Thursday, 11 July 2013

Should you see Pacific Rim?

There’s a film coming out soon: Pacific Rim. It’s directed by Guillermo del Toro, and it revolves around monsters – kaiju, specifically, those being Japanese SF monsters, the most famous of which is Godzilla – being fought by enormous mecha (big robots).  IMDB puts it at having an estimated budget of $180 million, and judging from the trailers you can see every last bit of that up on the screen.

Basically, it’s a summer blockbuster that seems to have a stupidly high level of OTT action, it seems to be  full of geeky references, and it looks beautiful. That puts it at least two points ahead of the Transformers films, if nothing else, and unlike Michael Bay, del Toro is actually a director you can respect, whether he’s crafting a haunting and nightmarish Spanish fairy tale or a film about a cigar smoking demon beating up elves.

So why, apparently, is it predicted to be a flop?

If Variety magazine is to be believed, audiences (for which you can read American audiences, I assume) are more interested in Grown Ups 2, a new Adam Sandler comedy, and certain sections of the internet have taken this as a cue to begin a crusade encouraging people to go see Pacific Rim, on the basis that it’s going to be so much better than another comedy sequel. Leaving aside the inherent snobbery in that belief, I’m forced to wonder why.

Let’s break it down, reason by reason:

Point the first: it’s directed by Guillermo del Toro. This is a definite plus. I love del Toro. Not seen all of his stuff - precious little, actually - but what I have seen is outstanding, and Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. He brings enormous heart to all the films I’ve seen, and the Hellboy films prove he knows how to handle an action scene, so on the one hand I’m quite comfortable assuming he’ll make something special of Pacific Rim.

On the other hand…everyone has a bad day. Just because someone’s produced something wonderful previously doesn’t mean they’re going to achieve it all the time. Saying that a film deserves to do well because it’s got a director with a good track record is nonsense. Furthermore, there are people who seem to think that telling people del Toro is at the helm is going to make them sit up and pay attention. Well, while he is an outstanding director, he’s not exactly A-list. His most famous films are obscure comic book adaptations and a foreign-language fairy-tale that can easily be mistaken for a horror movie. All are great, at least one is an award winner, although not in the big ones, but none exactly broke into the public consciousness. More importantly, his most recent big production was in 2008.

Point the second: Pacific Rim looks awesome. Undeniably true; I was sold on that the moment I saw one of the robots clutching an oil tanker as an offensive weapon. How can you not like that? And as I said above, quite apart from the ridiculously awesome action scenes, it looks beautiful, like Avatar beautiful, and whatever I might say about the story and writing in that film, I’ll cheerfully admit to spending the first twenty minutes or so slack jawed in awe.

But what about the characters? What about the story? Don’t get me wrong, I like a mindless action film as much as the next geek, but if I’m going to fork out for a cinema ticket, I want to have a little more than cool smackdowns. If I want to see awesome action, I’ll go see Man of Steel again; proper superhero fights and a beating heart.

I’m sure there is one in Pacific Rim - I can’t imagine del Toro making a film without something more than robots and monsters beating the hell out of each other - but it hasn’t been properly indicated. This is a film marketed solely on Rule of Cool, and while that’s sure to be entertaining to watch, it isn’t necessarily going to pull in big numbers. There’s only one actor in it who’s even close to being a big name - Idris Elba, and even he’s not exactly guaranteed to be recognised in the street - and while that’s by no means a bad thing, it means there aren’t going to be many people going “Oh, it’s that guy, I like him. Maybe I’ll check this out." There’s been no hint of a particularly deep plot, as far as I can see, not even much hint of what the characters are going to be like. The Transformers films are dreadful, but at least from the trailers you get the impression that there’s going to be a little more to them than stupid-awesome action (even if the final product proves you wrong).

Point the third: it’s original, not a sequel. Well…I’d say that’s a questionable stance to take. Sure, it isn’t based on anything, but…it’s a film about giant robots beating up bigger monsters. That’s not original. That’s Power Rangers. Additionally, while the monsters themselves might have been designed for the film, as I said above they’re specifically designed to be part of a long tradition of Japanese SF, and anyone with even a cursory knowledge of anime is going to be aware of the prominence of mecha. Even leaving that aside though, why is originality so revered? Just because something is original doesn’t mean it’s good. If you want to take a stance of supporting a film simply because it isn’t a sequel, more power to you, but that doesn’t automatically make it good.

Point the fourth: the cast has lots of People of Colour and women in. Thus, the film is to be admired because it doesn’t simply conform to the inherent racism and sexism of Western society. Well, great. That’s certainly a good thing; God knows it makes a change not to have a uniformly white male cast. But actually, the colour and gender of your cast doesn’t make a scrap of difference to the quality of the film. Good thing does not necessarily equal good film; it’s like saying that because a film has a lot of money spent on it then it must be good, and I hope I don’t need to give a list of examples as to why that argument doesn’t work.

I think it’s going to do better than people might think, and I hope it does, because I’m sure there’s more to it than it appears, but equally, I think there’s an argument to be made that given its marketing campaign, it perhaps doesn’t deserve to do that well. There have been a fair few trailers and behind the scenes clips, it’s been promoted at conventions…the works. But it hasn’t exactly been blazed over television, or been particularly talked about beyond geek crowds. If you market a film almost exclusively at one section of your potential audience, then you don’t get to complain when nobody else goes to see it.

In a sense, this is about more than Pacific Rim. I’ve laid out some reasons why it might not be a smash hit, but what interests me more is the attitude fans seem to be displaying in its defence. I mentioned the determination to have it beat Grown Ups 2 earlier; those people don’t quite seem to see the irony that they’re not interested in Grown Ups 2 for exactly the same reasons others aren’t interested in Pacific Rim. Where one camp doesn’t laugh at any of the jokes, another camp looks at the giant robots and shrugs. And as I said, we’re not exactly talking generic comedy vs sophisticated drama here. We’re talking about a film where the main focus is punch ups between monsters and robots. The snobbery is bad enough, but if you’re going to be a snob at least be a snob about a film you can say something about other than “It’s going to be so awesome!” It’s even worse because so much of the support for Pacific Rim is based on ‘It seems to be’, or ‘It looks like’, and other such phrases; there’s no concrete evidence for anything other than badass smackdowns.

It’s symptomatic of both the best and the worst things about fandoms, really. Fandoms can be tremendous sources of enthusiasm, love and creativity, and even with everything I’ve said here, it is heartening to see people support something they love. But all too often, a lot of fans seem to forget that just because they like something, other people are entitled not to like it. If you want proof of that, just pop onto a website that has discussions about Doctor Who. With Pacific Rim, I can understand the desire to get people to go see it, I really can, for all that I’ve pointed out various flaws in the arguments being made. Hell, I probably will go and see it, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it, and if it turns out to be a sophisticated, heartfelt piece of cinema that happens to have lots of cool monsters and robots, I’ll cheerfully hold my hands up and admit that.

I just wish that some of the fans weren’t making me feel like a bad geek for not being enthused about it, particularly because it’s all on the basis of trailers.

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