pacific rim suspends some of your disbelief, lets some of it fall to the ground in a heap

Suspension of disbelief is not a given. It’s not a license you hand a movie as part of your admission. It’s a negotiation; the suspension needs to be earned. A movie has to win it, minute by minute.

I’m thinking about this because of Pacific Rim, which by turns validates my suspension of disbelief and then squanders it.

Before I get to the why and how (and do some plot spoilage), a primer on the movie: The global menace of the near future turns out to be the “Kaijus,” a breed of Godzilla-sized aliens that appear regularly off the coast of major cities, which they ravage until such time as they are stopped by “Jaegers,” a kind of skyscraper-tall humanoid mecha we’ve designed to battle the Kaijus. The mental effort of manipulating the Jaeger, it is said, is too great a “neural load” for a single person. The solution is that two operators will typically pilot a single Jaeger, requiring them to mind-meld via “the drift,” a method of connecting two minds.

The Wins

There are a lot of sci-fi elements in PR that indeed do justify your suspension of disbelief. Often, it’s because of subtle details.

Take the Kaiju monsters, which are supposed to aliens sent through an inter-dimensional portal on the ocean floor. It certainly helps that they really are nicely alien in form; while it certainly must have been tempting to make them look like Godzilla and a few other dinosaur-style, Earthly mega-beasts, Guillermo del Toro and friends have opted to make the Kaijus genuinely alien. When they vaguely resemble a shark, say, it’s just barely enough to be a coincidence. i09 has a great piece based on talks with head creature designer Wayne Barlowe:

…these creatures aren’t supposed to look like any Earth creatures at all — even though some early designs have a bit of hammerhead shark or bat wings in them. ‘It was not Guillermo del Toro’s intent to evoke Earth creatures with the Kaiju,’ says Barlowe. When del Toro was doing his monster ‘American Idol’ to choose the best monsters, ‘the vetting process was based solely on what would look intimidating to the viewer,’ he says….

And, in the end, they are intimidating, probably more so than if they just looked like plain old T-Rexes or dragons. They’re somehow more disturbing for being unfamiliar.

Another point requiring some poetic license is that humankind has chosen to fight the monsters with anything other than the eminently sensible choice, which would have been legions of fighter jets and missiles, both of which would let us fight them from a nice distance. Instead, world leaders have come together and agreed that our best strategy is to punch the monsters to death.

Illogical? Definitely. But, boy, those mano-a-mano battles are part of what make the action sequences of Pacific Rim so durn satisfying, and the movie has a generous number of them. And let’s consider what this means for the drama of the story. The hand-to-hand fights, while strategically stupid, have a dramatic appeal on a gut level: The sequences of armored heroes grappling with foul creatures from the deep puts us on a footing with mythology and our most primitive sense of battle. This kind of combat hearkens back to our earliest forms of fighting, and with our most primordial foes, monsters.

The movie’s depiction of these match-ups, moreover, evokes a sense of true brutality. This isn’t a matter of martial arts or finesse; it’s brawn and force and stamina, or whatever the robot equivalent of stamina is. It took a few watches for me to figure out what it was that was made these fights so effectively brutal, and I came to the conclusion it was, at least partially, the lumbering speed of the Jaegers and Kaijus. Their movements are draggy enough to feel real, communicating heft and enormity. Again, from that i09 article, this time talking about VFX supervisor John Knoll:

The physics is definitely not accurate in this movie — early in production, Knoll did the math to figure out how 250-foot-tall robots should be moving, and found that they would be moving about one-sixth the speed of a six-foot-tall human. But at the same time, Knoll, who comes from a family of scientists and engineers, pushed for more realistic physics wherever possible. There was always a tradeoff between speed and physics — del Toro wanted the monsters and robots to move fast, for exciting fight choreography, but if things moved too fast then the monsters and robots felt weightless rather than massive, and you lose the sense of scale.

The execution is wonderful, but the base idea was pretty great to begin with.

The Losses

But not every unlikely aspect of the movie helps the story or the drama. Jaegers, we are told, impose a “neural load” on their pilots. The notion is intuitive at first blush — these things are big and moving them ought to take both mental and physical effort. But, of course, no one’s providing even a fraction of the actual force to move the Jaegers and really the pilots might as well use joysticks.

Granted, it’s more fun to watch pilots suited up and physically mimicking the actions they’re commanding. But this “neural load” reasoning is preposterous, and it seems sort of clear that it’s only there to justify the plots demand that the characters share some mental space in “the drift.”

This idea isn’t doomed on its own merits, I don’t think, if del Toro could use the drift concept to some effect and justify the suspension of disbelief. The technology has potential as device to create emotional and psychological bonds between characters. Off the top of my head, I can remember The Cell taking a similar premise (mind-share technology) and doing a pretty good job deploying it as a plausible-enough excuse for extraordinary visuals and psychological thrills.

But here, the mind-melding technology just comes off as an attempt to shortcut through exposition. If the drift technology were taken out of Pacific Rim, you’d still have most of the movie left as it is now. None of the film’s primary appeal is in the drift tech, which finally only delivers a few convenient plot points and one personal crisis — a crisis that has more to do with the Kiajus than the technology. What, in the end, has it added to anything? (And yes, there’s a negligible subplot with Charlie Day required to use it, but it hardly seems significant that he gets his information by reading a Kaiju’s mind.)

Overall, the presence of “the drift” undermines the credibility of the film as it cashes in on our suspension of disbelief without really earning it. Del Toro stuffs in an incredible new bit of technology — one with enormous psychological and practical implications — just to have an excuse for a few flashbacks. What’s more, the drift technology feels out of place in the world of the Jaegers, which are fun to watch partly because they evoke brute mechanical power fueled by will-power. Mind-reading seems like an odd note to strike here.

Finally, and worst, I should note that if the drift technology was introduced in order to make the characterization stronger, del Toro could have started in a much simpler place: the dialogue. As is, there are lines in this thing that plainly sound like placeholders for better, snappier ones. “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do, brother!” says the communications guy. “Age before beauty, old man!” says the hero, in a display of trash-talking gone limp. “Like my dad always says: ‘When you have the shot, take it!’” says the musclehead, as though this were sage advice or even a sensible observation. A $190 million dollar picture, and these turds are in the final draft? That really does demand disbelief.

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