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Monday, August 24, 2015

Summer Not-Busters: Pacific Rim (2013)

Director: Guillermo del Torro
Starring: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba
Domestic Gross: $101,802,906

Pacific Rim is a curious case among summer not-busters. With a domestic gross of $101 million, it didn't make an insignificant amount of money, but it also didn't come anywhere near its $190 million production budget. Under normal circumstances, it would be written off as a bomb and rarely spoken of again except as a cautionary tale. It certainly wouldn't have earned the greenlight for a sequel, and yet thanks to Pacific Rim's success internationally (to the tune of $309 million), a sequel is indeed coming in 2017. Pacific Rim is not the first movie to do disappointing business domestically and big business overseas, but it's extremely rare that a film that couldn't find an audience in North America, even if it found one elsewhere, would get a sequel. It's perhaps a sign of the international box office supplanting the domestic in importance from Hollywood's point of view, or maybe it's just Warner Bros.' way of giving the domestic audience a second chance to get on board with this awesome spectacle. Either way, this is a film that both is and isn't a box office bomb, which is sort of fascinating in and of itself.

According to Pacific Rim's mythology, unfolded via voice-over narration by the film's hero Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam), in 2013 a portal between dimensions opened up on the Pacific Ocean floor (becoming known as "the breach") and out of it giant beasts called Kaijus began to emerge and periodically attack cities along the Pacific Rim. At first governments reacted by sending in the military, attacking with traditional weapons to little effect before developing war machines large enough in size to take on the Kaijus. These machines, called Jaegers, were subject to trial and error, as the earliest models featured only one pilot who would often be destroyed by the work as a result of the heavy mental toll involved in controlling the movements of the giant machines. Changes would be made and the technology would advance to allow for each Jaeger to be piloted by two people, one controlling the left brain and the other the right, connected to each other through a process called "drifting" which allows each to enter the mind of the other. Because drifting requires a high degree of compatibility between co-pilots, many teams are comprised of family members, and Raleigh's is his brother and they pilot their Jaeger, "Gipsy Danger" at a time when the world thinks it has effectively solved the Kaiju problem, at least as far as defeating them once they come to the surface, as attempts to destroy the breach are still unsuccessful. However, the Kaijus get stronger and more deadly, and their attacks become increasingly frequent, and after his brother is killed in the line of duty, Raleigh leaves the service. By 2025, governments have lost faith in the Jaeger program and instead turn to the idea of building defensive walls around the coast.

When the walls prove to be disastrously ineffective, the Jaeger program's commander, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), decides to use what resources the program has left to make one last stand and come up with a plan to destroy the breach with a nuclear bomb. With only four Jaegers left in existence, including the rebuilt "Gipsy Danger," Pentecost goes looking for Raleigh, finding him in Alaska working construction building the wall. Though he remains mentally scarred by what he experienced when his brother was killed, Raleigh is talked into going with Pentecost to Hong Kong and getting back into a Jaeger. The other three Jaegers are the "Crimson Typhoon," piloted by Chinese triplet (Charles Luu, Lance Luu, and Mark Luu), the "Cherno Alpha," piloted by a Russian husband and wife team (Robert Maillet and Heather Doerksen), and the "Striker Eureka," piloted by Australian father son team Herc (Max Martini) and Chuck (Robert Kazinsky). When it comes time to choose Raleigh's co-pilot, Pentecost reluctantly agrees to allow his adopted daughter Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) to step into the role after she proves to be the most compatible candidate with Raleigh during testing. However, Mako may not be ready for the effects of the drift as quickly as she needs to be, and the Kaijus are now coming fast and furious through the breach, forcing Pentecost and his team to move immediately in a last ditch effort to save the planet.

Here's what you need to know about Pacific Rim: it's about giant robots fighting giant monsters. You either want to see that or you don't. In the hands of director Guillermo del Torro (who co-wrote the screenplay, along with Travis Beacham) it's a visual extravaganza that doesn't make audiences wait to get a look at the big, bad monsters, showing the first attack on San Francisco in its opening minutes as it whips through years worth of backstory and action that, in another movie, might have encompassed the actual story as the backstory itself does feature a crisis-point of near defeat-come from behind for victory structure, but instead the first "victory" is short-lived and gives way to the bigger crisis that informs the film's main narrative. That said, while the film gives you a look at the monsters early, there is a decent sized stretch in the middle of its 131 minute running time where the monsters don't appear at all, as the story's focus turns to establishing the personalities of its main characters and the conflicts between them. This doesn't mean that the characters are anything more than your standard issue action movie archetypes - the strong, stoic one; the reckless hero who learns to control his impulses in time to save the day; the rival who develops a grudging respect for the hero; the nerdy comic relief; the "girl" - so the padding to the running time isn't entirely justified (I'm pretty sure Hunnam's abs get more definition than his actual character), but by and large the film moves along fast enough that it never feels like it drags too much between its action sequences, and those sequences are quite well done.

