Pacific Rim and the Art of Life

By Michael Harris

So last Friday, with the words from my overly long post on modern music still ringing in my ears, I went and saw Pacific Rim with a good friend, Andy Lee, whose recordings of lesser known minimalist composers you should really check out.  Anyway, I started to think, while watching giant robots fight giant monsters, how I might discuss this film in context of what I had just written.  Would this film be an example of recycled Hollywood schlock, opiate for the masses, art of death?  (Which on the surface it would seem to be.)  Or is it life affirming, truly creative, and something that helps to contribute to the on-going dialogue amongst creators; the art of life?  For me, it is quite assuredly in the latter category, and I’ll explain why shortly.  First, though, a brief review.

I admit it, I loved Pacific Rim.  Loved it.  I had to restrain myself from screaming with a childish glee many times while watching the movie.  That’s how much I loved it.  (I failed to restrain said whoops, as Andy might tell you.)  And, unlike some critics, I didn’t even mind the actual “story” of the film, though it did get in the way of seeing the awesome fight sequences.  Could I have used more plot?  Yes, but then you would have less fighting, and those scenes are the entire reason the film exists.  I hope there is a longer director’s cut version that will offer us more of the plot of the film and will essentially be the “perfect” PacRim, but if there isn’t, what we have is good enough for me.  If I do have a complaint it is the score.  I was ripped out the movie by the score on a number of occasions.  To summarize my complaint, too many strings and not enough winds, brass, and guitars.  For some reason, Djwardi’s combination of strings and electric guitars for the main theme just falls flat for me emotionally, and, like I said before, sounds like a bad version of Metallica’s S&M or a hokey orchestral tribute album.  That aside, after about thirty minutes, I was quite immersed in the story and action and noticed the music less and less.  Though, there was a great moment towards the end when the main theme kicked in as the heroes were about to get back up and continue the fight that was quite exhilarating.  I must admit to being carried away by the score at that moment, but that the only time that happened.  All of my other gleeful moments were seeing how del Toro used such tropes from Neon Genesis Evangelion like the rocket elbow or giant sword to wonderful effect, and other similar things.

Okay, so how is Pacific Rim, in so many ways the epitome of big budget, CGI, summer spectacle, the Art of Life?  Well, I feel that a lot of it goes to my reaction to the film, my sheer joy at seeing it unfold on screen.  To me, what separates Pacific Rim from other films this summer like The Lone Ranger or The Grown Ups 2, the latter of which it opened against and both of which I feel fall into the category of Art of Death, is that Pacific Rim dares to be something original and different while also remixing and reimaging its source material (so much Japanese anime and magna) into a new context, namely a Western sensibility.  On the surface, PacRim is quite similar to The Lone Ranger, both are based on established genre conventions and have some high powered names attached to them, but Lone Ranger is essentially a Pirates of the Caribbean sequel without actually being one, except that they swapped out Orlando Bloom for Armie Hammer; same studio, same director, same Johnny Depp, and even Hans Zimmer.  Disney basically played it somewhat safe—though these days Westerns are inherently risky—by stacking the project with as many known quantities as they could find.  All they wanted was a film that would sell tickets and bring in the money and merchandising sales.  Well they were wrong.  Audiences are not always stupid, and there was nothing new or innovative to The Lone Ranger.  The Art of Death in force, part of what is actually killing Hollywood studios, not piracy, not competition from TV or the Internet, rather a lack of innovation and ideas, and instead recycling safe plots and boring sequels, like The Grown Ups 2, which I don’t even need to see to know that I would likely laugh very little of it.  Oh, Sandler, whatever happened to the fresh-faced funny man of Happy Gilmore?

So why is Pacific Rim different?  I think it boils down to two things: the passion of all involved in the project, and the chance that the filmmakers take on a subject that has never had a huge audience in the US.  Let’s tackle the second one first.

