Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Why it is good to make monsters punchable: The simple merits of Pacific Rim

“Fairytales don't tell children that dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed.”
~ G. K. Chesterton

Like Mexican-born director of "Pacific Rim" Guillermo Del Toro, I enjoy the strange stories of H.P. Lovecraft. No one else quite captures the thrill and immensity of monsters and otherworldly beings like he does. Many of them are so frighteningly incomprehensible to the humans of the stories that they defy imagination itself. Del Toro is by now well-known for designing unique and frightening monsters for his movies - clearly his imagination was piqued by Lovecraft at a formative age. And yet unlike the protagonists in Lovecraft, Del Toro's characters are known to react to impossible odds, creatures from other dimensions, and impossibly gargantuan monstrosities... by punching them in the face. We find ourselves able to enjoy them because they react in a way that we all wish we could; fearlessly. Guillermo Del Toro has said in interviews that Pacific Rim is influenced not only by monsters from old Godzilla movies and anime, but also by the delight he derives from watching Mexican luchadores duke it out in a ring. This film's main conceit may be silly, but it's also awesome.

But back to punching monsters. Many summer blockbusters can be fun to watch just by delivering sheer spectacle, like transforming robots or characters with super-strengths. And Pacific Rim is no exception. But Pacific Rim at its core presents a form of fairy-tale morality by showing you certain things that you really want to punch, and then giving you the cathartic release of punching them for you. The city-crushing creatures in this movie are punched, thrown, and bodyslammed into oblivion by the 'jaegers', giant humaniod mechanical vehicles driven by two humans. And when I above mention morality, that means it even cares enough to ensure that you know that civilians are protected from the collateral damage by frenzied evacuations - not a luxury all other blockbusters this year will give you.

The Kaiju (Japanese term for huge monsters) are separated into classes based on size and dangerousness. Similarly, the actual Kaiju themselves are only one class of monsters that this film tells us need to be punched. Even though Pacific Rim allows you to cheer for humans defeating monsters, it's not just being blindly optimistic or humanistic. It knows that some humans are very punchable too, particularly when they bullheadedly impede the greater good of mankind. From a slimy black-market dealer to a jaeger pilot who acts very disrespectfully to Mako (the female lead in the film), these characters reflect fairy tale archetypes like the troll under the bridge or the false hero. In each case, like in fairy tales, we get a moral foil to these more despicable characters who is willing to stand up for what is clearly morally right. These archetypes could easily feel dull and cliche, but they are handled well, and each character is grounded and detailed and relatable. We all know deep down that punching monsters is the right thing to do. And sometimes a last ditch effort is good if it's an effort in the right direction.

And then there are inner monsters; the class 5 Kaiju within us. The film starts with the human race already united against the kaiju, so it just automatically considers the monster of racial segregation and jingoism to have already been punched. Each character has some form of inner demon to fight, whether its painful loss or desire for vengeance. But like the actual monsters of the story, none of the characters sit and dwell on their problems like emo teenagers. They learn from their mistakes, pick themselves up, and give another shot at doing something they know is right - no matter how insurmountable the foe. And that's something we don't get to see very often at the movies these days.

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