Stumbling out of Pacific Rim, karate-chopping the air as if drifted into Gypsy Danger, a friend said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that was so split—50% shitty and 50% awesome.” He said it with a smile that let on how much he really enjoyed the awesome, and how little he really cared about the shitty.
Another friend expressed frustration with this way of looking at the film, and, more generally, with a review-industrial-complex that seems to forgive films their flaws if they “do what they intended to do.” As Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker:
So what if the script is feeble, the plot is perforated, and the characters are so flimsy you wouldn’t risk blowing your nose on them? The point is the fight between the big guys.
Lane makes the point sarcastically; he agrees with my second friend. Other reviewers were more genuine: “I was having so much fun I lost track of where the line between good-stupid and bad-stupid might lie,” writes Andrew O’Hehir over at Salon. “You have to honor this movie at that level or leave it alone.”
So what is that level exactly? It’s the level of blockbuster that lets us live out escapist fantasies of war, power, depravity, and general bigness. Hollywood is, of course, very familiar with this level. It’s been their exclusive level for the last twenty summers.
Based on ticket sales, the moviegoing public doesn’t seem to care much about quality. Plenty of dreadful blockbusters have doubled, tripled their hundred-million-plus dollar budgets. People really do want to be shocked and awed. They want to see things explode and shatter and transform. It’s candy for the imagination, a salve for human-sized lives of routine and Monday-morning Core meetings.
By now they know the trade-off: silly plot for awesome action. It’s a $15 compromise they’re comfortable with.
Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim—an homage of and an update on Japanese Kaiju (giant monster) films of the 1950-60s—has earned so much praise because lately the trade-off has been unfair. Action in action films has grown just as silly as plot, if not all but impossible to follow. Where once carefully choreographed, live-action conflicts ruled (Mission Impossible, Face/Off, Die Hard), now apocalyptic clashes of superhuman force predominate. Editing is more rapid, CGI has replaced even actors’ bodies, and everyone uses the same distorted-metal SFX collection made popular by Transformers.
There is such a thing as apocalypse fatigue. Just as old episodes of The Twilight Zone feel predictable today, the end-of-the-world storyline has become as hackneyed as a RomCom’s final kiss. We’ve grown into more sophisticated consumers of entertainment.
Thankfully, Pacific Rim treats us that way. Instead of steeping itself in solemnity (see: Man of Steel), the film keeps one campy eye trained on the audience. It leaves out what exposition it can and steers clear of politics, social issues, and Points. Battles between Jaeger and Kaiju are high-stakes but personal, epic but easy to follow, and saturated with rain and violet neon. Del Toro’s mastery of beast-making shines in every individualized robot and monster.
But there’s more to the film’s 131 minutes than fighting. For the rest of Pacific Rim you have to sit through stale dialogue, flat jokes, and poor acting. The general may be named Stacker Pentecost, and Stacker Pentecost may be played by the great Idris Elba, but Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost has to act and interact with Charlie Hunnam—a laughably bad lead.
Movies register on an instinctive pass/fail test. They work or they don’t. Either you’re watching characters or you’re seeing actors, listening to conversations or hearing dialogue. The non-fighting time in Pacific Rim doesn’t work; that’s easy to see. The action works like a charm. So what’s the verdict on the film as a whole?
It’s no fun to be in this position. It’s no fun to say that because the fights were more gratifying than the rest was corny, Pacific Rim nets as a good movie, or a movie worth seeing. We’re in this position because the uninspired, derivative swamp of Hollywood has delivered so much shit that even marginally good movies are lauded. But we’re also here because the pass/fail test is a lousy one for critique.
My second friend is right—a good movie is a good movie is a good movie. He’s right in refusing to brush away the film’s flaws because “it is what it is.” But Pacific Rim is awesome when it’s awesome, and that’s something I want to remember to remember too.