Thursday, 25 July 2013

Pacific Rim: Race Relations vs Giant Alien Fish Monsters

Pacific Rim is, by no stretch of the imagination, the sort of film I would consider "my thing". Call me a terrible snob, but I'm usually much more interested in worldbuilding, character development, and a decently engaging and complex plot than I am in CGI effects or flashy design.

That said, I heard so many great things about this film that I had to go and see it - and it did not disappoint.

The critics have ripped into Pacific Rim for being typical of its genre: the plot is painfully obvious and lacking in any real innovation or originality, the characters are your bog-standard fare, the dialogue is passable at best and the actors don't really get very many opportunities to do anything other than grunt expressively while they fight giant alien fish in their giant robot war machines.

And you know what? It is all of those things - and a few more besides, as I explained to my beleagured family on the way home from the cinema.

Yet, Pacific Rim is also one of the most glorious triumphs the mainstream action genre has seen for many years.

Why?

Mako Mori and Marshall Pentecost.

Mako Mori serves as one of the film's two primary protagonists, alongside a young American man called Raleigh. Mako is introduced right from the off as "the Shatterdome's brightest" new recruit, and has been put in charge of looking for a new co-pilot for Raleigh in lieu of his rejoining the Jaeger program. With a few minutes of screentime, we are very quickly introduced to her natural intelligence, reserved and respectful nature, as well as a fair amount of thwarted ambition and frustration.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

A few minutes after that, she and Raleigh are kicking each other around the room until the Marshall steps in to keep them from snapping each other in half.

As a character, Mako is really not very interesting - she's the archetypal foil to Raleigh; the young newcomer paired up with the somewhat jaded veteran who end up the heroes of the day. She fulfils all the typical requirements of that role, including the essential tragic backstory and tendency to make puppy eyes at her older co-pilot.

So, why is she one of the film's great triumphs? Re-read what I wrote about her above - does any of the information the film gave me about Mako Mori center up on her being a) female, or b) Japanese?

No. Mako is treated, above all, as a character - a very basic, underwritten, possibly somewhat unengaging character but a character nonetheless. And given that every character in the franchise is very basic, underwritten and possibly somewhat unengaging, Mako is probably one of the best examples of a female character in an action movie for a very long time.

Furthermore, she is not the only female character in the film. Admittedly there is only one other, and she, like most of the other characters outside the triumvirate of Mako, Raleigh and Pentegost, hardly gets ten minutes of screen time before being killed off.

But, this female character is also a Jaeger pilot - one of the best. Alongside her husband, she pilots the last remaining Mark One Jaeger; a clunky old rust-bucket that doubles as one of the most terrifying weapons in the Jaeger arsenal. And how does she die? Only alongside her co-pilot (and 90% of the other minor characters), fighting a gigantic inter-dimensional monster, blasting her weaponry into its chest and pounding it around the head with the force of a small earthquake.

Both of these female characters could have been men, and nothing about their essential natures, roles, actions or relationships with the other characters would need to be altered.

The fun, however, does not stop there. Let's move on and meet our friend the Marshal.

Like Mako, Raleigh, and the rest of the characters in the franchise, Marshal Pentecost doesn't really have much of a personality - although being played by the amazing Idris Elba does lend him the advantage of a good deal of gravitas to make up for it.

We've seen Pentecost a hundred times before: he's the put-upon leader of a failing governmental group who is struggling to hold both his organisation and himself together. He's tough, he's commanding, he's tired, he's determined, and he delivers the Inspiring Speech Of The Day (containing, of course, the Memorable Quote For The Trailer and Poster Tagline) while standing on the foot of a giant robot and addressing a crowd underneath a clock that is counting down to the End Of The World.

In case you haven't noticed already, Pentecost is also a black man.

Is this ever mentioned by the other characters? No. 
Does it affect how the other characters treat him? No.
Does it affect how Pentecost acts towards the other characters? No.

Could Pentecost, like Mako, have been played by a white male, with no change being made to the story at all? Yes.

This, my friends, is a great thing. 

The movie industry is a sharp-toothed place, and representation of non-white characters has never been one of its strong points. Of course, one could argue that simply writing in more non-white characters would solve the problem altogether - only it wouldn't, because a character who has to have their race spelled out will usually end up being defined by that race and being significantly weakened as a result.

The fact that Pacific Rim broke the mould and cast actors in roles that could just as easily have been filled by a standard white male actor (who, let's face it, make up the majority of lead characters in films of this ilk) is very important. And also a very, very good thing.

Of course, this doesn't make up for the films other weaknesses - not at all. Nothing makes up for predictability and bad writing.

But an international Hollywood blockbuster centred around giant robots fighting off an army of alien fish-monsters from another world that treats every single one of its characters, first and foremost, as people?


Now that's worth the price of admission.

~ Charley R

P.S: Additional factors that made me love this movie had nothing to do with the incredible soundtrack, epictastic concept and execution of the Drift Compatibility concept, or my desire to own a pet kaiju.

7 comments:

  1. Oooh, haven't heard of this movie yet! It looks a little like Salt (have you seen Salt?) Salt had no character, but she had a lot of cool moves. The alien-fish-monster people have totally got me interested. (The ingenuity of treating humans as humans is also good.)

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    1. "Salt" was an atrocity of a movie and in no way comparable. "Salt" only had one purpose: let Angelina Jolie pout at the camera. Constantly. "Pacific Rim" has actually engagement and stakes and one or two really good emotional moments.

      Go see it. It's really freaking cool.

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    2. I WILL.

      (And I am in agreement with Salt. Didn't she already DO all that in Lara Croft??? Meh. People have NO imagination anymore.)

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  2. Thank you for enlightening me about this movie, Charley! Previously all I knew was that it seemed a bit chaotic and violent. I've only seen the trailer. :)

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    1. It is VERY chaotic, but it is also awesome. You can practically feel the blows in the fight sequences.

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  3. Want to see!!! Awesome epictastic analysis, Charley!

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    1. Thank you! I hope you do get to see it, and enjoy it too!

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