In an essay posted Friday at The Dissolve, Tasha Robinson used Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim to counter the objections several critics have raised about the wanton destruction of this summer’s blockbusters: city blocks flattened, heads crushed, all without a drop of blood. As Matt Singer pointed out on this site, the bloodlessness is partly due to the movies’ “PG-13 problem,” but it’s also because these movies collectively, and with increasing ease, draw on the imagery of 9/11: collapsing buildings, skies filled with ash and bits of paper, dazed city-dwellers wandering the streets. Pacific Rim, Robinson writes, is different because it draws from the more distant past, the era of bomb shelters and air-raid sirens that gave birth to the first monster movies. It’s a movie about disaster movies, not disaster itself. “Its solutions to the 9/11 portrayal problem — channel the past, discuss the future — aren’t necessarily a working model for other movies, and those solutions are still more rooted in escapism and cinephilia than in grappling with the potential cost of real disasters,” she writes. “It still takes a toddler’s glee in building things up solely to knock them down in dramatic fashion.”
In a dialogue with her Dissolve colleague Scott Tobias posted today, Robinson picks up on Tobias’ reference to the opening destruction of the Golden Gate bridge and runs with it:
That large scale is what made Pacific Rim feel different for me. That Golden Gate Bridge scene you scoff at establishes a truly massive scale, a Japanese-monster-movie scale… and sets that as just the starting point. It establishes the imbalanced scale of humans vs. the beasties called kaiju, after Japanese rubber-suit monsters. The kind of destruction that would be the climax in most movies is just a statement of intent in Pacific Rim. It establishes a weight for the combat that was easily the most effective and jaw-dropping part of the film for me.
There’s a tension between these two sentiments that’s worth exploring: On the one hand, the clashes between Pacific Rim’s monsters and robots is executed with a feeling of weight and mass (albeit played out in its own gleefully ridiculous cosmos); on the other, the rampant destruction of populated areas isn’t treated with so much realism that it draws unpleasant associations.
I sympathize with Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan, who wrote that Hollywood’s exploitation of 9/11 is “lazy, it’s cheap, it’s deadening, and it needs to stop.” But as Tobias and Robinson discuss in their Dissolve back-and-forth, the monster movie genre, which is where the scenes of buildings being toppled by inhuman forces got their start, didn’t materialize out of thin air. For Japanese viewers of 1954, the idea of a beast infused with atomic radiation laying waste to their cities wasn’t fiction at all. Godzilla‘s Ishiro Honda, who shares a Pacific Rim dedication with stop-motion master Ray Harryhausen, took the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and channeled them into a potent cinematic metaphor, one that allowed his countrymen to confront their collective trauma without looking it square in the eye.
Although they don’t operate on quite the same lizard-brain level as horror movies, the great action spectacles work by giving shape to a nation’s — and increasingly the world’s — hopes and fears. And what do we fear now? We fear an anonymous enemy who strikes without warning, who treats civilians no differently than soldiers, and sometimes we fear what we might have have to become to defeat it. I’d argue that’s exactly the kind of territory that movies should explore, albeit often with a greater sense of consequence. For me, the collapsing buildings in Man of Steel evoked the deaths that were never seen, in a way that, even if it doesn’t gibe with the triumphant tone of the movie’s ending, also doesn’t seem entirely accidental. Some critics pined for the original Superman, where Christopher Reeve’s spitcurled paragon put himself at risk to save civilians from falling debris — an act of heroism more human than super-. But do we really believe any more that those battles can be fought without casualties?
In his piece at The Atlantic, Richard Lawson writes about how his enjoyment of slasher movies has dimmed with age: “Scream 4 ended in me shaking my head and thinking ‘Those poor kids, their poor parents.'” I’ve experienced the same thing, to the extent that the Final Destination movies, where young people serially fed to the machinery of death, make me sick to my stomach. But it’s hard to sustain an argument that, in its attenuated form, leads to the idea that movies shouldn’t take death seriously, or that it shouldn’t make us feel ill, especially as our teenage sense of immortality abates.
As Robinson points out, the monsters in Pacific Rim are framed as an outgrowth of environmental destruction: By raising the global temperature and the ocean’s CO2 levels, the human race inadvertently terraformed the planet for them. But more than any single factor, the kaiju embody fear itself, crawling out of a crack in the world to wreak havoc on a fractured civilization. The heroes, not surprisingly, win in the end, but we know that nightmares always come back.