big Man Japan.”
    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0997147/
    If you haven’t, check it out. Totally madcap parody of the whole Kaiju sub-genre. Basically a Pacific Rim on acid.

  3. […] And really, that does say it all. But I wanted to blog about why. Thankfully, I don’t need to, because the excellent Peter Watts has done it for me. He says exactly what I thought about this film, so go and read his post here. […]

  4. Great post! Couldn’t agree more – you’ve saved me having to blog. I’m just going to link to this.

  5. Hahaha! Pacific Rim, for our young boy and his parents, has been a lot of fun to watch! And in 3D… (also: loved to see Ron Perlman, and the female character was also cool.)

  6. About Star Trek: One has to wonder why there was a garbage hatch in the first place. With inventions like the duplicator and the ability to break down matter using the teleporting technology and so on, one would expect the starships to have perfected whatever recycling tchnology that’s around in the future. Why dump important ressources into space?

    And if you want to watch a really annoying movie, try World War Z, where we have an “intelligent” movie and a scientist that’s physchoanalyzing mother nature.

  7. Really stupid idea: giant robots beating giant monsters?

    If you wanted to deliver gigajoules of kinetic energy and add gigajoules of explosive energy to it, the easiest thing to do is to make a huge guided armor piercing missiles. It’s far easier than engineering a mechanical arm capable of same.
    If they were atomic, it’d be no contest.

    Though I imagine the exploding a ten-thousand tonne animal with a five kiloton nuke would send the pieces flying for miles.

    In addition, kinetic energy depends on the square of velocity – so higher speeds are much more efficient.


  8. (While you’re at it, you can also explain why you need conventional spaceships at all anymore, for anything.

    Pretty easy to explain.

    Even if you could beam bombs across light-year distances, you’d prefer to have the bomb storage/transporters/ command & control hidden somewhere.

    A spaceship is good, since with a bomb-teleporter, some thousand-odd huge thermonukes glassing a planet is trivial.

    Destroying a spaceship lurking somewhere in interstellar space, dozens of lightyears from anywhere. Pretty hard.

  9. Ahem, Y. If they could glass the Klingon home world (and presumably every colony) remotely, there goes the whole premise for using Khan to build super weapons to fight the Klingons, doesn’t it? The crazy admiral and his cohorts could just genocide the Klingons before *anyone* knew what happened.

    And how exactly did a non-cloaked ship make it all the way to the orbit of the Klingon homeworld without anybody noticing? Etc.

    No, this year’s Star Trek movie truly was irredeemably stupid, and definitely not a real Star Trek show to boot. It’s pretty harsh condemnation when Trekkies deem something irredeemably stupid. :)

    From the glowing review of Pacific Rim for summertime stupidity,though, now I’m sad I wasted money (and stereocilia) on Star Trek and Man of Steel.

  10. Biff:
    And if you want to watch a really annoying movie, try World War Z, where we have an “intelligent” movie and a scientist that’s physchoanalyzing mother nature.

    Damn. That was just about my favorite part. Well, really the wall, but as many noted, I got that in the ads.

    The book is pretty cool. I expected more of the interesting bits (or new ones) in there and didn’t get much of it. I was also a little unclear what it was about (as opposed to the plot) unless it was in the North Korea subplot. Israel just isn’t paranoid enough.

  11. Besides being fun, it didn’t end with a love interest copout, and del Toro put both the cowboy heroboys following their hindbrains in their places.
    And the intertitle extra ending was a nice touch.

    Idris Elba is made of epic.

    All the threads woven into this, the homages, the elements of social criticism common to earlier kaiju movies, the gestures of respect to Japanese culture (among many other things a certain pilot’s flashbacks making me think of WWII, one of the psychological predecessors to the original kaiju movies, iirc), the little details . . . enjoying this movie felt good. del Toro HANDLED the things that spoil my enjoyment of most mainstream movies.

    I wonder if there is any other director who has ever bridged the gap between art movies and genre movies so effectively.

  12. demoval,

    Ang Lee tried with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It is an art film that pays homage to wuxia films. I have watched his movies from the ones set in Tiawan with cultural dramatic themes, and enjoyed watching him grow to put on that movie. I looked forward to him doing the Hulk because I thought he was the right person to do a movie that mixed thinking homage with genre, but that movie was not at all good.

  13. I went to go see Pacific Rim on your suggestion Peter… and it gave me a headache. You were right about the robots fist fighting godzilla monsters, that was cool, but the rest of it didnt do it for me. And towards the end, when they were fighting 2 of the monsters, the sound became unbearable for me. Maybe the theatre I went too just had a lousy sound system, but I was almost holding my ears to drown out the noise of it all.

    Also, the least swallowable part of the movie… The sea wall. How was that ever suppose to protect anyone? Why couldnt the monsters just, I dont know, CLIMB over it?!?

