“Go Big or Go Extinct” read the posters for Pacific Rim, and with robots the size of skyscrapers battling transdimensional monsters for the future of the human race, Guillermo del Toro’s rock-’em sock-’em frolic certainly takes its own advice. But a funny thing happens as the movie nears its final showdown. It gets quiet, or at least a tad less apocalyptically noisy. Pacific Rim’s biggest, most elaborate battle sequence is positioned more or less at its midpoint, pitting four building-sized Jaeger robots against two scaly kaiju in a fight that takes out most of Hong Kong’s waterfront. Given that those two kaiju are classed as Category 4 and we’re told most of those before them were Category 3, you know that a Category 5 kaiju of hitherto unseen size will make an appearance before the movie’s over, and (spoiler, sort of) it does. But by then, del Toro is driving so hard towards his conclusion that not even robot v. monster fisticuffs can slow him down. It’s the climactic fight, but it’s not the movie’s biggest.
It’s a subtle distinction, but it becomes clearer when you put Pacific Rim up against some of the summer’s less finely calculated entertainments. The final battle in Man of Steel takes up most of its final hour, winding down and starting up again so many times it’s hard to know when to draw breath. And The Lone Ranger feels like a month’s worth of weekly serials packed into a overstuffed package, to the point that the continued escalation simply becomes exhausting.
The reasons for this phenomenon, which we might call Multiple Climax Syndrome, are not hard to fathom. Movies, especially those of the summer tentpole variety, are no longer freestanding entities but the locus around which an event is constructed, and they have to reward that sense of occasion. You can’t very well carpet-bomb prospective audience with ads for several months, not to mention product tie-ins, faux-viral Twitter campaigns and the like, and reward them with a modest 98-minute adventure. Sunset Boulevard’s faded silent siren Norma Desmond famously lamented, “I am big — it’s the pictures that got small,” but no we’re faced with the opposite problem. Whether they need to be or not, the pictures are big, and long and loud, prefaced by IMAX bumpers that recast the theatrical experience as a carnival ride. “Watch a movie… or be part of one.” Guess which you’re supposed to want?
This inflationary trend shows no signs of slowing, but there is hope of a sort. The ending of World War Z, which originally featured Brad Pitt’s character joining an army of humans to fight a zombie horde in Red Square, was scrapped in favor of a final act set in the antiseptic hush of a medical research facility. With worldwide box office closing in on $400 million, it’s safe to say audiences went home satisfied.
Failing a more widespread downsizing, there’s “Safe Haven,” Gareth Huw Evans and Timo Tjahjanto’s section of the horror anthology V/H/S 2, which simultaneously sends up the infinitely escalating climax while beating most blockbusters at their own steroidal game. It starts off quietly enough, with a documentary crew setting up to interview the head of an Indonesian cult in a compound that looks like a repurposed middle school. But matters quickly go from vaguely uneasy to all-out nuts, and they just keep getting worse. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a cartoon thermometer busting open from the heat, and it’s absurdly, unabashedly joyous. Along the way, of course, “Safe Haven” stops expecting anyone to take it seriously, which is something else the summer’s blockbusters could learn. “Go big or go extinct” is Hollywood’s motto as well, but it’s eminently possible for them to do both.