A story I once heard in a Japanese film seminar goes that there was a period, during the J-horror boom of the early 2000s, when Japanese movies were actually being re-made before they got made. Japanese producers, seeing how keen American movie studios were to sweep up the rights to movies like Ringu, Kairo, and Juon, decided to minimize their risks. Before projects were greenlighted at home, producers first put out feelers in the U.S. to see if Hollywood studios would be interested in re-making their proposed movies. The ones that generated interest in a remake were a lot more likely to get made in the first place.
Japanese horror films are no longer as novel as they once were in the U.S., and domestically, Japanese movie theaters seem to have been taken over by Korean melodramas and movies based on long-running Japanese TV shows and comic books. These days Hollywood is more interested in guaranteed-profit sequels and prequels than remakes of Japanese films. But giant monsters doing battle with giant robots, it seems, will always have an audience. Which brings me to Pacific Rim.
This is basically a $200 million kaiju eiga, those seemingly interchangeable Japanese monster movies from the 50s and 60s that pitted actors in rubber robot suits against actors in rubber monster suits, usually with very Plan 9-esque scale model sets in the background. Watching the over-the-top acting, sudden close-ups, and incredibly cheap visual effects in most kaiju eiga (frequently lampooned on shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000), it’s hard to believe that the first Gojira (Godzilla) film was genuinely terrifying to its first audiences. Godzilla himself was seen as an allegory for the monstrosities wrought by war. Even today, though the visual effects are dated and the monster lumbers awkwardly, the original Gojira comes across as much more of a haunted, sobering piece of work than its technicolor, over-the-top monster movie descendants.
Diehard fans of kaiju eiga may turn their noses up at Pacific Rim for committing that all-too-common 21st century crime of taking something simple (and innocently bad) and giving it a $200 million makeover. Watching the movie, though, I couldn’t help thinking that, had they had access to this kind of money, more than a few kaiju eiga producers probably would have made a movie just like Pacific Rim.
The centerpiece of any kaiju eiga is its epic battle scenes, and those are a lot of fun to watch in Pacific Rim.* The monsters and the robots have real weight, and they alternate smoothly between an agonizing slowness (most of the fight scenes take place with monsters and robots knee-deep in the ocean) that changes to fierce speed at a moment’s notice. As others have noted, you can actually tell what’s going on in most of the fights, unlike similar scenes in the Transformers films, where everything is cut so quickly that it plays as little more than a big blur on the screen. Pacific Rim‘s monster-robot battles also have delightful details, like a robot smacking a monster repeatedly upside the head with a tanker ship, and of course one of those giant robot swords that comes in handy when, I guess, they get tired of using the much more effective plasma cannons.
It’s also refreshing to see a movie that borrows so much from Japan but doesn’t feel the need to present Japan itself in only broad, stereotypical strokes. For once there’s a Japanese female character (played by Kikuchi Rinko) who isn’t presented as a one-dimensional sexpot / woman-child / Orientalist fetish. Sure, she’s attractive, but at least she looks like she could hold her own in a fight. And her story doesn’t revolve around the question of whether she’ll end up with the lead actor.
There was another (unintentionally?) geeky moment in Pacific Rim when the opening narration described the beginning of the “kaiju wars,” when the robot-hunters became so effective that people got complacent and the kaiju themselves became toys and jokes. You can trace a similar trajectory from the first Godzilla movie–made soon after the end of the war, when emotions were still very raw–and the later Godzilla movies of the 60s, when Godzilla had become more of a cuddly protector. These days, despite the occasional attempt to resurrect Godzilla as a bona fide monster in both Japan and the U.S., he’s still known mostly as a toy and a lumbering rubber suit.
And this is the thing I both love and hate about being a post-ac or an alt-ac or whatever you want to call me–I am never able to just watch movies, especially Japanese movies (or movies that borrow heavily from Japan). I am always thinking about those robots and monsters as allegories. I laugh at weird things, not because they’re funny, but because someone will say something that makes me think, “Whoa, that dude has read my thesis!” I am always composing a research question or article abstract in my head, even though I don’t really write articles anymore. I break movies down according to who’s doing the gazing, or the hierarchies of the holy trinity (race / class / gender) that play out in the narrative.
But most of the time it doesn’t bother me. It just makes giant robots hitting giant monsters with tanker ships even more entertaining.
*For God’s sake, though, what is up with 3D and everything looking so murky and dark? Do the majority of people really not notice this? I’ve heard Pacific Rim looks much better in 2D or Imax 3D. Until they figure this out, I just wish more of these scenes could take place in daylight so we could see the aliens / monsters / mythical beasts more clearly.