Like a Geek God #1 by Mark Pursell
Pacific Rim and the Ballet of Mayhem
Mayhem is problematic. In recent years, it seems as if action filmmakers have lost the thread of what makes grand-prix melee both engaging and eye-widening. The fight scenes in the Transformers movies are a dark, disorienting blur of flailing metal. One can hardly tell what is actually happening, much less who is doing what, or even which giant robot is which. The Avengers is smarter than your average superhero flick, but even it suffers from what I call “mayhem fatigue”; in the lengthy final confrontation of the film, the camera zips drunkenly from Avenger to Avenger, lingering barely a moment on the havoc each hero is wreaking before looping away, giving the action a seasick, attention-deficit quality that enervates the viewer instead of elating her.
However, consider Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim, a sci-fi actioner in which the human race constructs giant manned Jaegers (robots) to battle an incursion of Godzilla-like kaiju (monsters). Now, Pacific Rim is not a very good movie in general. The dialogue is wooden; the characters range from forgettable to obnoxious. But that’s not what we really went to see it for, right? We went to see it for giant monsters fighting giant robots. The spectacle of such a concept is enticing. It evokes the titanic struggles of myth, gods and monsters locked in combat across the face of the cooling earth, wreathed in mist and flame.
Del Toro does not disappoint on this score. The film’s second-act centerpiece—in which our plucky heroes in their single, beat-up Jaeger confront not one but two of the deadly kaiju—is a triumph of fight choreography. The Jaeger and the kaiju batter away at each other with a slow but bone-crunching inexorability that makes more physical sense than the super-fast, hard-to-follow movements of other movie behemoths. The confrontation is balletic; del Toro frames every punch with an eye towards maintaining a sense of epic scale in the imaginations of the audience, rather than dissipating it by keeping the camera too close or allowing the pace of the action to exceed the visual acuity of the viewer. The result is a greater, more genuine feeling of engagement from the audience. I had my problems with the movie as a whole, but I winced and cheered and gasped along with everyone else in my crowded theater during this sequence. At one point, our heroes direct their Jaeger to pick up a wrecked cruise ship and use it as a weapon against the kaiju. It’s a dizzying moment that sounds a bit silly on paper but the audience reaction was palpable; not only audible but environmental, a frisson in the air.
Action—fight scenes, chases, narrow escapes, etc.—is endemic to the DNA of geek culture. But with the advent of more-and-more refined CGI technology, it seems that many movies of the last decade focus on how a given monster or robot or alien looks as opposed to how it moves. Think back, though, to the heartstopping action set pieces of James Cameron’s early films; remember the frenetic and super-stylized but always comprehensible gun battles in The Matrix. Action like this—the kind to make you stand up and cheer at the conclusion of a given set piece—is largely the exception in today’s geek culture properties, rather than the byword. It’s my hope that the current crop of filmmakers—or even the next generation, still in their formative years—view Pacific Rim and take away its lessons. “Fast” doesn’t always equal “intense”. “Disorienting” doesn’t read as “suspenseful”. Battle must be brutal, but it must also—paradoxically—be beautiful.