Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pacific Grim

Warning: This essay contains spoilers for the film Pacific Rim (2013).

Some are born great and some have the mantle of greatness put upon them.

In our world there is mere craftsmanship, then art, then great art, then movies with giant robots.

But not everyone who is called to the altar of greatness is up to the challenge or in some way evil or circumstance interferes with its realization, and we experience the tragedy of a movie that could have been important but that fails and lives down to our worst expectations.

Such is the case with Pacific Rim (2013).  I had seen the effects reel at the Academy Bake Off and I was looking forward to the director's take on the critically important sub-genre of fiction: giant robots beating the shit out of alien and hostile ocean monsters.  But the great concept for the movie was let down by a truly puerile script and shallow characters. The humans were so stereotyped and uninteresting that even the giant alien monsters seemed more richly drawn, realistic and authentic in comparison.

Lucas claims that a movie is binary, that it either works for the audience and they ignore the flaws, or it does not work for them and the flaws are completely annoying.   I think that this principle of all or nothing has merit.   For example, I did not notice many of the flaws in Edge of Tomorrow (2014) when watching the film and when they eventually did occur to me it did not really bother me.

The flaws were made less important because the film was so entertaining.

A mashup between a German scientist and a Cambridge University mathematician, or something.

But not so for Pacific Rim, at least not for me.  There were so many problems and all of them attached to a very obvious and banal plot.   Not even giant robots could save this movie from its plot.   Here is a short list of just some of the problems in no particular order of importance:  1. If you are dying of radiation poisoning, you don't just get a nose bleed, or rather if you do, its because you are bleeding at all your orifices.   But none of that really matters because the radiation has probably killed all your blood stem cells and you will be dead in less than a week, horribly, and wont have the time to lead a group of desperate men and women in a last chance struggle to save humanity.   2. I found the cultural stereotypes of the German/Cambridge scientist to be offensive, although it was supposed to be funny, 3. The mind melt with the alien thing, aside from being improbable, is just confusing. Do the bad aliens read the stupid little scientist mind or not?  4. Umbilical cords are generally for mammals, as I understand it. Are the filmmakers saying that these hideous underwater alien monsters are descended from mammals? That doesn't seem very likely from what we know of them.  5. This may sound silly, but what is the motivation of our alien menace and the big fellows on the other side of the breach?   I mean what is going on?   Are they just attacking because they think its fun? Are they after our women?  What?  6. These big aliens although they are impressive looking seem rather average in terms of construction.   If they can be filleted with (for example) giant spinning sushi knives or a sock to the jaw then it seems logical that they would respond well to a couple of dozen standard, stand-off, air-to-air missiles, not to mention MK48 torpedoes.   7. Its all very well to throw around words like "analog" in regards to EMP, but for that to work that would mean that all the control systems of the adorable Gypsy Danger would have to be analog computers, etc, and I kind of doubt it.

Open wide and stick out your tongue... 

Ok, enough.

It is a principle of visual effects that great visual effects will not save a bad movie.   That is certainly true in this case, but there are some things to note about the film that are positive, in terms of cost reduction, costume design, production design and, of course, visual effects.   

1. They probably saved a lot of money on the writer.

Many people feel that having a script in a visual effects movie is just throwing good money after bad. Certainly, Michael Bay has never been held back by not having a writer on his films.  They probably saved several hundred thousand dollars on this one item, which would leave them more money for visual effects. 

2. The female lead was given an excellent costume.

Movies of this type are often calculated to appeal to adolescent boys of all ages, and one way to get their attention is to put your female lead, suitably cast, into a skintight and/or polyethylene outfit. Actress Rinko Kikuchi plays the role of Mako Mori, the spunky and strong female technocrat and martial arts specialist. I think that the rubber/latex outfit that they have her wear while controlling the giant robot in partnership with our hero is very practical and shows off her intelligence among other attributes very well.   I am still looking for the right single frame to show you what I mean, this image is a standin for now.

The properly sexist still of Mako in her latex jumpsuit has eluded me so far.  

3. In visual effects, objects interacting with water is very difficult to achieve in a realistic manner.

4. One reason that water generally looks fake in earlier visual effects (see WW2 movies or pirate movies with ships generated with model photography on a pond or swimming pool) is how off the sense of scale is, no matter what the visual effects people did.   We get an excellent sensation of scale for most of the important fight scenes of the film which either take place in shallow water or under water.

5. Finally, it is a non-trivial thing to give these 3D models a sense of scale while they are beating the shit out of each other.   And most of the shots, although often ridiculous, were also dramatic and did have good scale to them.   I was very impressed.  

ILM did all these things very well.   Have a look at some of these stills and remember that IMHO the only way to really judge the work is in motion and on a big screen.

6. Very few movies get to show what it is like on the other side: to show the unspeakable and unknowable alien world. This movie did that acceptably I thought, the pacing was good and the reveal of the horror that is the vast and evil alien intelligence is suspensful... Of course the implacable menace is just beginning to understand that they are doomed as disaster overwhelms them.

Pleasantly abstract, the alien menace sees their doom approach.

Its the stories and the characters and the details that let them down. The movie feels like it was written for 10 year olds, and maybe it was. Only a 10 year old could go with the hackneyed characterizations and the stupid plot points. And of course the whole premise is ridiculous. Although it would be moderately expensive (1) and messy to turn these monsters into shredded fish food, it would be straightforward to do so with the weapons at hand in any modern air force or navy.  I mean they are big and ugly and spray acid and look pretty mean, but it seems to me that they blowup pretty much like normal flesh and blood, alien though they may be.

The other scientist stupidly visits the alien fishbait abortion.  Nice eyes.

But I prefer to emphasize the positive about this movie and hope that something better will happen next time. Good art direction and creature animation does not a good monster movie make. del Toro has the capability of doing great work, I hope we will see better and more moving, plausible, end of the world implacable monster movies from him in the future.



1. The cost of a Hellfire missile is roughly $70K but I think that is a little underpowered for this activity.  A Tomahawk missile from Raytheon is about $600K - $1M depending on how you look at the accounting. A Mark 48 torpedo is roughly a million a pop, I think.   Delivering these munitions is not cheap either.  We are talking about flying F-18 Super Hornets off of aircraft carriers or of attack submarines delivering many torpedoes as suitably modified for this application.   So it would be completely plausible for the destruction of one giant alien sea monster to cost at least $50M and probably more like $100M  if not more per critter.   Not cheap, but immensely cheaper than what is portrayed in the movie as the last hope of mankind.  No nuclear weapons would be necessary.

Tomahawk Missile

Mark 48 Torpedo
Pacific Rim on IMDB

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