Pacific Rim – a case study in Storytelling and Genre Action

If you haven’t seen Pacific Rim you should go now. Seriously. Leave this blog, close your computer and go watch a midnight show somewhere right now.

I’m going to try and avoid too spoilery spoilers in this article but I can’t guarantee that this will be entirely spoiler free so if you still haven’t seen the movie and intend to let this be your last warning. Stop reading, go see Pacific Rim, then spoilers won’t be a problem.

Let’s get this out of the way, Movie Bob referred to Pacific Rim as the best summer blockbuster since Independence Day. He pointed out that the use of that particular film was deliberate on his part because there was a lot of the spirit of Independence Day in Pacific Rim.

He’s not wrong. But I’d go so far as to say that Pacific Rim is the movie that Independence Day wished it was.

I say this because both movies were built around very similar premises. Monsters come to Earth, want to move in. Humanity is on the ropes and has to band together and, by becoming the exemplars of all that is good and noble about the human spirit, kick the monsters firmly in the junk.

It’s not a complex formula. But here’s where Pacific rim improved on Independence Day:

  • It’s truly international – Independence Day was always burdened by a certain level of Rah Rah, United States leads the world baggage. From the third-act speech that references the titular American holiday to the specific heroics of American soldiers, American scientists and the American president it’s all about the story of America, as the exemplars of Humanity’s higher calling, beating back the tide of evil. In Pacific Rim this idea is gone. Among the team who run the robot program you have Americans, Japanese people, Brits, Chinese people, Australians and Russians. The action in the film is divided between Alaska and Hong Kong (with brief trips to Japan and Australia) and it’s made clear throughout that the Jaeger program is a truly international effort. This is not showing crashed flying saucers in the jungle at the end. This is truly demonstrating that humans overcome national prejudices in the face of adversity (putting the Russians, Americans, Chinese and Japanese all on a team together was a particularly deft use of this idea considering their history.
  • The monsters are truly alien. There are hints of similar stuff regarding the way Aliens think and the way the Kaiju brains work but where the older movie used it as a minor plot point, Kaiju cognition is an integral part of the plot in Pacific Rim.
  • We care about the characters sincerely. Again, Independence Day did this decently by giving the protagonists people they cared about, families and loved ones. But Pacific Rim, partially through the use of “Jaeger tech” but certainly not entirely through that device, puts the loves and rivalries, the bonds between the characters front-and-centre.
  • The third-act speech in Pacific Rim was a million times better.

So what does it have to do with books?

I write action oriented stories. I one time told a good friend of mine that I couldn’t help it, I like stories about heroes. Always have, always will. Pacific Rim was an exemplar of the hero story and I think that it provides a few valuable lessons for telling exciting action oriented genre well.

The archetypical awesome secondary character

Here’s a few:

  • Using archetypical characters doesn’t absolve us of the need to develop them. The characters in Pacific Rim are archetypical. They are Stoic Russians, Brash Young Bucks, Wounded Warriors (oh, so many Wounded Warriors), Mad Scientists (such wonderful mad scientists), Ron Pearlmans (Ron Perlman is an archetype, right?). But they still grow, change, they have big things that they want (to save the world) and little things (to prove to a friend that they were right) too. They may be painted with bold strokes but they’re not left with bare canvas showing. Archetypical characters have a big place in action stories because we can immediately pin a whole set of story expectations to them and then get running with the action. But we have to remember that they still have to be characters first, archetypes second.
  • Never forget to dawdle when things get awesome. There are moments during the set pieces (the first bit with the sword comes to mind) where the frenetic pace of the monster vs. robot fisticuffs slows down enough to let the audience savour the awesome. They’re usually a beat or two long.
  • A good relationship isn’t a love story… except when it is… and then it can’t be just a love story.
  • Don’t fail the sexy lamp test.
  • It’s ok to have a father figure afraid to let his hero child step out of the nest but it’s not ok for him to be an idiot about it… (Man of Steel, I’m looking at you). As a more general rule, don’t let your protagonists be idiots. Don’t let them succeed only because the monsters are even dumber. Make us root for their ingenuity.
  • Peril is good but it has to be genuine. If you know everybody is going to be A-OK it’s not real peril.
  • Hold back a good laugh for when you need to cut the tension.

I could go on this way. But what it comes down to is that people will forgive a high concept with a script that edges toward silly a bit too often if its impeccably paced, if we are invited to know the characters, if we are given reason to care for the characters and if they are subsequently put into danger.

It’s not enough for us to want them to save the earth. We have to want them to save themselves.

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