Pacific Rim and the New Hollywood Paradigm



I confess, I’ve been following the development of Pacific Rim for a long time. Why? Because the story of this movie is the screenwriter’s dream.

Once upon a time there was an up-and-coming screenwriter named Travis Beacham, who’d written scripts that everyone loved but which weren’t getting made. It wasn’t his fault: that’s just how the business is when you’re starting out, a lot of near-misses.

But he did something about it. One day, he sat down and wrote the movie he’d always wanted to write – the movie that was so expensive and so crazy that it was never going to get made. And then one of the very few directors with both the commercial clout and the slightly offbeat vision to make that movie read the script – and it actually happened.

That could be our takeaway from the movie right there: sometimes the best advertisement for your skills is just to write the thing you really believe in.

As usual, I have a bunch of other stuff to say about this movie – including, once you’ve all had a chance to see it, digging into the very interesting character choices surrounding the female lead… However, what I want to talk about today is how Pacific Rim seems to be dividing audiences.

I absolutely bloody loved Pacific Rim. So did many other people I know, in the industry and out of it. But equally, for every glowing review I’ve seen, there’s been someone who hated it. It’s a Marmite movie if ever there was one…

So what’s going on?

What really interests me here is that people are having violently different reactions to the same elements of the movie. It’s not like, say, the fans like the characters, but the critic hate the action sequences, or vice versa.

Some people are saying the characters are nuanced and empathetic, some are saying they’re clichés. Some people are saying the plot is boring, while others hail it as original and constantly surprising. There’s not one element of the movie that isn’t being derided in one corner while being praised in another. And this interests me a great deal – because good is good, right?

Well, yes and no.

There are techniques for telling a story that have always worked and always will work. They’re hardwired into our brain.

But when we put them into practice, we have to make them very specific – and inevitably, we start to think it’s that specific expression of the technique that works, rather than the broader technique.

And then the specific expressions perpetuate throughout film culture. If a character behaves in this way, he’s well-drawn; if he behaves in that way, he’s a cliché, or unbelievable. This is a good plot twist; that’s a bad one. We see something work in a movie, so we do it in ours. And thus it becomes normal. It becomes “good”.

But that leads us to a very narrow definition of ‘good’ storytelling techniques. And there are other paradigms, other characters and plots and ways of telling a story, that we’ve neglected for a long time, and which are due to re-emerge and change the way we view story. There are probably paradigms that we haven’t even discovered yet.

A few voices in the industry have been saying for a while that the way we tell stories on screen is changing. Linda Aronson may be the best known theorist on the subject, but she’s far from the only one.

So what if, with its fresh and surprising plot choices and character traits, Pacific Rim is the first of the New Paradigm Hollywood Blockbusters? What if Pacific Rim is the future?

That’s a future I want to be part of. And from now on, I’m deliberately setting out to raise my game, find out what these new storytelling techniques are and use them – and maybe make a few of them up as I go along…

Game on, people! Who’s playing?

6 comments on “Pacific Rim and the New Hollywood Paradigm

  1. Lucy V says:

    OMG Debbie — THIS, so this. I’ve been told off copious times – especially via email – since posting my review on Wednesday and you know what the overriding factor has been? They’ve all been Uber-Geeks, into Sci Fi to the nth degree, telling me how “wrong” I am and how I obviously can’t make movies or understand characterisation or pretty much ANYTHING (with a few particularly obnoxious ones using the subtext even it’s cos I’m female FFS).

    But guess what. If you look at cinema history OBJECTIVELY it’s immediately apparent Sci Fi has stayed very similar for many decades now in terms of what “types” of characters are included, especially when it comes to female characters, but also what a Hero apparently does/does not do. And then Mako Mori and Raleigh come along and challenges that worldview massively. And suddenly they’re apparently a shitty characters?

    I’m not suggesting people *have* to like Mako or Raleigh, or even think the “right” actors were picked for the job even. But to actually challenge the ABILITY of the writer and filmmakers and suggest that very obvious artistic CHOICES are fundamentally flawed/generally BAD? Hmmmmmm, smells like kids throwing their toys out the pram to me, simply cos they were expecting one thing and got another. That should delight them if they’re “real” film/genre fanatics, yet it appears they would prefer homogenisation. Ugh.

  2. Adrian says:

    I thought it was genius of a sort, and I came out of it with a very big smile. And that doesn’t happen very often. I’m going to blog about it in a while myself, but a few random thoughts…

    In many ways, it reminded me of a comic. And people usually mean something derisive when they talk about comicbook storytelling. Not me: I love them (the good ones that is.) What we saw here was storytelling of a high order, in which images captured a high level of information and presented it in the form of scenes that have enough of the familiar to slide down easily, and enough of something new to make it taste good too.

    The film is, to put it in a smartypants way, semiotically dense. It’s laden with signals/symbols and they’re masterfully presented, so that the effect is to present familiar elements in a light that illuminates them in a new way. Masterclass stuff, basically. I’ll stop, before this becomes the blog I’m about to write:-)

  3. sashacdorev says:

    I’m playing! 🙂
    A fascinating article, D. I hope you’re planning to revisit and explore further. Personally, I’m fascinated by (and have personally experienced from people over my work) some of what you’re talking about; the very thing some hail as a strength others consider a weakness. Usually, though, this is ‘allowed’ in the art house and absolutely dreaded and avoided at all costs in the mainstream cinema. Times, they’re indeed a….

  4. I’m in! And even more desperate to see PR now…
    Your article reminds me of a letter I read recently written by Philip K Dick about how ‘Bladerunner’ would change SF for all time. Maybe PR is shifting it again.
    Will dig out the letter and post a link…

  5. hamish says:

    Hey Debbie – I guess I’m the other side of the marmite equation when it comes to Pacific Rim… sorry!… but I’d be really interested in what you feel is so fresh about it? Is it mainly that it’s an original tentpole in a summer landscape dominated by sequels and existing-IP properties?

    I didn’t come to Pacific Rim to bash it – far from it – I love Del Toro’s work (Pan’s Labyrinth obvious genius but Blade 2 is one of the great Hollywood sequels) and from the evidence of the Killing On Carnival Row script Travis Beacham is a significant original voice. But I found Pacific Rim leaden, with so few of the “Del Toro” moments of whimsy and horror that normally leaven his finest work (one exception that comes to mind: the massive Jaeger fist that sets the tiny Newton’s cradle going). From Stacker’s nosebleeds through Raleigh’s boilerplate resistance of the call through the escalation of the Kaijus from Category 3 to 5, I found the going fairly predictable. And though I love mayhem as much as the next man, I found the Kaiju/Jaeger confrontations visually samey – taking place mostly at night, at sea, with only the occasional visual orienting of their scale (exception there is Raleigh and Manko’s first fight, in HK city). I guess, too, you either go with the “comedy Brit” stylings of Gottlieb or not – for me it didn’t work but that’s a more subjective judgement.

    Anyway like I say I don’t enter the fray seeking to deny your response to the film – I wish I loved it as much as you did – just curious as to what you saw in it that I didn’t!

    • debbiemoon says:

      Fair enough – I’d rather have movies people feel passionately about one way or the other than ‘meh’ movies! As for what I found so interesting, once I get through the next couple of days of solid script meetings, expect a post on the characters, and probably more to come after that… 🙂

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