Friday, July 12, 2013

Pacific Rim and Star Wars

The gang at the office went out yesterday for an early viewing of the Guillermo del Toro movie Pacific Rim. I liked it a lot, and it reminded me of the original Star Wars from back in 1977.

OK, bear with me. I know a lot of you weren't even alive in 1977, and the thirty-five years since deposited an accretion of sequels, prequels, expanded universes, tech manuals, and a holiday-special-no-one-may-speak of on the film that obscures the heart of the franchise. But watching Pacific Rim, I got that smiling-despite-myself vibe of something new and exciting, and being there at the near-start.

Back in 1977, Star Wars was not expected to do much. The studio had banked on a much more traditional movie, a film with Jackie Gleason called Mr. Billion, to carry it through the summer, and Star Wars was a genre film, a space opera, that Sci-Fi stuff. There were radio ads, and Time Magazine ran an article talking about the special effects (because that was the only reason to go to a Sci-Fi picture), but there were no great expectations, and the film opened in all of 32 cinemas. In Pittsburgh, it was way the heck out in Monroeville in one of those new-fangled multiplexes.

Yeah, I couldn't resist
There are similarities and differences between the environments that the two films emerged into. Feuding between the distributors for Pacific Rim has resulted in leaked predictions of a horrible opening weekend. But to those paying attention, the trailers had a sense of wonder that hit an particular audience. And in this Internet world, those relinked, passed-along, peer-to-peer recommendations carry weight.

[As an aside, I first heard about Star Wars at the Pizza Keg in Purdue, where another member of the SCA, John M. Ford, was talking about this new SF movie that was coming out, where the BAD guys wear white space armor.]

The comparisons between the two films go deeper. Pacific Rim, like the original Star Wars, is a very straight-forward story. Very much the hero's journey. Luke Skywalker and Raleigh Becket are cousins. Here are the fun droids, and over here are the whacky scientists, one of which evokes C3P0 in his fussy mannerisms. Here's the hot-shot pilot with the funky name - am I talking about Han Solo or Hercules Hansen?  Princess Leia and Mako Mori both had their worlds destroyed, and yeah, you could see Carrie Fisher in a jaeger. Gipsy Danger, meet Millenium Falcon. The characters are not deep, but have that feeling that there is more to them than what we are being shown.

Ditto the universe. Original Star Wars did not name the aliens in the cantina - that would come later with the lateral development in the West End game. The kaiju are no more the stars of this film than the Death Star. The center of the film is with the humans, not their tools. Yeah, we have the desktop backdrops of the jaegers and the monster posters and someone HAS to have the RPG rights (or maybe not - they didn't think of that for Star Wars), so all the filling-in of the universe is already engaged. And it is all set dressing, assuring us there is a world behind this movie. But for right now, before the universe expands, we are standing at the first few moments of creation.

There is more than enough room for criticism and analysis, and it will come. It paces through a three-act structure - Act 1 (Chase the Hero up a tree) resolves before the opening credits, Act 2 (Throw rocks at him) is the bulk of the picture, and Act 3 (Get him down) kicks in with a St. Crispin's Day speech. This film fails the Bechdel test spectacularly. Mori demonstrates her fighting prowess early, but Becket has to fight for her honor. Threatening Hong Kong is aimed at the Chinese market, echoing such other films like Looper. Despite the diverse population of pilots, this ends up an American show. Plot holes will yawn wide over time with continual examination.  And I probably am already late to party comparing kaiju to terrorist attacks. But that is yet in the future - for the moment it is shiny and new and as yet unspoiled.

I think that's what made me smile. It was an original thing, a new universe. Yeah, I can see all the antecedents in Godzilla films and anime (and really, Ron Perlman is pretty much an anime character to start with). It is a beautifully-shot film that misses all the visual chaff we see with a lot of CGI - it actually has focus and continuity in almost all its shots. Hearing that most of the battle sequences were to be at night, in the rain gave me fears of the American Godzilla of 1998, but here it creates a feeling of menace and super-powered threat. It is not some road-tested and comfortable Intellectual Property of the past that is sold with the idea of a guaranteed audience, an audience they then cheese off by ignoring its previous core ethos. This is a good thing, and like the original Star Wars, feels complete in and of itself. I don't doubt that as I write this someone is threading the continuity needles to gin up a sequel, but for the moment, it stands alone. Enjoy that moment. And go see the film.

More later,