That a movie like Pacific Rim couldn't stick the landing on the domestic front is somewhat surprising because it's a movie that basically sells itself (what could be more summer movie than giant robots vs. giant monsters?), but had a fairly big marketing push behind it as well. Despite that, there's something about Pacific Rim that may go a long way to explaining why it failed to hit, and it's the fact that it is by design an international story. Most Hollywood blockbusters about the world being saved at the last moment from total destruction are thinly disguised tales of American exceptionalism. They aren't stories about how the world comes together to stop a common enemy (though most will feature a montage of peoples around the world bracing themselves for the disaster that ultimately won't come because of American intervention), but about how America takes the lead to save the world. While the hero of Pacific Rim is an American (albeit one played by a Brit), the other major characters are British, Japanese, and Australian, and the story itself isn't centralized in the US but in Hong Kong. Even though the entire world is under threat, that threat isn't characterized as an attack on US soil, nor is it resolved by America being the only nation that can gather its forces to a degree to stop the enemy. The victory, when it comes, isn't attributable to any one nation or people of one nationality; it's a cooperative effort between people from various places, operating in a way that erases the importance of nationality because they're going forward outside of sanction from any one nation. That's probably a tough sell in a place as intensely patriotic as the United States, but I think it goes a long way to explaining why Pacific Rim found its audience internationally. It's the only explanation that makes any sense to me, because as big budget action/adventure movies go, this is one of the good ones and it should have been able to find a bigger audience without much difficulty.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: Yes. North America was wrong, the rest of the world was right.


Helen said...

I completely agree. I was part of the "International" audience (a Canadian in Japan) and I enjoyed this movie a lot. Even now, when it shows up on my cable movie channel, I find myself watching it. I lost a bit of the action towards the end because I couldn't distinguish between the Jaegers and the Kaiju, but it didn't really matter...it was fun!

I liked Rinko Kikuchi as Mako and was pleased that there wasn't a "romance" subplot between her character and Hunnam's.

Godzilla (2014 version) was a yawn in comparison.

Anonymous said...

I liked this from a pure entertainment perspective. Like, it was visually stunning and a blast to watch, but it was also somewhat dumb as dirt.

Dell said...

I actually like Pacific Rim, but I don't love it and understand why it was not a hit here in the U.S. I don't think it has anything to do with the heroes being a diverse group. After all, the main character and hero is an American White Male. That goes over big in the States regardless of who the others are. Think back to The Matrix. Many of the supporting players on the good guy side were "others," black and/or female - neither are part of the normal winning box office formula. However, "the chosen one" was an American White Male. As long as one is in the Alpha position, (American) audiences are more likely to respond positively. Check the numbers on Star Trek movies, The Avengers, The Expendables, Fast and Furious, so on and so forth.

I think PR's shortcomings at the ticket booth has more to do with how it told its story. It was a dumb movie masquerading as a smart one marketed as a really dumb one. Basically, it was marketed as if it were the next Transformers sequel. While it's better and smarter than that, there's not nearly enough action compared to what people thought they were getting. Those long stretches without a monsters and robots fighting were a death knell for U.S. audiences. There just wasn't enough of what was promised by the trailers.

Norma Desmond said...

The Matrix had some racial/ethnic diversity, but did it have national diversity? The main characters spoke American-accented English and are presumptively American. My point wasn't that the hero needs to be an "American White Male" for American audiences to respond (though white male is certainly the default for heroes in Hollywood movies), but that American audiences respond more to stories like this where the threat takes place "at home" and where the victory is attributable to America/Americans. Pacific Rim takes place largely in Hong Kong and the victory is attributable to a group of people from all over the world not connected by nationality.

While The Matrix is also science fiction, I don't think it's the best comparison for Pacific Rim in this particular respect, as it takes place in a world that isn't recognizably our own so it's playing by a different set of genre tropes and rules. I'm thinking more along the lines of Independence Day, Armageddon, and more recently the Transformer movies where the world is our world as we know it but is under threat of total destruction by aliens, or in the case of Armageddon an asteroid.

Dell said...

Not saying there is nothing to the nationalist angle because there is. I just think a more action packed movie would've been better received here.

Norma Desmond said...

Fair enough; I was just trying to clarify my point.