Giant Monsters Gently Pluck My Heartstrings

There was a point in my life when I believed the Transformers franchise might be halfway decent. The first one was clunky and fun. Shia LaBeouf was in the middle of a solid run of playing so many teenagers fighting secret, robot overlords running our government (I, RobotEagle EyeTransformers) that I’m fairly certain he’s solely responsible for the rise of the Tea Party.

Steven Spielberg had produced Transformers and it showed strong signs of his holding back Michael Bay’s most egregious tendencies (bad attempts at meta-comedy, the casual on-screen massacre of bystanders). 2007 was a magical time. John Turturro was fresh off doppelganging Tony Shalhoub on “Monk” and Johnny Depp in Secret Window. Megan Fox wasn’t yet the female Nicolas Cage. Josh Duhamel was the best part of the semi-watchable “Las Vegas” (since then, he’s made a career of putting the “watchable” in “semi-watchable”).

Yet this first Transformers wasn’t all gleaming auto wrecks and slow-motion, oily superbabe. It was coated in Bay’s racism-is-funny schtick and Industrial Light & Magic boasted there were more moving parts on-screen during the action sequences than the human eye was able to track. Congratulations?

Giant robots were never my thing anyway. This might be the most controversial thing I’ve ever said, but here goes: Giant robots are stupid. When we can blow up archipelagos from halfway across the world with a relatively tiny fighter jet and no one cares that we likely made some sea creature extinct, giant robots seem like a lot of extravagance for very little payoff.

Giant monsters, on the other hand? Now that’s the kind of stuff I was raised on. Godzilla? King Kong? Gamera? Chris Christie? All terrifying.

(I know this puts Mecha-Godzilla, both robot and monster, into a difficult category. I’m going to continue liking him; he makes sense.)

So we’ve talked a lot about robots and a little about monsters, and we haven’t even touched upon the kind of movie Pacific Rim is. That’s because Pacific Rim isn’t really about either.

From the very first sequence of one of the movie’s robots being prepared for combat, we see a process that takes time and energy. We see a massive machine with more gouges and scuff marks than paint. This is no giant robot. This is a scarred, used, beaten tool of war.

This is how an artist builds a world – from Pan’s Labyrinth to Hellboy, Guillermo del Toro presents worlds that are wholly lived in. Every special effect has weight and heft, every monster has a logic all its own, every action has a consequence.

And, oh boy, the action. Unlike the carsick epileptic’s nightmare Transformers has become, the action here is all boiled down to basics. Robots don’t whirl about while flipping and changing shape willy-nilly in ways the eye can’t recognize. The robots in Pacific Rim are, essentially, two legs and two arms. Movement is deliberate, made more difficult by the fact that most of the action takes place in water. It’s easy to tell what’s going on.

That deliberateness also allows the monsters to be unpredictably strange. They all have an analogue – one’s like a rhinoceras, the next like a giant crab, yet another like a monstrous eel. Since the robots move like us, and all we have to keep track of are four limbs, it allows Del Toro’s crew to give us creatures that are wholly alien. They would seem cartoonish save one fact:

While the movie’s heavy on action and comedy, what Del Toro understands that most American filmmakers don’t is the impact of violence. A violent death isn’t glorious. It’s not a melodramatic act full of speeches. It happens and then it’s done, in an instant, so quickly that you’re still not sure it’s even occurred. You’re left to flail, and the terrifying part of it isn’t that it’s drawn out and painful; the terrifying part is that it’s sudden and uncontrollable.

Nearly all of the characters in Pacific Rim have lost someone, and nearly all of them are stilted and paralyzed in their decision-making because of it.

When I’ve lost someone to disease or old age, there’s time to prepare. There’s time to react and compartmentalize and judge which parts of your emotional whole you can risk when taking care of someone else. You see the signs. You’re told the signs by doctors. You’re given charts and pamphlets and medicines – all of these are weapons to fight the inevitable. Even when you have no chance of winning, you’re still given the tools to try and fight. There’s solace in fighting.

When I’ve lost someone to a violent act, it’s often so unpredictable that there was no time to plan. You’re informed after the act itself has passed.

“A car hit Brit. The driver was drunk. I’m so sorry.” It took me a minute to realize the voice belonged to Brit’s mother. It was October, my first semester at college. My friendships there were two months old. We’d talked about getting engaged before she moved to California. Neither of us had been ready. And now neither of us ever would be. And all I could think is that I wanted to track down whoever it was and kill him. I knew I wouldn’t. I knew he’d go to jail. That would have to be satisfaction enough.

There were no tools, there was no illusion of resistance, there was no chart or pamphlet or medicine. There was empty space. There was an overwhelming, empty space, and it was insurmountable. It would diminish, but it will never leave. Helplessness was a part of me now, and as much as it may subside, helplessness is a permanent affliction. It always retains that ability to rise up and become insurmountable again.

In the face of violent death, the only thing we have control over is our second-guessing, the only timetable we can come up with is a retroactive one, a self-critical one. When we seek to blame and enact vengeance, yet there’s no real target, we find one in ourselves. We get angry at our own helplessness, because once – when we were young – we felt invulnerable, and we can never reclaim that.

As much as we lose someone else, we also lose the illusion of who we are and what we can be, of the effect we can have on the world, of how much we can actually help the people around us. We can’t relearn that either, but the beautiful part is that it won’t stop us from trying.

This is what Pacific Rim is about: two people abandoned suddenly and violently, for reasons they can’t understand, who – because they chance to meet – finally surpass the paralyzing effect that loss has on their lives. Yes, they pilot giant robots who beat the everloving crap out of squishy, alien monsters who really deserve it, but this is why Del Toro is among our most important filmmakers. He always gives us escapism, but no matter how “silly” the genre, he never fails to confront us about why we need to escape.

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