Kaiju and mecha anime and movies are genres that are native to Japan and have never really gained a large audience outside of it.  Sure, we are all aware of Godzilla (or in Japanese, Gojira), but how many people actually saw the 1998’s Godzilla starring Matthew Broderick and made by the same guys behind Independence Day?  Or how many people saw J.J. Abrams and Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield in 2008?  Or how about Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake in 2005?  All of these films were essentially an attempt to create an American kaiju franchise, or in one case revive the only native born giant monster movie, but all earned mediocre box office stifling and chance for a sequel.[1]  Our most successful giant “monster” films are about dinosaurs, so maybe there is something deeper that keeps us away from kaiju like movies.  The original Gojira was born in 1954 amidst post-World War II nuclear fears in the country that is still the only one to have a nuclear weapon used against it (it was specifically the recent American tests on Bikini Atoll and the Daigo Fukuryū Maru incident that spurred on the giant monster’s creation).  Maybe this is why we reject these monsters, though even Jurassic Park and King Kong show us the folly of man playing at god, but it is only Godzilla that reminds us of what terrible things we are capable of in the name of war.  The environmental destruction we visit upon the world and our fellow man.

Sorry, that was a bit of a tangent.  Back on track.  So, both kaiju and mecha anime/films have no real cultural equivalent in the US, though we enjoy disasters movies just as much as the next country.  For that reason alone, Guillermo del Toro and company had a big task ahead of them, to get those who might not normally see a film with such unfamiliar elements in it.  But this leads into the first point I listed: the passion of the filmmakers.  The only way a film like this gets made is if those involved love the material and want to get it made and convince the studio to take a chance.  And that passion, to me, is present in every frame of Pacific Rim, they love the material, they love the source movies and shows from Japan, and they want to celebrate it with us, not just get our money, which, to me, is what the trailer for The Lone Ranger says to an audience.  del Toro is a director who obviously loves film and film history, not unlike Martin Scorsese, and he wants to make movies that shows you why he loves movies.  I feel the same way about Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott, and the Wachowskis, and a few other directors.  These are folks who feel that film is a powerful tool in our society and they strive to make films that live up to the promise.  Do they always succeed?  No, but the important thing for an artist is to keep creating, regardless of success or failure.  It is about the love and passion for creating, not box office returns or view counts.

Art will survive because of our passion to create, not because of money.  Content created solely to make money is Death to Art, not Life.  And sometimes great movies bomb while terrible ones win, like the Wachowskis’ Speed Racer, which I absolutely adore yet was essential DOA in theatres.  To me, it is just like Pacific Rim in that it revels in its love of its Japanese source, and when filmmakers love what they’re doing, there is almost no way they make bad art, audiences be damned.

No one gets into art to create the Art of Death, and no one ever really wants to make bad art, be it a film or a book or a piece of music.  But many times, creators forget why they create and the result is bad film or a bad book.  Our job, as an audience, is to help remind them by celebrating the successes and politely telling them when something isn’t as good.  (To Johnny Depp: you are so much better than playing a Native American version of Jack Sparrow.  We all loved Jack Sparrow because he was such a wonderful, quirky character the likes of which we had never seen.  But, please, stop chasing the paycheck and get back to doing what you do so well, creating new characters every time you step before the camera.)

So Hollywood, please continue to support risky ventures like Pacific Rim, next summer’s American production of Godzilla (yes, a new Godzilla film next summer!), and other such films.  I understand that you need to make the occasional big draw film to fill the coffers, but just remember that focusing on rehashing the safe and recycled in film, just like in “classical” music, is a recipe for your our demise.  We may not always show it with our choices, but audiences are much smarter than you give us credit for sometimes.

P.S. – Do check out the 2008 Speed Racer.  The trailer does not do the film justice and really doesn’t capture what it is really about (studio ad people not really knowing how to market such a strange film).  The Wachowskis’ made a swirling, Technicolor feast for the eyes, with a surprisingly cerebral storytelling technique that jumps around in time and a rather complex plot about corporate greed and controlling the masses.  There is also a touching story about family and loss at its center that, I must admit, almost makes me cry from time to time every time I re-watch it, which is about once a year since I first discovered it in 2009.

P.P.S – Don’t get the wrong idea, I don’t believe that sequels are inherently bad.  I love many sequels (Empire Strikes Back, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, The Dark Knight, Star Trek II and IV and VI, and so on).  But a GOOD sequel has to have a good story, i.e. reason for existing, and not just be a shameless cash in.

[1] Yes, the original King Kong predates Goira by over two decades, but there have only even been a handful of films with the character, including taking on Godzilla in the ‘70s.

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