Oct 302013

Pacific Rim and World War Z are the best blockbusters of last summer. Oddly enough, they were also the least well served by their trailers. I was eager to see neither of them, and yet, both were wonderful in unexpected ways.

So some thoughts:

This movie musters narrative speed yet feels casual and roomy. The monsters arrive in the opening shots under voice-over. The story then jumps to the present, which is five years later. After a quick introductory fight scene, in which real stakes are established in the blink of an eye, the narrative jumps forward to a new present, again five or six years in the future, in which the action of the rest of the film will unspool. Combined, these leaps, establish multiple arcs: monsters arrive, seem defeated, but comeback; robots are created, kick ass, but soon are overwhelmed and crumble; boy earns glory, disappears after the loss of his brother in combat, but now comes back to save world. These micro-narratives are simple, cliche, but they are established quickly and elegantly. Together they lend scope and weight to the movie’s central events. Just as importantly, they leave the bulk of the film’s runtime for the final climactic days and hours to play out on the screen without feeling cramped or rushed.

Video Game as Narrative Logic
The movie operates as a sequence of boss fights. “Level 3 complete. Level 4 initiates in 3 hours!” There is even a mini-game–“Mortal Kombat!”–where the hero must earn his partner. This game logic provides a frame for the fight scenes that is distinct from the narrative. This allows the story to focus on other questions: Who are these people? How can they work together? What are the stakes they have on the table? Now, this film is no character study and it’s answers to all of these questions are generic and cliche. The movie is also not interested in ethical reflection. But there is a plot and this device keeps it from being derailed by moments of spectacle.

Narrative Modules
The emotions this movie plays with are simple, primal, but its range is quite wide. Discrete chunks of story are are used to create a gallery of  tones: the “fuck ya!” of a robot with a boat as a club; the “Haha, funny!” of a pendulum desk ornament set swinging by the battle; the Raiders of the Lost Ark-glee of watching the oriental fight masters (“they use the three armed style”!) wiped out by the monster equivalent of a gun pulled from a holster; the horror of watching people tied up in metal box and drowning; etc.  These discrete “modular” moments show a movie that wants to play around. This play is post-modern but doesn’t feel po-mo. Incidentally, the modular play with tone is matched by a modular variation on narrative genres. The most interesting of these is the deeply compressed but still satisfying story of the two scientists, a classically structured romance comedy. (I’m thinking of Cavell’s definition: two characters struggling to establish a conversation that we see will be profitable.)

Monster Madness as Narrative Speed
I loved that characters, monsters and robots were thrown away and expendable. People died. Roberts were torn apart. Monsters were vanquished. It kept the stakes real, the narrative overhead low. Even better: as the story proceeds, the number of characters that have to be kept track of decreases steadily. This speeds up the pacing without making things feel rushed.

Sensible Scale
Despite the digital effects, this movie is grounded in a mechanical world. These enormous machines operate in a physical space that translates down to and is comprehensible in relation to the human body. Over and over, the digital manifests in non-digital spaces as movements of or changes in people’s bodies. I’m thinking of the scenes of walking drivers, swinging arms, the sense that it is physically difficult to move the parts of these machines, the bloody noses, the bleeding eyes, the scars and slings. All of these establish a convincing connection between the out-sized robot and the ordinary human scales of the two lines of action. This connection was photographed on sets and not animated on a computer. People were crushed and drowned and it was shocking, the high altitude fall felt dangerous, and all of this because the incongruous narrative spaces cohered.

Legitimate Wastelands
It’s a small point, but this narrative establishes itself as occurring a few hours before the extinction of the human race. In this context, the massive destruction of city landscapes reads as sacrifice and makes sense. Everything can be destroyed, and humanity can still be saved. This is very different from the destruction in Man of Steel.

Final Comment
Most of what I’ve said relates to decisions made before filming even began and boils down to great writing. It’s the secret to a strong movie.

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