The Movie Fix: Pacific Rim
Piggybacking on my previous post, "The Jai Courtney Thing," I wanted to talk more about Pacific Rim. I loved the movie in spite of itself--and in spite of Charlie Hunnam. It's a very pretty movie, while being fun and dumb and loud. Yet in the quieter moments, incredibly progressive. Raleigh is a snore, but Mako is an awesome character. No quips or sass. Just an understated badassery that made me love her. And I'm not alone in that. She has quietly become a feminist icon in the better-lit corners of Tumblr-land.
Her journey is quite compelling and her antagonist isn't one of the monsters, it's her adopted father. And he's not a villain or a bastard either. He's just a person who loves his daughter and has both a legitimate concern for her readiness for battle, and a terror of losing her. One fuels the other. He won't allow her to take the chances necessary to become ready, out of both fear and love. It's such a great premise. So what is it that bugs me so much about this movie?
It's the beginning. It is so...BORING. There is nothing interesting about Raleigh. The writers gave him a sad backstory, but then presented it in the most annoying of film cheats--via narration. Which only serves to blunt emotional response and connection to the character. The beginning is full of things being smashed and people running, and steaming piles exposition (and Kaiju poops). Yet it's completely lacking in emotion and urgency. It doesn't get interesting until Stacker (Idris Elba) and Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) enter the story, because truly, those actors carry the film. I found their relationship sincere and complicated. I also loved how respectful the film is of Mako's culture and how she behaves within it. In fact, Mako and Stacker are the only characters with emotional arcs and internal journeys. Raleigh is just...there. He doesn't learn much or grow. He's just the placeholder for the presumably white audience.
Why this is so frustrating is because it's so obvious. It would be one thing if the movie were lazy and had no real character journey, like Transformers. But it took the time to give us a really great backstory and one profoundly frightening scene that informs the rest of the film once you see it. And when I finally got to that scene in the second act, it threw me out of the movie so hard that I had to hit pause and gather thoughts. It was clear that Guillermo del Toro wanted to make the movie about Mako and Stacker. Someone--probably the studio--said, that audiences wouldn't relate to a Japanese woman and a black Brit as heroes of a movie about Godzilla-punching murder-bots. So they added a pointless backstory and a lifeless, white male character as the hero and it's a damn shame. Look at this. Here is the actual opening of the film. Heavy, heavy exposition, canned emotion and a flat, strange read by Hunnam.
Now compare that with this scene that takes place in the second act. It's about the same length and you can't convince me that they didn't originally plan for this scene to be the opening of the movie. Now, this is a flashback in the middle of a larger scene, so ignore Raleigh intruding upon Mako's memory and all the shit in the Jaeger suit. Just look at the scene as if that stuff isn't there.
First off, props to Mana Ashida for being so damn good. She stole the movie with just over three minutes of screen-time. Next, look at how much more compelling this is. The energy. The emotion. The fear. Instead of focusing on the political and world-wide implications of Godzilla monsters rising from the sea, it gives us something much more simple and resonant. A terrified kid with only one shoe on her foot, running from a monster. No exposition needed. Do we understand the world we're in? The tone of the story? Yes. Do we have questions? Absolutely! And that's what is so much better about it. All that exposition could have been worked into the narrative with minimal effort. Monsters showed up. The world sucked for a while. Then the robots changed the game. Then the monsters upped the ante and now things suck again. See? I just explained it in four sentences. No need for three and a half minutes of plodding, lifeless narration that grinds the movie to a halt before it even begins.
It's the small things. I truly believe you could have kept the rest of the movie just as it was--even with Raleigh's undeserved hero status intact--by cutting his backstory scene and beginning the film with the girl running from the monster. It would imbue everything with more emotion, terror, and surprise, while also setting the stage for the real main character, Mako, and her journey. Then go back to your boring faux-American boy washing up on shore and let his story unfold via dialogue.
I know some people would accuse me of being no fun, that it was good as it was. That I just don't understand it's a movie about murder-bots marketed to teenage boys. To that I say, why do you think that teenage boys don't deserve better movies? What happens to boys if we assume that they have brains and emotions like everyone else and we treat them as such? The scene is still in the film. It's not as though it's going over their heads But changing the placement of that scene would take Pacific Rim from dumb and fun, to visceral, dumb and fun and isn't that what you want in a blow-em-up action movie? To feel the film in your guts?