Ash falls from the sky in a horrific parody of snow as a dumbstruck newspaper editor stares upward at a skyscraper that’s about to fall down and kill hundreds of people. He’s coated with gray dust and his intern is caught under mammoth chunks of masonry, out of which he’ll have to help dig her, or at least hold her hand while they all die, and still, building after building collapses; window after window shatters in a lethal spray of glass; there’s screaming and crying everywhere.
This is getting depressing, so let’s change the scene to another moment from this summer: trapped aboard a dying starship, a soulless terrorist leads a one-man mutiny against its corrupt captain. As one of our heroes begins to succumb to radiation poisoning in the ship adjacent, the other decides to attack the captain of the rogue vessel as it heads toward the earth, where the hijacker pilots it nose-first into San Francisco in a bloom of concrete and fire, killing, at least, tens of thousands.
I don’t enjoy rushing to judgment, but I think I’d like to stop seeing this sort of thing in children’s movies.
I realize that “children’s movie” may be an odd descriptor for “Man of Steel” or “Star Trek,” the two films from which the scenes above are drawn, but it’s hard to think of them as anything else-big, slightly silly entertainments with thematic ambitions above their stations, to which families of all races and creeds flock on opening weekend. Indeed, the studios that produce sci-fi and fantasy blockbusters fetishize the PG-13 rating because that stamp from the MPAA indicates to parents a seal of approval-no uncomfortable questions about sex to answer in the car on the way home, nothing particularly bloody on the screen (or at least nothing graphic-vague rules like “generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence” seem moot in the face of Heath Ledger’s Joker), and the box office grosses tend to fall in line.
Christopher Nolan, director of the Batman movies and producer of that execrable Superman reboot, is the pioneer of this kind of filmmaking, and it suits him: he prefers theme to character; complexity to nuance. Sometimes this works beautifully-I enjoyed all three Batman flicks, especially the second one, which was surprising in a way that I didn’t expect from a big, loud summer movie, and action movies are low on character depth as a genre, so I buy it.
But Nolan’s odd gift for the timely isn’t a universal trait among filmmakers. One of the reasons I liked “The Dark Knight Rises” was that it tapped into contemporary rage both at and from the Occupy Wall Street crowd and then co-opted that imagery to stage scenes from the French Revolution. Blackgate Prison became the Bastille; the trial of Commissioner Gordon became Danton’s Death; Batman became a less shapely Liberty Leading the People. Its best trick, in other words, was pretending to be political when really, it wasn’t.
There’s no such cleverness at work in either “Man of Steel” or “Star Trek: Into Darkness,” and if you’re going to bombard your audience with images that name-check recent tragedies-recent enough to be fresh in the memories of most filmgoers, in fact-you have to give them something in return for it, even if it’s just a clever plot twist, and neither film does.
Guillermo del Toro is a veteran of the superhero movie (although his best effort in the genre, “Hellboy 2,” opened opposite “The Dark Knight,” consigning it almost instantly to the quarter-bin of history), and is one of those supremely luckless filmmakers like Terry Gilliam or Edgar Wright who show evidence of wanting to make fun big-budget movies for families, or at least bright children with senses of humor, but succeed in inverse proportion to the amount of money they’re given to work with.
Del Toro’s big idea (chronicled at length in this excellent New Yorker article) was a huge, $150 million 3-D hard-R adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal novella of “At the Mountains of Madness,” a very frightening story so influential that you can make yourself a little crazy trying to figure out how many times it’s been adapted already (if Damon Lindelof merely ripped it off wholesale for his screenplay for Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus,” does that count?). The story is about a group of explorers who happen upon a collection of horrifying beings who, unimaginably awesome in scale and might though they are, have come to prepare the way for their even grander, more terrible masters; the discovery itself pushes the explorers to the brink of insanity. Oddly, I find the insistence on an “adult” rating to be kind of endearingly responsible-yes, somebody might get a pencil through the eyeball from a Heath Ledger-level boogeyman, but hopefully it wouldn’t be in front of a six-year-old in a Batman hat.
Del Toro has trouble with big budgets. He wants to do what he wants to do, and not what the studio thinks will result in a four-quadrant film (for the uninitiated, the four quadrants are men and women, over and under 25), and so he was kicked off “The Hobbit” two years ago in favor of the depressing Peter Jackson fan-service trudge that will grace screens for three years and even out to a running time that keeps pace with the act of actually reading the book. Whether or not Jackson should win the Golden Buttock Award for Half-Assery is beside the point-his movies are now popular known quantities, something that Del Toro’s resolutely are not.
