When a film is based on the premise of giant robots fighting monsters that emerge from beneath the ocean, one should probably recognize that she is not headed to see an undiscovered Ingmar Bergman gem (though the monsters do emit some memorable Cries and Whispers in a monstery sort of way). That said, there is a significant difference between a good B-type monsters and robots film and not so great one. When I saw the trailers for Pacific Rim, I was skeptical, but I got excited when I saw that Guillermo Del Toro was directing. I mean, this is the guy who gave us Pan’s Labyrinth, right? And the Hellboy franchise? Surely, he could find a way to unlock the hidden potential for nuance and depth in a move about robots fighting monsters, right?
Well, sort of right, at least in terms of production design. Pacific Rim is indeed all about robots punching monsters, and the Jaegers and Kaiju, as they are called in the film, look terrific, and much of the film’s running time is dedicated to nicely choreographed battles between them. The special effects are pretty good, or at least a significant improvement on the 1950’s versions of this genre when monsters ran amok through Tokyo and Hong Kong. The requisite big names and fun character actors (Idris Elba, Ron Perlman, Charlie Day) are in the cast, and the budget ($190 million) was big enough to avoid cutting corners. So why was the film so unsatisfying even after heading in with low-to-middling expectations?
For anyone who read the last post on Super 8, you may already know the answer here: even a B-movie about robots punching monsters needs characters you care about and a story that can carry the action sequences, however amazing they might look. The premise – that the Kaiju are coming out of another dimension using a rift in the earth’s crust deep in the ocean as an entryway – is interesting enough, but the development of the story pretty much ends after the opening credits, and the characters, who are all B-movie stock characters, are so thin that they might as well be part of the CGI. Idris Elba, whose character Stacker Pentecost does at least have the best name in the film, does his best with what he is given as the commander of the soon-to-be-shuttered Jaeger unit, which the government has decided to abandon in favor of an enormous coastal wall. The Guillermo del Toro who made Pan’s Labyrinth would have found ways to explore the political dimensions of that potential metaphor, but alas, this iteration is happy enough to let the Kaiju smash through it like diegetic tissue paper on their way to level Sydney. Elba does manage one fine speech about how his role as a commander requires him to remain distant as a “fixed point” for others to rely on in a world on the edge of disaster, but other than that he is reduced to steely glares and wondering what it might be like to play the next James Bond assuming anyone is smart enough to make that casting decision. The bulk of the film’s “explanation” of the conflict is left to Charlie Day and Burn Gorman (apparently his real name), who play a pair of bickering scientists who are all that seems to be left of the Jaeger division’s R and D department. Charlie Day – who does a remarkable job portraying, well, Charlie Day playing a goofy scientist who talks too fast – spends a couple of minutes babbling about making psychic connections to the Kaiju and manages to understand the details needed to move the plot towards a climactic battle by way of a visit to a black-market Kaiju pieces shop owned by a sadly underutilized Ron Perlman, who has even less to do than Idris Elba. Again, the battles all look terrific – but I found myself checking my watch to see if I could time precisely when del Toro would connect the highly predictable plot points. I do appreciate that Pacific Rim is a genre film and he is honoring the genre – but I’m a trifle cynical when I consider my viewing companion Joe’s observation that every detail in the film seems calculated to maximize international box office. Not that I am against blockbusters and B-movie plotlines – I just can’t help but think there are better ones out there, like, for instance…