  14. There’s apparently a Lithuanian (?!?) Scifi export to DVD, viewable one way or another in ‘Merican called *Vanishing Waves*. Plot revolves around connecting two or more unconsciousnesses. Watched the YouTube trailer. It’s also erotic, something missing from a lot of the Hollywood stuff these days.

  15. This article may be of interest

    The Tet Zoo Guide to Pacific Rim
    http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/tetrapod-zoology/2013/07/25/tet-zoo-guide-to-pacific-rim/


  16. No, this year’s Star Trek movie truly was irredeemably stupid

    Which Star Trek movie wasn’t irredeemably stupid? The one where an unshaved lunatic cobbles together a faster-than-light drive and invites passing aliens for beer & sausages?

    Seems pretty silly to me…

    There is a dearth of sci-fi themed films that are not dumb.

  17. Totally agree – but epic fail for not celebrating the greatness that is Idris. My man Idris, ‘SARF Landon”s greatest son. Are you into ‘Luther’ yet? Very very silly, but he is magnificent in it.

    In its own way – ‘Pacific Rim’ is the greatest movie ever made. And I say that as a man partial to a bit of ‘Battleship Potemkin.’

  18. Alan Baxter:
    Great post! Couldn’t agree more – you’ve saved me having to blog. I’m just going to link to this.

    Believe me, I can always use the hits.

    Biff: And if you want to watch a really annoying movie, try World War Z, where we have an “intelligent” movie and a scientist that’s physchoanalyzing mother nature.

    I have not seen WWZ yet. I fear to, having loved the book so much.

    Y.: Really stupid idea: giant robots beating giant monsters?

    Well, of course. That was kind of my point. It was dumbness, but it was awesome dumbness.

    Jeremy: I went to go see Pacific Rim on your suggestion Peter… and it gave me a headache. You were right about the robots fist fighting godzilla monsters, that was cool, but the rest of it didnt do it for me.

    Well I can’t speak to the quality of the theater sound system, but I recently came upon this blog post argueing that even those of us who praise PR for “knowing that it’s dumb” are actually missing the point — that PR is in fact very smart at developing its characters visually, while most of us (erroneously) judge it by verbal criteria. Interesting perspective, and worth considering.

  19. Y.:
    If you wanted to deliver gigajoules of kinetic energy and add gigajoules of explosive energy to it, the easiest thing to do is to make a huge guided armor piercing missiles. It’s far easier than engineering a mechanical arm capable of same.

    Yes, but missiles won’t be directed by human beings, blazing with fighting spirit, screaming as the missiles make contact… and as everybody knows, that adds several megatons of damage ;)

    Y.:
    Though I imagine the exploding a ten-thousand tonne animal with a five kiloton nuke would send the pieces flying for miles.

    Yes, but ten thousand ton monsters always head for land where the densest populated cities are located. The collateral damage of a nuke in Hong Kong Bay or Seattle Bay or Manilla Bay or even Anchorage would be unacceptable.

  20. If I may geek out hard for a moment, the novelization does mention tactical nukes. They’re tried and they work, but the collateral damage is unacceptable when they’re used closed to cities, which is where the kaiju tend to head. And the kaiju can’t be attacked further out out to sea because their silicon-based biochemistry makes them hard to pick up with sensors in the vast expanse of the Pacific.

    Now, that’s hand-waving worthy of Sikorsky, but it’s hard not to respect the effort.


  21. Yes, but missiles won’t be directed by human beings, blazing with fighting spirit, screaming as the missiles make contact… and as everybody knows, that adds several megatons of damage

    What’d prevent daredevil special forces soldiers from jumping into the Kaiju’s maw in special, stomach acid resistant dry-suits, entering it’s body, then cutting out a way from their stomachs to the creature’s heart?

    That’d make an awesome flick I think.

  22. a metropolitan streetscape where vast bleached ribs arc up between reconstructed apartment buildings and office towers (Ah, sometimes it’s just cheaper to leave them where they are).

    Given that (and it’s an awesome shot), it’s a pity that Ron Perlman has a couple of lines about how specifically valuable powdered kaiju bone is (“$500 a bag”). Seems unlikely they’d leave all that just lying around. (The only change that needs to happen is for him to say that he makes a fortune selling everything except the bones.

  23. Also, the least swallowable part of the movie… The sea wall. How was that ever suppose to protect anyone? Why couldnt the monsters just, I dont know, CLIMB over it?!?

    Really? I thought that was the most believable part of the entire thing. Giant monsters from another dimension, enormous war robots, psychic linkage, all a bit much. But “governments decide to invest billions in a ridiculous defence project that can’t work”? That’s reality!

  24. ajay: Given that (and it’s an awesome shot), it’s a pity that Ron Perlman has a couple of lines about how specifically valuable powdered kaiju bone is (“$500 a bag”). Seems unlikely they’d leave all that just lying around. (The only change that needs to happen is for him to say that he makes a fortune selling everything except the bones.

    Or show us a quick shot of scaffolding and sparks climbing up along those ribs where crews of get-rich-quick types are mining the remains…