One of the signature images of the contemporary action blockbuster is of human operators manoeuvering artificial bodies. Whether it’s Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) in Avatar, operating a lanky blue alien chassis while napping in a metal cocoon, Wikus (Sharlto Copley) in District 9 in a cyborgic war-machine suit, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) operating his hi-tech Iron Man suit, or the combatants of the Jaeger programme in Pacific Rim working the mind-and-body controls of their gargantuan monster-punching robots, we are accustomed to seeing the spectacular visual effects doing the heavy lifting while the human performers, seen in occasional cutaways, take up subordinate roles. This is partly a way of finding something for the people to do while the focus is on the big machines that are the agents of action in these movies, but it is also the visual logic of films dependent on motion-capture to fuel their digital heroes: these are films that celebrate technology, but remain anxious that those technologies are inscribed with the markers of human input that make films about machines relatable and engaging.
The human cast of Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim fit this bill. They’re there to provide a sense of scale (i.e. the monsters and robots look particularly huge when you can see how much they dwarf the people inside and beneath them), and to essay a wholly schematic plot (its emotional beats borrowed from Top Gun, its ending rote-learned from Armageddon) in which big monsters (kaiju) emerge through a dimensional breach at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean that unleashes the Creatures from Another Genre into the densely populated coastal areas. For reasons that are explicable only under the terms of the Genre Convention, the best way to combat these monsters is to build giant robots (jaegers), i.e. to anthropomorphise weapons of war and to drive them using human pilots locked in to a kind of motion-control rig where the operators’ movements are mirrored by the jaegers, which become sort of like enormous full-body puppets. The added twist is that the paired pilots have to connect with their minds not just to the machine, but to each other, meaning that pilot teams that are most simpatico will be the best fighters. Don’t ask why this is: I couldn’t really see how the mind connection stuff (referred to as “the Drift”, where the memories of pilots merge and they access each others’ experiences and skills) was important when they were mostly just making punching and kicking movements. The idea of the Drift is an effective dramatic tool, though. It invests the giant robot activity with some human feeling, and comprises all of the major character developments: when Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) loses his brother and co-pilot Yancey during a mission, he keeps his brother’s memories, and when he hooks up with a new co-pilot, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), their tentative romance (or maybe it was just coyly handled by filmmakers more comfortable with giant toys hitting each other) is explored through the way they handle the Drift and the linking of minds. This is an interesting idea, but it is not used to open out any more complex and enticing possibilities; what are the effects of these technological interfaces on the users, for instance, beyond getting a bit misty-eyed at the remembrance of dead loved ones?
There has been a trend amongst monster movies for showing events from ground level, from the perspective of ordinary people caught up in the unfolding catastrophe (see Cloverfield, and Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, for example). Pacific Rim bucks this trend pretty hard. This is its greatest virtue: it wants to sweep the viewer up in the thrill of being aboard these enormous machines and pummeling kaiju in the playground of Earth’s major cities. This leads to the film’s standout scene, a brawl in the streets of Hong Kong that begins with Raleigh and Mako’s Jaeger swaggering down the street wielding a container ship like a baseball bat. There are a few minutes of delirious, gleeful destruction (convention dictates that you not contemplate the likely thousands of human casualties at this point), oscillating between human-scale fight moves, city-wide devastation, and the fine details of the debris knocked about (an executive desk toy set a-clacking, a seabird knocked off its perch). However, the climactic battle at the bottom of the ocean is rather less interesting without these markers of scale – the size of the combatants stops being relevant underwater, and everything slows down to a sluggish pace. But when it works, Pacific Rim achieves its goal of flattering a fan-borne fantasy of taking a giant robot out for a reckless joyride. On the flipside, it’s a shame that the story is told through these bland soldier figures; I can understand that they’ve been chosen to add a minimum of complexity and noise to the real subject of the film (big things hitting each other), but surely there’s space for a little more personality in these characters. Even Avatar begins with the same motif of the new recruit reporting for duty after the death of a more illustrious older brother, and that’s the gold standard of derivative dramatic motifs. Idris Elba eats up all the available nobility with a stiff and upright performance that sees him stoically speechify his way through a particularly strong bout of “movie cancer” that sees him suffer the occasional nosebleed. Dogged heroism seems to be the only other symptom. Wacky comic relief from Charlie Day and Burn Gorman looks even more out-of-place surrounded by the stock military characters, while Del Toro-favourite Ron Perlman chews enough scenery to make King Ghidorah choke in all three of his throats. Only Rinko Kikuchi, manages to display any kind of range, with a performance that combines emotional vulnerability and straight-ahead toughness; she also benefits from being the only female character with any kind of speaking role, which lets her stand out from the khaki-and-testicles crowd.
It’s pointless to complain about what you wanted a Hollywood blockbuster can be (e.g. “if only Man of Steel had been an hour shorter”) – the drive to offend no-one means that everyone gets something they like, and finds a few things they don’t. But since the Jaegers don’t need to be operated with physical strength, and mental agility is an advantage to the pilots, I would have loved to see more interesting, quirky, and yes, geeky, weedy crews getting the chance to show their stuff at the controls of the big robots. The Jaegers instead come off as amplifications of the soldiers bodies, rather than liberating reconfigurations of them. This review probably sounds like I had a lot less fun with Pacific Rim than I did. I saw it in IMAX 3D, which is a beautiful format – the soundtrack can be detailed and widely distributed, so it was thunderous without being thudding (I won’t tell you again, Man of Steel), and the picture is sparkling clear and colourful. But my enjoyment of this year’s summer blockbusters has been plagued by a nagging sense of underachievement, of safe thrills and reliable plotlines. Only during Iron Man 3, which I had not expected to enjoy, did I have that feeling that I was really being entertained and surprised by a surefooted, nimble movie.
I guess it’s too late to stop reading if you think I’m going out on a limb or being way too generous here, but here comes a final-paragraph, top-of-the-head, speculative conclusion about why we see so many examples of this kind of action film (i.e. built around humans driving other, artificial bodies). At some level, these films collectively are exploring what it means to operate a proxy self, to be in one place while another version of you explores spaces and places you are ill-equipped to enter. More than ever (broad, sweeping sociological statement alert!), we are people sat at screens managing virtual versions of ourselves that comprise our public faces. A less bombastic example of this trope comes from Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer (2008), in which a young Mexican man works in a warehouse where labourers remotely operate, via VR headsets, robots on construction sites across the border in the USA. It is exploitation of migrant labour taken to the next level of dehumanisation (i.e. it cuts out the migration and facilitates segregation), and is one of cinema’s few recent depictions of remote bodies as nauseating, disorientating and demeaning to their users. Pacific Rim‘s selling point is its sense of enormous scale. It wins the arms-race to see who can collide the biggest thing with the next biggest thing. This means that it is undeniably, if undemandingly fun. But the effect of getting bigger and bigger is a loss of intimacy, and a sense that humans get smaller, punier, perhaps even more infantile in the face of such inflated delights.