Pacific Rim fascinated me for months before I'd even seen it - not because it's giant monsters trashing Tokyo (which I love) or Guillermo del Toro (who I also love) or at least a partial departure from Americanised Hollywood gender and race tropes (which I crave), but because of the fan response. My Tumblr feed is full of fandoms, skewing heavily comic book, Tolkien and TV show, and a substantial chunk of them seem to have embraced jaegers and kaiju and pilots in the drift with an instantaneous, full-on investment which is strangely heart-warming. Watching the film last night was an exercise in happy recognition, as though I'd become a fan of the film before I'd even seen it via a sort of dizzy second-hand joy.
This is particularly fascinating because it's not a conventionally great film. I have to admit that my enjoyment of it was severely compromised by Nu-Metro's traditionally ham-fisted and overstated attitude to sound production: films at Canal Walk are habitually both over-loud and shockingly badly balanced, so that you can't hear the dialogue properly because of the way the sound effects and music have stunned your ear canals. This blunted the film's effect, I think, so that it felt more like a big/loud/stupid monster blockbuster than it actually is - I'm strangely looking forward to seeing it again on DVD, preferably Blu-Ray and a nice big HD TV, so that I can escape both the noise assault and the manifest irritations of 3D glasses while still enjoying the spectacle. (I can't wear contact lenses. My long-distance sight is appalling. Glasses over glasses for 3D purposes are distractingly annoying, and I kick myself that I left seeing the film too late for it to be available on circuit in 2D). The noise thing is particularly problematical because the film's subtleties and appeals, of which it has surprisingly many, are entirely in the fact that it's a character-driven narrative. This is the anti-Transformers: while it has giant robots and monsters and lots of bashing, it's not about the special effects, but about a heart and soul which are quintessentially humanist.
The film's genesis is specifically in the traditional Japanese kaiju and mecha narratives, which are explicitly recreated with a nice balance of nostalgia with evangelism: del Toro hopes to introduce these stories he loves to a whole new generation. The plot itself is very simple, and is laid out via rather pedestrian exposition in the first ten minutes of the film: Earth is invaded by giant (as in Godzilla-sized) reptilian monsters who arrive, rather than from outer space, via an inter-dimensional rift on the floor of the Pacific. This means that they crawl out of the ocean to trash cities on the Pacific rim, in the approved kaiju style, to be beaten back by equally giant metal humanoids who are driven by two human pilots through a sort of rig thing which translates their movements to the mechanism's. Because the size and complexity of the mecha are too great for a single human brain, pilots are neurologically linked to manage it in tandem through a process called the drift. Shenanigans ensue.
And really, looking back at that simple summary, that's exactly why it works - exactly why it isn't the flash-bang Michael-Bay emptiness of Transformers. The kaiju threat attacks the Pacific Rim, which means it's international: cities have their own jaegers, so pilots in the film are Russian and Chinese and Australian as well as white and black and Asian and American, but the response is a co-ordinated one, not Amurrica Saves the World. The theme of co-operation continues in the drift, which is about compatibility and connection as well as co-operation, but it's interpreted in interestingly diverse ways - pilots include teams who are father/son or siblings as well as a married couple, so it's not just about Teh Romance. The central team has the expected white male American point-of-view character, but his partner Mako is female and Japanese, she kicks butt in a remarkably non-sexualised fashion (the stick-fighting scenes are simply cool), and their relationship is actually interpretable as sibling as much as romantic. The visual design of the film is spectacular and at times surprisingly subtle (see this very interesting fan analysis), but, unlike Transformers, it's not just about action spectacle. You feel connected to these characters: it's easy to distinguish jaeger from jaeger not only in their names and colours and differentiated abilities, but because their pilot teams are so distinctive, often solely because of visual and action cues rather than dialogue, and because the mecha in the end represents the individuals, it doesn't replace them.
These twin poles of diversity and connection are, I think, why this film speaks so powerfully to a fan audience, whose drive is always towards empathy and identification. The international nature of the team as much as the mechanism of the drift celebrate the idea of community, of diverse individuals joining together in the service of a shared experience and goal. That's what fandom is. And over and over again, the kind of fan who loves this film and saw it multiple times on circuit and is producing fan-art and fanfic and in-depth discussion about it, says upfront that it's because they can find themselves in it. Unlike the traditional Hollywood action blockbuster, it doesn't present for your identification only the heroic white American male and his adoring and skimpily-clad white women. Its motivating force is about internal drive rather than external stereotype; the film itself, and the attitude of its creators (as in the del Toro interview given by the director himself to a Tumblr fan community) recognise, reify and celebrate the importance of communal rather than individual action. This is why, despite its action focus and its sometimes clunky and minimalist dialogue and plot, Pacific Rim is anything but simplistic, and why it's ultimately absolutely worthy of the director who also created Pan's Labyrinth: it rises above its apparent limitations to speak an emotional language of exceptional power and grace. As a film about giant metal machines battling giant reptilian monsters it absolutely delivers, but actually it's about people, and what people can do together rather than apart. We need more of these. Hollywood has become very bad at them. It's nice to know it can be done.