…1997’s Starship Troopers. Made for about half the money that Pacific Rim cost, Starship Troopers is also a big-budget B-type movie that appropriates freely from a variety of genres, most notably monster sci-fi and war films. The difference, though, is that director Paul Verhoeven understood that he could subvert the bejesus out of a lot of those conventions to produce a scathing piece of highly relevant political satire that is also tremendously fun to watch. Like Pacific Rim, Troopers depicts a war between humanity and non-human antagonists, but Verhoeven understands (as did Homer, Mary Shelley, Carl Jung, and Sam Keen, for those who remember reading Faces of the Enemy back in the Visual Literacy era or Richard Slotkin for that matter) the crucial idea of all effective monster films, and, indeed, all stories of war and conflict going back as far as people have told them: the “other” – the enemy – is always a reflection of some part of ourselves. That other, in this case, takes the form of “arachnids”, which are giant, gnarly creatures from a faraway planet – but in this film, it is the humans who are encroaching on someone else’s home turf. The narrative here is not tremendously complicated on the surface — a yarn about humans versus “bugs” from the far reaches of the galaxy – but Verhoeven seizes every opportunity to explore the subtext of the conventions he adopts, and his intelligent choices begin with his casting. Rather than plug in a bankable box-office name whose demands for screen time and hero status might have warped his narrative arc, he raided the poolside at “Melrose Place” and grabbed Casper Van Dien, Dina Meyer, and Denise Richards – three beautiful but undistinguished TV actors who were undoubtedly happy to make the leap to an A-budget film – and slyly cast them as high school students alongside Neil Patrick Harris, who was at that point known by most viewers as Doogie Howser. Charting their path from the prom through their enlistment in “Federal Service”, Verhoeven scorches American militarism and the media that supported it in the wake of the first Gulf War.
The film’s key element is the “Federal Network” newsreels, which provide the backstory for viewers and presumably the primary venue for information for the residents of Earth. In Verhoeven’s vision – as explained by the magnificently cast Michael Ironside, who portrays Rasczak, a soldier turned history teacher — the planet has one unified government created by “the veterans” who seized power from “the social scientists” in the wake of the “failures of democracy.” Citizenship is restricted to those willing to enlist in Federal service, which bestows privileges like easier access to child-bearing permits, and only citizens can vote. Verhoeven fades from stark credits to the “Federal Network” logo, as the channel brings viewers a live update from an embedded reporter as the Mobile Infantry invades Klendathu, the arachnid home planet. Unlike Geraldo Rivera, however, who survived his experience being embedded in Iraq, the FN reporter is sawed in half by an angry insect the size of a Buick before he can finish his opener. Sporting “WAR” graphics that look suspiciously similar to the ones CNN used in 1990 (and recycled in 2003), the newsreels show viewers the government – who meet in a chamber that looks a lot like the Reichstag chamber during the 1930’s, complete with “Sky Marshals” in command sporting black and gray uniforms as they decry arachnid treachery and proclaim the need for all humans to meet the threat with “honor, valor, and their very lives – to be sure that human civilization and not insect dominates this galaxy always!” Though one newsreel mentions in passing that “some theorize that the bugs are reacting to human intrusion into their space,” that does nothing to dim the fury of the human soldiers or provide any impetus to consider communication, negotiation, or the possibility of coexistence. As Rasczak – who leaves the classroom to return to lead a company of mobile infantry commandos as the war heats up – explains, “naked force has solved more issues than all other factors combined,” so why should humanity try anything different – even if, as Verhoeven’s parallel shots of insects and humans scrambling on the battlefield – and the recognition that the arachnids are not only highly intelligent, but feel fear and pain just like people do – underscore the reality that the enemy in any war is just as human as we are? Though the film was released in 1997, its portrayal of the US (or any nation-state at war, really) seems eerily to familiar to anyone who lived through the Iraq Wars and the War on Terror, down to the final newsreel’s direct appeal to the audience to do their part. Between the self-awareness of the script and the strength of the performances (including a fine turn from the always dependable Clancy Brown as the ultimate drill sergeant), Starship Troopers delivers not only as devastating satire, but also as a thoroughly entertaining sci fi/war film that never drags despite the fact that it conforms to every predictable conventions of its genres even as it turns them inside out.
So if you really liked Transformers, you may well love Pacific Rim, and I know a lot of people who did – for my money, though, Starship Troopers is a better film with a lot more bite…if you have thoughts, by all means share in the comments…and more posts soon. About vampires and why Twilight pisses me off more than I thought possible.