Pacific Rim

Whatever it is, Pacific Rim is almost certainly more than a movie. Its lengthy, frequent scenes of robot-versus-alien fist-slugging, head-crushing, and (literal) heart-wrenching fall somewhere on the spectrum—in scale, aesthetic sensibility, and intended effect—between video games and roller coasters. At certain points it feels as if you’re riding the movie, enduring it, suffering its blows and being buffeted around under its feet; at others, you have the impression of dealing the blows yourself. It’s surprising to hear that director Guillermo del Toro opposed the film’s post-conversion to 3D, since few recent movies have seemed so dissatisfied with the prospect of being confined to two paltry dimensions. Whether or not you watch the film through a pair of plastic glasses in a wraparound IMAX theater, Pacific Rim feels like it’s always struggling to break through the screen—if only to grab you by the scruff of the neck and drag you in. 

This urge to make the movies into something more than movies is nearly as old as the medium itself. It’s there in James Cameron’s relentless Aliens, the prototype for many subsequent extraterrestrial goo-and-steel-fests (including this one), and one of the first sci-fi-action films to treat the camera like a blunt instrument violently applied. It’s there in the short-lived SensurroundTM technology designed to make whole theaters playing the 1974 disaster movie Earthquake rumble in time with the action onscreen; in Harry Smith’s never-realized dream of showing his alchemical cut-out-animation epic Heaven and Earth Magic to audiences seated in chairs modeled after objects featured in the film, including watermelons and eggs; in Abel Gance’s triple-screen Napoleon. It’s even there in the oft-quoted legend surrounding the Lumière Brothers’ first public film screening: audiences leaping out of their seats to avoid being run down by an incoming onscreen train.

At its best moments, Pacific Rim summons up a kind of pummeling, headache-inducing rapture: metal fists tearing through steel like cotton candy; tiny humans staring down their own skyscraper-sized mechanical creations; towering figures eclipsing the sun and moon; sword-wielding robot and winged monster locked in an aerial fight to the death, looking like a technologically souped-up George and the dragon. If years of action movies copying one other have jaded us to the sight of enormous dinosaur-like aliens reducing suspended bridges to shreds, Pacific Rim’s opening shots might challenge our resolve. It’s a function both of the movie’s meticulous sense of visual detail and its superb sound design that, despite the evident use of CGI, those torn cables and plummeting cars feel possessed of real substance and weight—and the horned extraterrestrial tearing through them, triply so.

Pacific Rim

The extraterrestrial in question, we’re told in voiceover, has just emerged from a wormhole caused by a fissure in the earth’s tectonic plates (happily, further logistics are left to the viewer’s imagination). It’s the first in a long string of wonderfully designed aliens—all bulging eyes, neon tongues and gaping acid-spitting maws—to wreak havoc on major cities over the course of Pacific Rim’s just-over-two-hour runtime. To defend itself, the movie’s human population has created massive fighting machines operated by two pilots, who must in the process undergo a mind-meld known as a “neural handshake,” which would make a great name for a Seventies prog-rock band.

Pacific Rim is permanently calibrated to a 25-story-tall scale: when it’s in the air, in the streets, underground, or out at sea, it moves with grace and precision; when it stoops to a human level, sometimes it recalls the Stephin Merritt line that you can’t use a bulldozer to study orchids. In del Toro’s deft hands, scenes of brawling colossi take on a kind of delicate, meticulous order: at the end of one of the film’s best set-pieces, a robot forced back hundreds of feet mid-battle stops just short of the edge of a pier, sending a tiny, solitary bird flying away. Later, a metallic fist tearing in one split-second through several dozen rooms of an office building reaches its full length just in time to set a desktop Newton’s Cradle in gentle motion.

On the human front, there’s a nice-guy-heartthrob pilot with chiseled features and not much personality, a hot-headed-but-ultimately-decent heartthrob pilot with pretty much the same chiseled features, a military commander (Idris Elba) who spends most of the movie barking orders and looking haunted, a female rookie pilot with a tragic backstory and a drive for revenge, a caricatured mathematical genius (complete with hobble and cane) and a nerdy-but-in-a-cool-way biologist decked out in alien tats (Charlie Day of It’s Always Sunny fame). Then there’s a kendo sparring match straight out of The Matrix and its kung-fu forerunners, a cheer-inducing pre-battle speech with echoes of Independence Day (“Today, we are canceling the apocalypse!”), and a finale in which a bomb must be placed in the aliens’ lair/cavern/alternate dimension. All of which is fine. Pacific Rim wears its more formulaic elements with gusto, reverence and pride, and if its scenes of human interaction are necessarily clumsier than its scenes of mano-a-tentacle combat, well, yeah. (As an added bonus, there’s the pleasure of seeing Hellboy’s square-jawed Ron Perlman hamming it up as a velvet-suited, gold-shod dealer in black-market alien remains.) 

Pacific Rim

Here I have to make a confession: there’s always a part of me that’s left cold by even the most impressive CGI-driven blockbuster; a part that, faced with any vision of reality fantastically rebuilt, craves instead just to see reality faithfully recorded. There is, of course, a world of ontological difference between Pacific Rim and L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat, and I’m willing to admit that, in theory, one provokes a very different kind of awe from the other. In practice, though, I’m more tempted to say that exhilaration is exhilaration, awe is awe, and that it’s fair—if not necessarily productive—to compare the thrill of riding along with a blockbuster and that of watching a nineteenth-century documentary, a home movie, or, for that matter, any direct record of people in motion and time at work.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent an afternoon at New York’s venerable, temple-like Anthology Film Archives watching a program of mid-century shorts by the great self-taught American artist Joseph Cornell, all but one completely silent, many organized around the loosest of premises and composed of street footage shot on the fly. Cornell’s subjects—most of them children and young women—wander through a long-gone New York in an effervescent haze, their own vitality and that of the city itself contrasting sharply with the ominous, time-weathered objects around them (whether hanging in thrift store windows, lying in dustbins or stacked up in bookstalls).

The thrill I get from Cornell’s films is that of seeing life, or at least what feels like it, unfold in real time; the thrill of watching the past pick up a vigorous pulse. And for me, it will always trump the thrill of feeling as if I’ve just punched an alien or weathered a fifty-thousand-foot fall. The movies have always been good at delivering this second kind of thrill, and if films like Pacific Rim are any evidence, they’re getting better at it all the time. Still, there doesn’t seem to be much of a qualitative difference between their brand of vicarious alien-punching and that of the arcade or the amusement park (which is, incidentally, why I always find it a little strange to hear critics call movies “thrill rides” as a compliment). Whereas that first kind of thrill—the thrill of seeing a moment of lost time called back to light and life—is, it seems to me, reserved for the movies: not for movies as roller coasters or full-body sensory experiences or exercises in virtual reality, but for movies as movies, that is to say, as projections on a flat, unmoving surface. When it’s so pleasurable just to sit down and watch a movie that doesn’t try to leap out of the screen or tug you into it, I guess I don't see why I should need, expect, or want anything more. But that’s just me.