And so Del Toro’s audition, essentially, for every studio that might be interested in giving him the GDP of a small country to throw at an eighty-two-year-old short story about monsters from the demon dimensions, came last Friday, when the official opening arrived for “Pacific Rim,” a movie that he was, actually, able to secure an incredible amount of money to make. The reason Del Toro got $190 million to make “Pacific Rim” is that the film is about giant mechanical men fighting things that look like big dinosaurs, and it pays fealty to Chinese viewers in several places (Chinese box office is so important to the contemporary studio budget that the nation is rapidly becoming a “fifth quadrant,” which also helps to explain why the last few years’ worth of blockbusters have simply been set piece after set piece, as David Edelstein wisely explains here). It was, pretty much, a sure thing, and it lost out at the box office to “Grown Ups 2” and “Despicable Me 2,” the latter a middling sequel to a reasonably funny comedy and the former a deplorable sequel to a truly wretched comedy that ought to embarrass everyone involved in it. “Pacific Rim” made less than $40 million at the domestic box office in its first weekend, and though it hasn’t opened in China yet, it’s reasonable to assume that Del Toro’s dream of getting wads of cash to make an interesting movie has been crushed beneath the giant, clawed foot of consensus. It is a cool new robot, trampled by a really stupid dinosaur.
What makes this particularly depressing is that “Pacific Rim” really is a fantastic movie; a kind of standing rebuke to the dumb old bullshittery of Michael Bay’s inexcusably lazy “Transformers” flicks and the faux sophistication of the two movies mentioned above. The plot is fairly simple: in a few years, dinosaurs will come out of a hole in the ocean floor and step on a bunch of people in a bid to take over the world; hotshot pilots who join brains with each other (and scientists who join brains with aliens) run around in big robot suits to try to stop them. It is deliberately unserious, but each thin character has a deliberate arc; it acknowledges influences as diverse as the classic anime Neon Genesis Evangelion and the B-movies of Ray Harryhausen, and it does so gleefully, without stopping to remind us that the screenwriter read Sartre in a comp lit class once. It rarely loses its marvelous sense of scale; at one point a robot swings a giant fist through a building, crushing everything in its way but stopping just shy of a lucky cubicle, where a giant digit grazes one of those clicking-ball desk toys just lightly enough to set it in motion. You can take your kids to it-the director himself said his inspiration for the film was the notion that, with little boys, “you give them a robot and a dinosaur, and the instinct is just to have them fight.” Its performances are neither winking nor phoned-in; its female lead, Rinko Kikuchi, even manages to be wonderful. It is the “Citizen Kane” of robots hitting things.
It’s not really worth it to decry people in general for being too stupid to appreciate good art, or for being too conservative when they’re faced with a choice between something they know about and something new. Mostly, that would be to call them “people.” It might be worth asking whether it was wise to release “Pacific Rim” as the third consecutive apocalyptic blockbuster in a single summer, but instead I’m content to come out in favor of boondoggles, flops, and financial embarrassments: up with failure. The best science fiction movies of the last few years, for my money (and there’s not much of that-sorry, directors) have been the humiliatingly underperforming “John Carter,” the ludicrous flop “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” and now “Pacific Rim,” which, unless it overperforms miraculously in the rest of its territories, will be the bane of quarterly earnings calls for months to come (“We had some tough comparisons to last summer and adjusted accordingly,” the executive who drew the short straw will begin…).
All I know is that people will be watching “Pacific Rim” for years to come, pulling it out for slumber parties and Halloween movie marathons and possibly even a particularly brave film class or two, and perhaps someone will eventually notice that the movie is, sort of, about Elder Gods of unimaginable size and power preparing the earth for the Great Old Ones, and that there are, kind of, heroes whose minds break under the strain of dealing with these beings and, in a way, “Pacific Rim” does about two-thirds of the things that Del Toro probably wanted to do with “At the Mountains of Madness” anyway. You see, where J. J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan get embarrassed and self-conscious and each have an idea (and Zack Snyder has no idea) how to convince moviegoers to take them seriously, Guillermo Del Toro has an idea for a movie.
If you see him, give him a dollar.