Advance word on Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim was that it was the “thinking man’s Michael Bay movie,” and while thoughtfulness is always nice, that’s not strictly speaking accurate. What distinguishes the two filmmakers is love — a deep and abiding love of the genre, love of monsters down to the phosphorescent tips of their tentacles, love of robots down to their last rivet, love of the laws of mass and momentum, and all the unfakeable geekery that lifts and propels every frame of this film. How long does it take to tell the difference? I would say by the end of the opening credits. That’s how long it takes for Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), to lose his brother to one of the monsters, with one scoop of its paw. When the two of them first showed up, two blonde hunks strolling down the jet-way, grins the size of the Mariana trench, rock-n-roll blasting on the soundtrack, you think: oh no, not another hymn to chiseled American manhood. Actually, no. His brother gone, Beckett must instead find his footing with a new team, opposite a young Japanese woman, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), with a face as pale as lily and a Louise Brooks bob, who wants revenge against the Kaiju for reasons having to do with a small, red child’s shoe. Del Toro’s sense of characterisation is calligraphic, sentimental in the best sense, almost Cruikshankian: everyone is outlined with bold, fluid strokes that that lead them right back into the thick of the action. There is commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), who sounds ominously Biblical and delivers lines like “I do not want your admiration and your sympathy, I want your compliance and your fighting skills,” plus two squabbling scientists, one of whom believes that “numbers are the closest we can get to the handwriting of God,” a line just good enough to give the impression of sincere belief. For once the internationalism of the cast feels rooted in something other than demography, namely genre. A sequence delving into Mako’s backstory showing a little girl running terrified down ashen streets, manages to invoke both Hiroshima and 9/11, drawing juice from Japanese and American movie-making traditions.
Maybe that’s why the tracking is soft. Blockbusters — in their modern iteration at least — started out as an America form, maybe even the American form, like jazz and musicals and ice-cream, and the story they told was America’s backstory: David versus Goliath. “I don't ever want to think you could kill that shark,” Spielberg told his actors in Jaws, a beta-male siding with the other beta-males against alpha-dog Quint, the shark-hunter. “Aren’t you a little short to be a storm-trooper,” Princess Leia asks Luke when he first bursts into her cell on the Death Star in Star Wars, another film sized to the asymmetrical fight of the little guy against the big guy, because what brings the empire down, remember is it’s size; the Death Star is too large to be adequately defended, leaving it open to a fighter craft the size of an x-wing. Both these fights recalled the fight America had just lost — in Vietnam, where it was the 900-pound gorilla brought down by a lighter, faster force — but reslanted so that Americans could root for the little guy again, a salve for the national dysmorphia which results when the world’s sole superpower still imagines itself a scrappy, underdog. No other form tracks this this more explicitly than the summer blockbuster, for no form more explicitly sets those two forces — size and speed — against one another. Think of Arnie versus the T-1000 in Terminator 2, a “Porsche to his Panzer tank,” as Cameron put it, an uncannily predictive of the equally mercurial threat the country would one day face. Or the asymmetric warfare waged in Avatar, whose largest dragon, the Toruk, is vulnerable to attack from above precisely because of it’s size. How the Mighty Fall: it’s the Cameron theme from Aliens to Titanic, and one he picked up watching the Vietnam war on TV as a teenager in Canada, amazed to see this giant of a next-door neighbour fall. It’s precisely what has given his fantasies such a virulent hold on the American imagination.