There’s a kind of meme going around right now with regard to Pacific Rim that really gets up my nose: that Pacific Rim is a “dumb movie.” As in, a friend recently asked on Facebook if anyone had seen it, and amongst the responses was a comment along the lines of, “It was a dumb movie, but I really liked it.” Even Chris Lough here at Tor has described it as “an exceptionally loud, kind of dumb action movie that focuses on being really good as an exceptionally loud, kind of dumb action movie.”
Respectfully, I would like to disagree. Or at least, insist that we stop using the word dumb. Simple? Sure. Uncomplicated? Absolutely. Spectacular, in the truest sense of the word? Hell yes. But none of these things are dumb.
You want to know what’s a dumb movie? The Transformers movies are dumb movies. Each one is a repellent, overloaded spectacle trying to cluster-bomb every conceivable market quadrant with hyperviolent action scenes, decorative girls, scatological jokes, the occasional dollop of racism, and intense military fetishism, all the while exhibiting the most staggering contempt for its audience that I’ve ever seen. Cowboys and Aliens, bless it, is a dumb movie—it takes what should have been some good campy genre-blending fun and turns it into an impossible-to-follow, po-faced melodrama. These are dumb movies, and if you insist on filing Pacific Rim alongside the likes of that, I will fight you.
And I’m not saying Pacific Rim is an intellectual masterpiece on the order of Tarkovsky’s Stalker either. Let’s face it: some of the dialogue falls flat; the characters are often more like Characters In a Movie rather than well-rounded people; and Charlie Hunnam was not, for me, the most charismatic of leading men. But these things do not a “dumb movie” make.
When people say that Pacific Rim is a “dumb movie,” what exactly do they mean? Is it code for “I liked a movie about mechas fighting monsters, but I’m kind of embarrassed about it, so I’ll say it’s dumb to prove that I’m smart”? Is it a reaction to the fact that the plot wasn’t some convoluted mess that you had to “figure out” á la Inception or the later Matrix movies? Is it discomfort with the absence of an Important Life Lesson neatly spelled out over the closing credits? Is it just that it wasn’t dark enough? It’s probably one or more of all of the above.
To the embarrassed, I say this: come on. You propelled The Avengers to the top of the box office charts, and that’s a movie about superteam that includes the following: a guy who flies around in a mechanical suit, a super-soldier from the 1940s, a Norse god, a dude who turns big and green when he gets angry, a spy who can springboard-vault onto a moving space scooter, and an archer who fights aliens with trick arrows.
Let’s go back even further and peel off the gloss of nostalgia that covers those glorious touchstones of our youth. Star Wars? You have a boy named Luke Skywalker fighting an evil galactic empire, and the main bad guy—toweringly huge, clad entirely in black, and with a name that screams “villain”—is practically a caricature of movie evil. Raiders of the Lost Ark? The hero is trying to stop Nazis from stealing the Ark of the Covenant and the hero’s name is Indiana Jones. If you have a problem with a name like “Stacker Pentecost” and not with that, I can’t help you.
Point being, there’s nothing to be embarrassed about. And yes, the plot of Pacific Rim is the simplest thing in the world—alien monsters from another dimension want to kill us all, and our heroes are going to stop it—but Star Wars and Raiders aren’t significantly more complex either. There’s been this tendency in genre film of late to layer plot upon plot, twist upon twist, in pursuit of a complexity that is unfortunately not synonymous with intelligent filmmaking. Take Cowboys and Aliens, maligned above—what ought to be a fairly straightforward Man With No Name sort of story turns into a messy affair with aliens in pursuit of gold for reasons that are never entirely clear, and I still have no idea what the ruined steamboat was doing there.
Over the years, audiences have been trained to believe that significance and maturity in genre filmmaking is equivalent to the darkness and grittiness therein. With Watchmen, Sucker Punch, and now Man of Steel, Zac Snyder is becoming the king of this trope; Star Trek: Into Darkness is similarly troublesome. And even though Iron Man 3 comes by its darkness honestly, it does contribute, however unwittingly, to the misperception that Dark = Serious. This has happened in comics, too—Warren Ellis memorably spoofed this tendency in issue #7 of Planetary, “To Be in England, In the Summertime.” This send-up of the Vertigo golden age and the Frank Miller-ization of superhero comics featured a washed-up superhero who wails, “I should have been noble! Clean! Single! I didn’t want to wake up in Soho with twelve valiumed-up Thai rentboys and terrible stains on my tights!”
There’s no cynical, gratuitous grimness or ugliness in Pacific Rim. True, the scale of the destruction, when you think about it, dwarfs the much-decried ruination of Metropolis in Man of Steel, but the movie makes a point of showing Stacker ordering the evacuation of Hong Kong and of showing people retreating to shelters, and when Raleigh and Mako take Gipsy Danger through the streets in pursuit of the kaiju, they step neatly over an elevated walkway rather than barging right through it. It’s a small gesture, but a telling one.
Pacific Rim, for all the visceral excitement of titans in fistfights, is at its heart a sweetly optimistic film about heroism in the face of near-certain defeat, and about overcoming one’s demons not through solitary angst and lonely self-sacrifice, but through loving and caring for one another. No one actually spells this out in small words, but it’s there in Mako’s defeat of her childhood trauma in slaying a kaiju with a giant sword that Raleigh didn’t know their Jaeger had. It’s there in the way that Raleigh saving Mako’s life is personal redemption for his inability to save his brother. It’s in Striker Eureka’s last stand at the Breach, when Chuck overcomes his egocentric hunger for glory and Stacker makes the ultimate sacrifice for his adopted daughter. It’s even there in Geiszler and Gottlieb overcoming their rivalry to enter the Drift with the kaiju brain.
All this and I haven’t even gotten to the exquisite visual storytelling at work, of which Guillermo del Toro is one of our contemporary masters. Visual storytelling of all kinds gets a bad rap; comics aren’t “real books,” and Pacific Rim is derided as “spectacle.” But is that really a terrible thing, especially in a movie, which is a visual medium before it’s anything else? There’s a moment in the Hong Kong battle where Gipsy Danger pauses in front of an enormous glass skyscraper, in which are reflected blue neon lights from another building across the way, and on my second viewing I realized that it tied directly to the glowing blue stripes on the kaiju that comes bursting out of the skyscraper seconds later. Details like that don’t happen in dumb movies. And for more on this, allow me to direct you to Sam Keeper’s “The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim,” because almost anything I could say on this subject, he’s done very well in his post. And as you can see, I’m absolutely in agreement with Sam when he writes:
We have reached a point, and really let this one sink in because it gets more flooring the more you think about it, where it’s more radical and unacceptable to say, ‘Humans can accomplish amazing things when we set aside our differences and disagreements and work together to make the world a better place,’ than to say something sour and bitter and cynical.
As thrilling as the kaiju fights are, the greatest pleasures of Pacific Rim are, dare I say, simple, old-fashioned, and humane. A lot of people don’t seem to know how to deal with this anymore, or accept it without irony. But spend a little time on the #pacific rim tag on Tumblr, and you’ll find a multitude of fans who have been touched by it, deeply and profoundly moved by it; not just by the main characters, but by the simplest gestures of the “background” characters as well—the Kaidanovskys have a big following all their own, and it’s completely adorable. Del Toro has created a world that fans have moved into wholesale, loving every bit of it and wanting more. And that’s something a genuinely “dumb” movie could never accomplish.