The Beating Heart Beneath the Steel: What Pacific Rim Forgot

Critic David Crow considers everything Pacific Rim got right and the one crucical thing it missed. Also, can giant robots work in Hollywood beyond Michael Bay?

When I saw Pacific Rim last week I was astounded by several things. Firstly, I was floored by Guillermo del Toro’s feverish visuals and style. The man who gave us the grotesquely fascinating worlds of Pan’s Labyrinth and Hellboy had finally made his first true massive Hollywood blockbuster. And he stocked it full of trippy images and quirky little touches like giant Kaiju (monster) parasites the size of bowling balls or an underworld of black market monster parts that can be used for anything from an aphrodisiac to soil fertilizer. Of course, all this thorough world building was in service of an even larger good: robots versus monsters. That’s probably why the other thing that stuns me about Pacific Rim is that it was made at all. By now, you have likely heard about the pic’s status as another underperforming blockbuster in a summer full of them. At a budget of a $190 million and with no star back-ends threatening to take a massive chunk out of ticket receipts, it is not quite as dire as last week’s The Lone Ranger flop, but there is no doubt that teeth are currently gnashing over at Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures as reports flood in about Pacific Rim’s dismal $14.6 million opening day box office take with a projected $38 million in all the for the whole weekend (making it a third place opening). Long story short, this movie is not going to be making a profit, at least in theaters. That is not to say the flick is being received poorly as a whole. Currently, it enjoys a solid 72 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes with a consensus that includes the words “irresistible sense of fun.” You can read our review HERE. It also has a respectably strong word of mouth, considering that it enjoys an “A-” CinemaScore this weekend. And it is for good reason.
 While Pacific Rim is an entirely surface level movie full of cardboard cutout archetypes standing in place of real characters without an iota of depth, it was intentionally constructed that way. It is nothing so cynical or malicious as the empty-headed roar of Michael Bay’s Transformers movies; it merely boils down to del Toro putting in the required effort to get American audiences to accept his whacky anime premise of giant robots punching monsters. And when those Lovecraftian horrors rise from the deep to destroy Hong Kong, Sydney or any other unfortunately placed Pacific coastal city, the warped horror and joy that rests in del Toro is on full display. And unlike certain OTHER Super and Star based blockbusters this summer, he never forgets to let audiences in on the joke or fun of seeing a 40-story robot bitch slap an aquatic hellhound with a cargo ship. Indeed, unlike the much more successful—and unfortunately, therefore Hollywood revered—Transformers movies, Pacific Rim proves that giant robot movies can be creative, fun and interesting. Therefore it is somewhat of a shame that del Toro chose to re-tailor the premise into such a niche that a $190 million budget seems crazy in retrospect. There is going to be much handwringing and cries of backing away from the subgenre in the immediate aftermath of the film. I am sure that many studios are already writing off giant monsters or robot movies unless Michael Bay’s name is attached. The shame of it is that del Toro’s vision is so much more playful and inventive. He works in little nods to anime classics like Robotech and Voltron, but Pacific Rim is just as much influenced by the auteur mind obsessed with incomprehensible horrors and the things that go bump in the night as Japanese animation. I would even go so far as to say that Pacific Rim is the most original and refreshing blockbuster thus far of the Summer 2013 season. Not necessarily the best, yet Pacific Rim still offered audiences something that blessedly did not involve capes, space ships or a brand name that has been around longer than the Rolling Stones.
 The immediate chain of thought, besides writing off the whole genre, is to question if the latest Hollywood flop needed more star power. The producers probably thought so as Tom Cruise was originally offered the part played so well (and easily) by Idris Elba. However, given Cruise’s own struggles to open sci-fi fare these days, such as Oblivion, I have my doubts that this is the sole cause. Another popular theory bound to pop up is that it is not based on an established title with a huge fanbase. That too appears to be a strong factor, yet 2008 saw the relatively obscure brand of Iron Man become a globally recognized icon and 2010 featured a monstrous hit, Inception, whose only level adaptation came from what could be affordably achieved out of Christopher Nolan’s mind. No, I believe the likely culprit stems from the truly alien nature of the movie’s concept. Sure, audiences love alien invasion stories, but the bad guys are either embodied by a very human thesp hamming it up, such as Tom Hiddleston or Michael Shannon, or little more than a cinematic disaster in the same vein as an earthquake or tidal wave. Hell, Independence Day could have been the natural follow-up to Irwin Allen’s The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Earthquake (1974). Rather, del Toro’s insistence on having an unknowable horror seeking to wipe us out for no reason other than he needs a big budget excuse for monsters versus robots, likely kept the audience at arm’s length. The action is great and some of the performances are not too shabby either. But if audiences aren’t at least lulled into thinking they should care about the archetypal leads, even if they are realized by an insincere opportunist (again see: Transformers), then it is all a lot of noise and metal on Kaiju flesh. And still I think the giant big robot niche could be just as profitable as run-of-the-mill superhero formulae. Seriously, Transformers 4 is not being produced because of its riveting narrative twists. So how else can you make it work? This is my limited and entirely speculative pitch for a giant robot movie/franchise that I think has potential. Currently, a Robotech adaptation is in a case of on-again, off-again development hell. Given the box office tallies this weekend, I fear it may be headed back once more to the latter. However, an alien invasion/war movie sounds like it would be headed in the right direction. Being based on a brand that was popular in the 1980s, not unlike Transformers, GI Joe or The Smurfs, also would display the mechs righting course. However, if one looks to the late ‘90s and early 2000s for youth pop culture influence, I think there is a better option for a willing studio out there: Gundam Wing.
