On July 4th, 2007, the first entry in Michael Bay’s Transformers trilogy (Soon to be quadrilogy) exploded onto thousands of movie screens across North America. Upon seeing it, fandom was instantly polarized. ILM’s glorious FX work was seen as little consolation for the film’s many considerable flaws. Nevertheless, it was a runaway smash, spawning a franchise that has since grossed billions of dollars worldwide. Thus began a deluge of similarly minded properties, likewise adapted from toylines and cartoons.
Perhaps inspired by this renaissance, visionary fantacist Guillermo Del Toro conceived Pacific Rim. It’s a homage to both Japanese Kaiju (giant monster) films and the “mecha” (human piloted robotic armor) variety of anime. Unlike the Transformers films, it isn’t a direct adaptation of any particular property. Nor does it come with a nearly a quarter century’s worth of fan devotion (baggage).
As of this writing, Pacific Rim has completed its first weekend of release. It placed third at the North American box office, having earned 38.3 million dollars. That’s a rather mediocre start, considering the film’s 190 million dollar price tag (before marketing). Marketing is largely to blame here. With any luck, it will find its audience via ancillary markets.
That Pacific Rim received such a lukewarm reception from the general public is a crying shame. It’s arguably the best film of the summer. Though not a transcendent masterpiece, it does its job extremely well. More to the point, it actually knows its job, and makes no apologies in going about it. That sets it apart from the likes of both Man Of Steel and The Lone Ranger. In a perfect world, that saving grace would be enough to ensure ultimate victory at the box office.
Needless to say, this isn’t a perfect world. Summer blockbusters have become their own worst enemy. They no longer provide escapism or instill wonder. The epic (and I use that term loosely) adventures contained therein unfold beneath a thick coating of irony. Their heroes, both human and nonhuman alike, have been deconstructed to the nth degree. They are no longer paragons of virtue, but snarky audience surrogates. They’re detached commentators who remain at a safe emotional distance from the fictional events that supposedly involve and shape them. It’s hard to root for someone like that.
Perhaps the biggest irony is how far summer blockbusters have strayed from their original intent. Seminal examples of the form, like Jaws and Star Wars, were created in violent reaction to the cynicism of the post-Vietnam War era. Spielberg took audiences on a sea-faring adventure akin to Moby Dick, managing to scare the living shit out of them in the process. George Lucas created a “Fairy tale for a generation without fairy tales.” To say that both men succeeded in goals is a gross understatement.
Empty cynicism has since become par for the course. Contrary to popular belief, ironic detachment and empty deconstruction aren’t necessarily hallmarks of good storytelling. Nor do they denote maturity or intelligence. Unfortunately, modern audiences have been trained to think otherwise. Critics and enthusiasts such as myself have long encouraged that mistaken notion. Self-styled cineastas and intellectuals have largely dismissed escapist entertainments as being inherently childish and devoid of value. Even more childish is the need to saddle these entertainments with an ironic filter so as to make them seem more “adult.”
I suspect that many of those who claim to have problems with Pacific Rim are reacting more to its sincerity than anything else. It has no illusions whatsoever as to its purpose. Mankind is faced with an insurmountable threat. A band of flawed and unlikely heroes are charged with facing that threat head on. The audience is meant to root for them every step of the way. It’s both a feature length toy commercial and an old fashioned thrill ride. A generation weaned on snark and cynicism might not know what to make of that.
Sadly, general audiences (myself included) have no problem accepting the Transformers films, which exude Michael Bay’s clumsy notions of spectacle. He clearly misunderstands what his contemporaries have popularized, offering a fractured version of it. Racial caricature is passed off as some crude form of commentary. Raunchy asides and toilet humor take the place of actual jokes. Elaborate set pieces are completely obscured by haphazard edits and lousy camerawork. That neither of the latter two Transformers films are suitable for their intended audience (children) never occurs to anyone.
I’ve been a fan of Del Toro since the first Hellboy movie. I’ve been anticipating Pacific Rim ever since it was first announced. My eight year old son liesat the other end of the spectrum. He could’ve cared less. I found that odd, given that he’s an ardent fan of both Transformers and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. I tried in vain to get him in interested, even resorting to bribery. He wouldn’t budge. As I prepared to head out to the Thursday night preview screening, he approached me in the kitchen:
Malice Junior: Daddy, can I go see Pacific Rim with you tonight?
It caught me completely off guard. Had my attempts at bribery finally paid off? I asked him what had changed his mind. He didn’t know. Not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth, I took him along to the local multiplex. As the movie began, he seemed indifferent. As it progressed, he gradually got into it. By the climactic battle, he was laughing at all the jokes and sitting in seat attentively. As we exited the theater, he looked up at me with a huge grin and said “I liked it.” He’d gotten everything he would’ve wanted from a Transformers film, sans the wretched excess and impurities. Even better, he’d been exposed to a far superior example of the filmmaking craft.
Judging by the opening weekend box office returns, most other kids weren’t so lucky. As a good friend saw fit to inform me, kids are told what to like by television. They like what the shows and commercials on Cartoon Network tell them to like. Anything outside of that is barely a blip on their little radars. Sadly, adults aren’t much different. Pacific Rim failed to pique America’s collective interest. Such is life. People are entitled to their opinions. Instead of looking down our collective noses at the general public, I encourage fandom to take a different approach. Go see Pacific Rim a few more times before it leaves theaters. Buy the special edition Blu-Ray’s and DVD’s. Show them to your sons. That way, the film will find the audience it so richly deserves.
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