Pacific Rim might be in trouble. The tracking figures for audience awareness and their intentions regarding it are surprisingly low, with the latest Adam Sandler assembly-line construct Grown Ups 2 projected to open at number one next weekend. This means that an epic, crowd-pleasing film about giant robots fighting giant monsters might well be beaten severely by a comedy sequel that was never intended to inspire the kind of excitement that an event film like Pacific Rim normally would.
These financial figures indicate a deeper audience apathy. Logically and commercially, Pacific Rim should be a slam dunk. Whether or not you think there’s any entertainment value to giant robots, the Transformers films have proven that they bring in the dough. This film goes one better by throwing in giant monsters too, and they’re all far bigger than any of the Transformers. Could any concept appeal more to imaginative young boys or grown-up boys who dreamed about this stuff in their childhood? Spectacle on the scale that Pacific Rim‘s trailers suggest were once only possible in comics and Saturday morning cartoons. Now, finally, the visions many of us grew up with have been brought to life. There is unquestionably an audience for this film.
Better yet, it’s not an adaptation of a toy line or a comic. Pacific Rim is original IP. We’re being offered a new world that draws on a variety of genre touchstones that could never be realised like this before. The responses from preview screenings over the last few months have been ecstatic, including from credible sources like Looper director Rian Johnson.
So why is Pacific Rim not registering with enough of its target audience? As for those who might not care about the spectacle, shouldn’t the advertising also present character moments and comedy to attract as many ticket buyers as possible? Isn’t that a fundamental goal of big-budget marketing?
Watch the trailers for Pacific Rim, and you’d be forgiven for assuming the film is a two-hour action sequence with plenty of macho bravado. We haven’t been led to believe it’s much more than that. Until the latest trailer (released a couple of days ago and embedded below) we’ve been shown way too little about the characters in what is reportedly quite a character-driven film. We’ve barely seen the lead characters played by Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi. I don’t think Kikuchi has had a single line in any trailer, and Hunnam has mostly been left to explain the setup of giant kaiju monsters emerging from another dimension through cracks in the Pacific Ocean floor. Only Idris Elba’s ‘cancelling the apocalypse’ speech (which I find far clunkier than others do) has gotten major play, and in virtually every trailer. In the scene, it may play wonderfully, but out of context, it feels unearned and flat.
So we have little to latch on to besides some pricey-looking video game cut scenes. We have scant sense that Pacific Rim will be a complete film experience.
Although piloted mecha robots fighting giant monsters is conceptually different from sentient robots fighting each other, I can understand the complaints that the Pacific Rim trailers are too aesthetically close to Transformers or the cautionary tale that is Battleship. And if the trailers are largely unremitting action, maybe the film will be too. Audiences exhausted by the hour-long action sequence in Man of Steel might not want to subject themselves to that again, even if Del Toro stages his action more coherently and mercifully.
Disney made a huge mistake with the John Carter marketing by not clarifying its premise or giving us a hook into the characters. Instead, we were meant to be enticed by a slideshow of dazzling images lacking much context. Warner and Legendary appear to be repeating that mistake. We’re used to CGI spectacle now, so that alone won’t necessarily sell a movie, particularly to audiences who aren’t slavering for any and all kinds of widespread, geek-friendly destruction. We need a central, relatable element to latch on to. We need proof that the CGI is in service of appealing characters and an engaging plot, not the other way around.
Questions of originality
Pacific Rim is a blockbuster based on an original concept, which instantly sets it apart. It’s not an adaptation, a sequel, or an exercise in brand recognition. It presents itself on its own merits, so the marketing department has more responsibility to clarify its nature.
Unfortunately, Pacific Rim resembles existing films and concepts embedded in our popular culture. Sure, the studio didn’t option an existing comic or old TV show, but it’s still giant robots and monsters, right? What’s so original about that?
A fair question. But do we criticise Star Wars and Indiana Jones for repurposing classic adventure serials as grand, mainstream entertainment? Do we resent The Matrix for fusing cyberpunk, martial arts cinema, and superhero comics? No, because they absorbed cultural mainstays and reconfigured them for wider, contemporary audiences by adding new ingredients and infusing the whole package with wit and style. They ironed out the kinks and idiosyncrasies and identified the core of their appeal.
Pacific Rim is the first grand-scale mecha film, a genre we haven’t really seen in Western film before. Mecha are a fixture of Japanese anime: a giant robot piloted by a human. In certain cases, like Neon Genesis Evangelion, the pilot is psychically linked with the robot and controls it with their thoughts and movements rather than instruments. Avatar crossed with Transformers, perhaps, but mecha has been around for longer than either (another echo of the John Carter debacle) and Jake Sully couldn’t fight kaiju. And apart from the 1998 Godzilla, kaiju have been surprisingly rare in American film too.
So while Pacific Rim may look aesthetically familiar in the brief glimpses we’ve been given, it’s not a Transformers rip-off (even Kanye West is trying to tell you that). It’s gathering scattered tropes from multiple national pop cultures and assembling them into one cohesive unit.
Even accounting for those somewhat justified preconceptions, what undermines them is that while we’ll reject films like John Carter or Pacific Rim for selling us the same old stuff, but we’ll keep lining up for Transformers and Fast and the Furious sequels. Yes, they offer comfort and familiarity, but why do we then push away other familiar-looking films when they don’t have the right labelling? Wouldn’t even the audiences who line up on opening day for a new Transformers film also be dying to see Pacific Rim based on its marketing-fuelled resemblance? These inconsistent judgements are what make it so difficult to predict success in pop culture.
We also need to let go of our entitlement to judge a film by its trailer. Sure, it’s designed to help us decide whether we see the film or not, but cutting trailers is too flawed and corrupted a process for us to trust them entirely. A rapidly-edited two-minute trailer is no basis for judging whether a film is a rip-off or an action fest. Not only can we not possibly foresee the other two hours of the film, we have to remember that the film may have been marketed poorly or inaccurately, and perhaps deliberately so.
If we want to see the best movies, we owe it to ourselves to do a little more research. Marketing rarely conveys the texture and nuance of a distinctive take on a genre. And if we can’t be bothered doing that research, we have to stop speaking so authoritatively about whether a film will be a crappy copy or not. We never have enough information to say that for sure.
So keep an open mind and see Pacific Rim. Even if it’s not the most original concept ever, it’s not relying on our recognition of some crusty IP like The Lone Ranger and then not even paying it much respect. Guillermo del Toro is giddy in love with this stuff, and he’s one of the few genre directors committed to new and exciting visions, and he fights for them. If Pacific Rim tanks after his underperforming Hellboy films, one of geek cinema’s most powerful advocates will lose even more of his influence.