 For those who were not children of the ‘90s, Gundam Wing was a popular 49-episode anime series that ran from 1995 to 1996 in Japan and, more importantly, the U.S. during 2000 and 2001 on Cartoon Network’s Toonami. Gundam Wing is not the first series in the popular mech/mobile suit franchise created by Sunrise Animation. It is not even the fifth. And yes, each series has its supporters with the original Mobile Suit Gundam (also known as Gundam 0079), which ran between 1979 and 1981, being the most popular among diehard anime enthusiasts. Yet, the only one that has an established brand hold over American audiences is, love it or hate it, Wing. Besides, any adaptation could take just as much from concepts of the original (such as giant robots/mobile suits that do not blow up after the slightest contact) as this popular millennial animation. The first important thing is that it’s a brand a whole generation of Americans has heard about. Did they watch it? More than kids watched Iron Man or Avengers cartoons in the ‘90s. The point is it is known and, to quote another successful cartoon-cum-film, knowing is half the battle. However, the reason I am pitching this extends beyond it being a mech anime that actually had a modicum of popularity in the states. The real reason is it took the step in animation form that sadly eluded Pacific Rim. It focused on the humans inside the cool looking robots that were hitting each other. Loosely (and I mean LOOSELY) inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Gundam Wing attempted to wax poetic and philosophical about the meaning of conflict and warfare, both on the macro scale of government and the micro level of the human soul. Focused on five studly teenagers who have been sent to Earth from oppressed space colonies to inflict political terrorism, lead characters Heero Yuy, Duo Maxwell and the rest of the five “Gundam” (super-powerful mobile suits) pilots were forced to grow up in a time of world war as, essentially, child soldiers. And after an early betrayal, they each must grapple with what it means to kill in the name of a political cause (or no cause at all).
 The creators of Gundam Wing essentially crafted a 101 survey course on “Just War Theory” and other conflict-based ideologies in anime form. It was simplistic and often naïve, but that never stopped the Wachowski Brothers and their Free Will Seminars Matrix franchise or Poli Sci Lecture/V For Vendetta from making bank. The trick is to invest audiences, and even a cursory glance at Fanficton.net’s Gundam Wing forum and its 41,000-some submitted stories demonstrates a ravenous fan appetite for these characters. This is in part because all five lead male heroes are depicted as varyingly angsty or optimistic with very nice hair (it is anime). Casting pretty faces in the leads is something Hollywood already does quite well and whether it is the sullen eyes of Twilight or the ripped six packs and thigh-high heels of The Avengers, they still got it with every summer release. The series also invested audiences by contextualizing most of its lofty story twists and ideals in romance. Namely, the unrequited love between Heero Yuy, a stoic lone soldier, and Relena Peacecraft, the daughter of a father he was sent to assassinate, and the soon-to-be orphaned leader of the world’s first completely pacifist nation. The ultimate killer and the starry-eyed idealist. It worked wonders for the tragic overtures pulsating through the show when he fails to save her short-lived country from (surprise, surprise) getting slaughtered by the Machiavellian chess moves of other world powers.
 The show taps into images of World War II-era refuge migration and burning Europe iconography. But ultimately it all serves the main point of the series: robots fighting each other to the death. After all, Bandai doesn’t invest in these ‘toons for their term paper hypothesizing. With five Gundam robots to assemble and a countless array of antagonistic mobile suits, it comes toyetic right out of the box. Probably thousands of robots are destroyed on the screen over the course of the 49 episodes, but when even a few feature human beings that audiences are invested in going boom, it amazingly makes the carnage mean something. A potential franchise about the follies of man versus man is far less abstract than giant kaiju literally climbing from out of the void beneath the Pacific Ocean. Like nearly every fantasy or super heroic tale of the last ten years, it finds that the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars but in ourselves. This is just one approach to consider for how to make mech robots without Peter Cullen’s voice interesting to a slew of American moviegoers. Pacific Rim is a much smarter and creative movie than most of what this summer has had to offer, but it still dwells on a concept so abstract that even November’s take on Norse gods walking around 21st century America looks comfortingly logical in comparison. Yet, if a studio can find the beating human heart under all that mass of steel in a way that is more than perfunctory, then these metal goliaths can soar just fine. Kaiju Mothra knock-offs not required. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!