Monday, August 19, 2013

Who Would've Thought Giant Robots Fighting Space Monsters Could Be Subtle?

While I haven't fully given up on this year's crop of summer's blockbusters (not with The Wolverine, Kick-Ass 2 and The World's End still to be seen), I do believe this is the most disappointing summer I can recall -- at least for the major studio flicks.  Iron Man 3 and Man of Steel both disappointed to degrees I just hadn't anticipated beforehand, as I discuss briefly here and here, respectively.  One of the few bright spots, discounting the better of the non-blockbuster movies I've seen, was the non-franchise, non-sequel, non-reboot Pacific Rim.  I'll admit that I had little to no hope in this film going into it, despite having had a good enough time with Guillermo del Toro's films in the past.  But after a year of so many overlong and overwrought (yet simultaneously small-minded) special effects blowouts, Pacific Rim was surprisingly streamlined and effective by comparison.

Superficially a single-premise film (i.e. Space Monsters vs. Giant Robots), the movie also delivered a stealth message that I was surprised to find afterward received almost no attention from film critics. I don't have much to say about the movie's artistic merits here, but I thought the reaction (or lack thereof) from so many critics to the movie's obvious subtext says something interesting about what contemporary moviegoers expect from a "message" movie, as opposed to a fun summer blockbuster.

While Pacific Rim has few spoilable moments, I will give you the standard issue "spoiler warning" regardless and continue this discussion below the fold.

So let's get the "spoiler" right out of the way -- the kaiju (that is, the giant space monsters) who menace the world of Pacific Rim are the direct result of global warming.  This isn't some stretch of the imagination on my part. The movie is actually quite explicit about it, as explained by the mad scientist played by Charlie Day:
Dr. Newton Geiszler: These beings, these masters, they're colonists. They overtake worlds, they just...they just consume them and then they-they move on to the next. And they've been here before, as sort of a trial run. It was the dinosaurs, but the atmosphere wasn't conducive, right? So they waited it out, and they waited it out. And now, you know, with the ozone, the pollution, the carbon monoxide, polluted waters...well we practically terraformed it for them. Cause now they're coming back, and it's perfect.
And there it is.  In fact, even if you disregard that bit of exposition, the movie sets up the metaphor pretty clearly.  The kaiju emerge from a hole in the ozone layer - wait, I mean, from an inter-dimensional rift in the ocean floor - and are always accompanied on screen by a massive hurricane-like storm.  At first, these oceanic attacks arrive sporadically and seemingly at random, but with time they become increasing frequent and predictable.  They strike the coasts first and take a major toll on coastal cities, forcing the population to move inland, while the more affluent move to higher ground to escape the rising waters - I mean, to escape the kaiju. The nations quickly learn that they must work together and develop a global strategy to combat the menace head-on, lest the increasing kaiju attacks render the planet uninhabitable for humans.

Perhaps it comes from living through Hurricane Sandy and hearing stark warnings that hurricanes destroying the coastline will become the "new normal" for New York and other coastal cities, but as far as I'm concerned, the imagery in Pacific Rim had all the subtlety of Godzilla attacking Tokyo after World War II. But then, subtext can be a funny thing.  Quintin Tarantino described watching audiences slap their foreheads dumbfounded at the discussion of King Kong in Inglourious Bastards, realizing for the first time that the iconic Hollywood monster romp was clearly a metaphor for the slave trade and - in Tarantino's words - "America's fear of the black male":

Of course, at no point in King Kong do the plot or the characters every directly invoke the slave trade or directly discuss race relations in the United States.  By way of comparison, King Kong's Japanese cousin Godzilla was quite explicit that the giant lizard symbolized the nuclear assaults on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the U.S. during World War II, as reflected in the following bits of dialogue:
Dr. Serizawa: Ogata, if the oxygen destroyer is used even once, politicians from around the world will see it. Of course, they'll want to use it as a weapon. Bombs versus bombs, missiles versus missiles, and now a new superweapon to throw upon us all! As a scientist - no, as a human being - I can't allow that to happen! Am I right?

Kyohei Yamane-hakase: I can't believe that Godzilla was the only surviving member of its species... But if we continue conducting nuclear tests... it's possible that another Godzilla might appear somewhere in the world again
For obvious reasons, Godzilla has been a frequent point of comparison for Pacific Rim.  Yet, I've heard the same critics who name-drop Godzilla as a point of reference explicitly deny that Pacific Rim has any similar subtext at play. (Or, as one website put it, "Dumb movies like this don't invite much analysis.")

Certainly, plenty of critics have pointed out the movie's anti-"global warming" message, but typically as a throw-away observation.  I've only seen a few articles explore the issue with any depth -- the first was a rant by a hard right-winger who considered the movie to be blatant liberal propaganda (except the part about nuclear power saving the day, he loved that part, go figure), the second was a rant by a hard left-winger who also considered the movie to be blatant liberal propaganda (i.e. the good kind of propaganda), and the third was from NPR (which I'll call the middle ground, but I know opinions differ on that.

This lack of attention is unfortunate because the subtext here is pretty rich if you're willing to explore it.  Consider this -- as the quotes from Godzilla above make clear, that movie hammers home the perspective that nuclear testing would have potentially catastrophic consequences that we simply couldn't foresee.  Now, over half a century later, a movie about monsters emerging from the ocean to attack Japan ends with the detonation of a nuclear device in order to seal the fissure from which the monsters emerged.  And what's more, the detonation occurs thanks to the collaborative efforts of the United States and Japan.  Setting aside the more simplistic view that del Toro is promoting nuclear power to solve our climate crisis, we're left with the strong message that "global warming" will not be solved without global cooperation and the willingness to consider new perspectives that may challenge our old presumptions.

