Saturday, July 6, 2013

I guess it does seem a little silly to be all “People need to see this movie!!” like it’s an ~important cause~ or a small indie project or whatever. Yes, it’s a blockbuster movie. But I’m getting the impression that people are judging it inaccurately, mostly by comparing it to other blockbuster movies. For example, the vast quantity of people I’ve seen saying, “This looks like a ripoff of Transformers”. Nothing could be further from the truth!

It’s not Transformers.

Transformers is everyone’s favourite example of hugely successful, critic-proof summer idiot movie. It’s based on a popular toy/franchise so the audience already knows what it’s about, it has really great CGI, and it transparently appeals to teenage boys. No matter how bad the reviews were for each successive Transformers movie, people would watch them because they’d spent the past 5 years being beaten into submission by the Transformers publicity juggernaut. And because they were guaranteed to show cool scenes of giant robots smashing into stuff.

Pretty much the only thing Pacific Rim has in common with Transformers is that it includes cool scenes of giant robots smashing into stuff.

Rather than reducing the main female character to a adolescent male fantasy (don’t even get me started on Michael Bay’s glaringly obvious lack of respect for women), it looks like Pacific Rim’s Mako Mori will have a heroic character arc. I haven’t seen the movie yet so I can’t comment on whether it passes the Bechdel test or whatever (AFAIK, there’s only one female lead and one secondary female character in the ensemble cast), but Guillermo del Toro has a really good track record with female characters.

Pan’s Labyrinth, which has a female protagonist, is fantastic, and if you watch Hellboy I think you’ll be surprised by how excellent Liz Sherman is. Hellboy really does embrace its own cheesiness, but at the same time Liz Sherman gets the most interesting character arc I’ve ever seen for a comicbook love-interest. As in, she actually gets to have a life and goals of her own, separate from Hellboy — even though they grew up together, and sometimes work together. In the first movie, she actually has herself committed to a mental institution because she thinks it’ll be the best thing for her. And this is in a mainstream blockbuster movie that basically amounts to “Men In Black: Demon Edition”.

Pacific Rim looks like it was written by someone with an actual brain.

It’s already clear that wayyyy more thought has gone into Pacific Rim than into, say, Man of Steel. Man of Steel is a pile of trash garbage that disrespects its audience in every way, but was a huge success because a) Superman is a well-known franchise, and b) the advertising campaign was obliteratingly intense. (If you want to read an interesting article about Hollywood’s obsession with making stupid & offensive tentpole franchise movies, I recommend this: “The Lone Ranger represents everything that’s wrong with Hollywood blockbusters”.) The concern is that Pacific Rim may flop because a casual glance at the trailer makes people think, “That looks like Transformers vs Godzilla, starring some people I haven’t heard of,” whereas a glance at the Man of Steel trailer makes people think, “That’s Superman. I like Superman, and Zach Snyder and Christopher Nolan have made good superhero movies in the past.”

For a major Hollywood movie, brand recognition almost always means more than the quality of the film. If something stars Will Smith or Bruce Willis, people will go to see it because it’s a Bruce Willis or Will Smith movie. If a movie is part of a recogniseable franchise like Spider-Man or Tomb Raider, people will watch it because they’re familiar with the character, even if it’s so bad it makes your eyeballs roll out of your skull. With Pacific Rim, you’re looking at something that looks kind of like Godzilla and kind of like Transformers, but isn’t “the real thing”. Therefore, it must therefore be a cheap knockoff, like those “Transmorphers” movies. Or Megashark vs Giant Octopus.

In fact, Guillermo del Toro has already put a great deal of thought into the worldbuilding of Pacific Rim. First of all, it’s a look at what happens after the events of a monster movie like Godzilla or Cloverfield. It’s not an origin story. It starts in media res, like Star Wars. Here are some of del Toro’s thoughts on why he didn’t want to make an origin story:

"The part that I was interested in was the part where things are hard. If you start with the origin, then you have to go with investigative characters, which are hard for me to relate to. Like a reporter, or military forensics. For me it has to be a character that has something against him or her, from the get-go. A character that starts already oppressed or down on his/her luck, for me to be interested in them."

Pacific Rim seems to be full of little details on what would actually happen in a society in the aftermath of a monster-movie style event. Because the Kaiju are so enormous, their skeletons are often left behind and people end up building houses around them. One of the main characters is a black market trader who specialises in selling parts of dead Kaiju to people who fetishise or worship the monsters.

But the most significant thing is that it’s an international movie. The Kaiju are a threat to the entire planet, so it only makes sense that people from all around the world are fighting back against them.

In blockbuster disaster movies, the action is almost always reserved for New York or another major US city. In the Star Trek reboot, “Earth” is represented by Iowa, San Francisco, and London. In the Batman franchise, it’s (obviously) Gotham, America. In Man of Steel: Metropolis and the US military, despite the fact that they’re facing a worldwide threat. The formula is: defend America, and occasionally send in the US Marines as canon-fodder against whatever alien attack we’re fighting this week. Actually, I’m struggling to think of a major blockbuster that treats a “world threat” as a threat against the world rather than just America. (Maybe World War Z? I haven’t seen it, but the trailer seemed to have scenes in places other than America.)

However, Pacific Rim shows a diverse cast of characters from around the world, because the Kaiju are a threat to everyone, everywhere. The Jaegers (giant robots) even have a variety of different characteristics, depending on where they were manufactured.

And don’t forget that in order to pilot the Jaegers, people have to forge a mental link. Yes, that’s right, Tumblr. This is a movie with canonical soulbonding.

So yeah, I haven’t seen Pacific Rim yet, but I’m pretty damn sure it’s going to be smarter and more entertaining than every one of the major blockbuster movies that came out this summer. And if you don’t feel like trusting me, trust Kanye:


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