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Big Brawlers and Little Children: The Not-New Appeal of ‘Pacific Rim’

Pacific Rim is a curious, exceedingly complex film for many, many reasons, not the least of which is that it is being marketed, by corporate interests as well as fans, as a simple, back-to-basics blockbuster that appeals to all ages.

With the modest logline of “giant monsters versus giant robots,” it seems like the kind of movie with which audiences have been teased in piecemeal fashion in recent years, e.g., with Cloverfield and the Transformers series. But here there are no outside franchises and canon texts to appease, no gimmicks on display such as found footage—only pure, distilled ideas, as if our childhood brains had been mined for all the primal spectacle they had yet to experience on the big screen, and for which they so longed.

To be sure, director and co-writer Guillermo del Toro dresses up the core premise with some themes about sacrifice and teamwork and overcoming the past, not to mention a lot of visual razzle-dazzle in even the non-battle scenes. Regarding the former, in case you’ve yet to see the film, well, I found the working out of such themes mildly successful at best… and at worst almost unbearably formulaic.

But that’s okay—because Pacific Rim wasn’t really made for me. Those same transparent reaches for pathos aren’t apt to strike a fourteen-year-old in quite the same way, and I don’t mean that at all in the extremely patronizing way that it sounds.

Again: I’m not the target audience, or at least the “me” that bothers to notice and comment on the clichéd sentimentality of much of the script. Rather—and this itself is a cliché in marketing circles—the target audience is the internal fourteen-year-old. Yet since that inner teen (or tween, certainly) is engaged so guilelessly in Pacific Rim, we adults don’t experience the film as some kind of blatant appeal to our immaturity… but rather as a powerful summoner of our dormant sense of wonder.

That’s because Pacific Rim, as with countless other giant robot narratives across media, evokes the playing-with-toys aspect of childhood. Like Wes Anderson’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, it replicates that sense of picking up inanimate—profoundly static—objects, and moving them about, making them fight, think and feel. Pacific Rim ups the ante by mostly neglecting any truly grownup concerns and instead focusing on the psychological regression of one key character while another perfectly embodies the strict-Daddy archetype. Sure, there are plenty of thoughtful sci-fi conceits related to identity and the nature of “mind,” but these are mostly just distractions from the enormous sense of play that’s being celebrated.

Which is an idea underscored by the impractical but giddy rock ‘em-sock ‘em presentation of the battle scenes. After all, does it really make sense to combat a 400-foot trans-dimensional behemoth by punching it in the mouth? And when the robots opportunistically use railroad cars or ships as clubs, that’s profoundly satisfying, too. Isn’t that the sort of thing that we’d do as kids when improvising in our playrooms?

The reason such overt silliness is nonetheless so effective is that we all relate to the fantasy of commanding a creature much, much larger than we could ever hope to be. In other words, it’s the tiny human beings in control that are so compelling, not the gargantuan struggles themselves (although admittedly these are pretty cool in Pacific Rim). In fact, just take a look at the seminal, and giddily entertaining TV series Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, which was released on DVD earlier this year by Shout! Factory. (You can watch episodes here.)

A kid controlling a ginormous robot that clashes with such foes as “Tentaclon: an Electric Monster,” “The Monstrous Flying Jawbone,” and Opticon, “a massive eyeball trailed by grotesque tentacles” is the stuff of childhood more than a dozen award-winning picture books. Why? Because for once the kid can direct the big and the powerful—the adult. Or, more poignantly, the adult within (the inverse of the “inner child” cited earlier)… the one with which the child is struggling to come to terms.

But let’s not forget that there are other towering figures in Pacific Rim and Johnny Sokko: the kaiju (giant monsters) are also surrogates for the audience. These kaiju represent the bestial temper tantrums of youth, the fury that cannot be articulated, and laying waste to the entire grownup world—in essence, the adolescent rejection of it preemptively, before oneself can be rejected.

So sure, take an exhilarating look at such pop culture texts—but also take care to be introspective about them, and to encourage the same kind of self-reflection among the youth to whom these works of art are geared.

About Peter Gutierrez