This is a pretty straightforward analysis of the movie that doesn't require any wild theorizing or reading between the lines.  So why have so many critics avoided discussing the "global warming" subtext of this movie?  I have a few theories about that ...

9/11 Tunnel-Vision

If there's one thing a contemporary movie critic can spot a mile away, it's a 9/11 metaphor.  Basically any time a building collapses, people run from a dust cloud, or things explode for any reason whatsoever, we remember 9/11.  That's both completely understandable and increasingly annoying.  Not every alien invasion, natural disaster or on-screen explosion is a reference to 9/11.  Aside from being generally myopic, the insistence on construing every movie released since 2011 as a 9/11 metaphor also necessarily exposes an American-centric cultural bias.  

As "global" an event as 9/11 was (and is), plenty of disasters have befallen the peoples of the world since that day, and with far greater death tolls to boot.  It makes as much as sense at this point to speak of "post-9/11" cinema as it does to consider "post-Indian Ocean tsunami" cinema, or "post-Arab Spring" cinema, etc. etc.  Yet, amazingly, only in the past few months (and almost two years since 9/11 celebrated its 10th anniversary) have we heard the major Hollywood trades wonder out loud whether it's even "possible to make a Hollywood blockbuster without evoking 9/11."  Yes, Hollywood, yes it is possible.  But only if we stop assuming that every movie ever made is speaking directly to us as Americans, and that, sometimes, when aliens attack the World, they're not necessarily attacking one specific block in Manhattan.

Pacific Rim isn't the first movie to feature the destruction of a non-American city since 9/11, nor is it the first movie in which nations were forced to collaborate to confront a global threat to humanity.  But it may be the first Hollywood blockbuster of this scale to utilize so many potentially 9/11-esque images in the service of  a metaphor that has nothing to do with 9/11.  And I suspect that the combination of using 9/11 branded imagery and a plot that did not center on American interests (or American solutions) threw more than a few critics off the scent.


Another reason that Pacific Rim may have hit a critical blind spot is the recent memory of truly terrible "message movies" that highlighted the threat of global warming.  While An Inconvenient Truth received positive enough buzz, the stench surrounding The Day After Tomorrow and The Happening (none of which I've seen in full) lingers to this day.  The fact of the matter is that representing global warming on screen is a challenge for conventional Hollywood blockbusters.  The impact of rising C02 levels is a gradual one and its effects are not always obvious on the surface. In fact, it's practically a "butterfly effect", in which cargo trucks driving across Nebraska and cattle grazing in Brazil have something to do with rising tides in the Philippines, but it takes a PhD to piece together exactly why that is.  The indirect relationship between our industrialized lifestyle and a single-digit (yet devastating) rise in global temperatures can be hard to grasp, let alone to cast opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in a heart-pounding thriller directed by Roland Emmerich.

South Park memorably decimated the foolishness of The Day After Tomorrow in an episode featuring - among other related gags - the good townspeople of South Park literally running from "global warming" as if it were a pack of wolves ready to pounce. As with most of the better episodes of the series, the satire works on multiple levels.  If you're a "global warming skeptic", it perfectly mocked the hysteria that movies like The Day After Tomorrow played upon.  On another level, the episode also effectively mocked Hollywood's poor grasp on the actual science of global warming, as well as its tendency to dumb down complex issues into three-act punch lines. (And that's before we talk about the absurdity of Mark Wahlberg running in terror from a murderous breeze in The Happening.  If nature functioned even remotely on the level that M. Night Shymalan expected us to accept, we'd have been screwed a long time ago.)  

This sledgehammer approach to storytelling - while excellent fodder for satire - has left "message movies" with a terrible (if well-earned) reputation. In that respect, disregarding Pacific Rim's "global warming" subtext may be less the result of a critical blind spot than it is a unconscious effort to avoid lumping a fun, enjoyable movie in the same category with such thuddingly dumb movie fair as "Marky Mark Vs. Killer Wind."

Pacific Rim Is Fun And "Message Movies" Aren't Fun!

So maybe, at the end of the day, the fact that critics haven't fixated on the moral subtext of the film is a complement of sorts that Pacific Rim isn't another idiotic movie in the same vein as the travesties discussed above.  I'm not the type of person who considers "escapism" a bad thing as far as entertainment goes.  Yet, like a tree falling in the woods, one has to wonder whether a movie with such a clear interest in global warming has missed the mark if the audience would rather discuss discuss the special effects than the subtext.

Over and over again, the dominant consensus among critics seems to be that Pacific Rim is "big dumb entertainment" that doesn't ask anything from the audience but to sit back and enjoy.  ("It's stupid but I liked it," sums it up well.)  There's nothing wrong with that as far as two hours of entertainment goes, but it seems to promote the false narrative that "fun" movies should steer clear of politics.

I understand the impulse not to focus on Pacific Rim's political subtext. On the one hand, when a movie is compartmentalized as a "message movie", it's easier to write it off as preachy and/or politically biased.  It's true that this is exactly the strategy used by critics and politicians when they disagree with a movie's message and hope to tank its box office receipts.  (Not that political protests have a proven track record in actually impacting a movie's success or failure.)  On the other hand, by drawing a hard line between "message movies" and "pure, dumb summer fun movies", we're disregarding the most effective use of metaphors in movies -- i.e. the kind that don't have to lecture at us to get their point across.

I can't blame people if they'd rather not enter a political debate when all they want is to see a giant robot wrestle a space monster off the coast of Japan..  Still, it's unfortunate that we seem so eager to distinguish between "movies with something important to say" and "movies worth watching for the fun of it." 

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