Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Storyteller's Rulebook #199: Never Stop Asking “Why Don’t They Just…”

Well, folks, I think we’ve hit the mother lode, I watched this movie, and then immediately watched it again, taking notes the whole time, because I realized it was a Rosetta Stone for so many things that are wrong with movies today. Without further ado, Flaw #1:

I certainly hope you’ve all watched the fantastic web series “How It Should Have Ended.” If not, go there right now and spend a few happy hours getting caught up. This whole series is devoted to asking the one question that Hollywood never seems to ask anymore: “Why don’t they just...?” and they’re pretty good at ruining your favorite movies forever. For instance, it ‘s pretty hard to enjoy “Lord of the Rings” once you’ve started to ask questions like “If the eagles can fly them home, then why not have the eagles fly them there in the first place?
Of course, most of the time, we just suspend our disbelief and give the movie the benefit of the doubt. In fact, I frequently find myself creating excuses for movies, inventing reasons to explain to myself why things couldn’t happen in a simpler way. But then there are examples I can’t even hear the dialogue because of that pounding drumbeat of “WHY DON’T THEY JUST...?” Pacific Rim might be the worst example ever. Say it with me: “Why didn’t they just nuke the monsters??”

This was the sort of thing where I had to go online immediately afterwards to find out if I was just slow on the uptake...but no, a quick google search reveals that lots of other poeple had the same question. Of course, for each post, there are rabid fans defending the movie, but their defenses make no sense. One claims that it was because that would spread out the monsters poisonous blood too much, but doesn’t more blood spill as a result of being chopped in two in the middle of the ocean than from being incinerated?
But wait: My brother is a comic book inker and he actually inked the preview comic, which explains that they started out by nuking, but the monsters were always in cities and they didn’t want to nuke the cities. That might make sense, if the monsters just appeared in downtown areas with no warning, but the movie makes it clear that the monsters spend several hours hiking up from the ocean floor.
In fact, it’s not hard to guess why that explanation didn’t make it into the movie, because the very first fight we see is in the middle of the ocean, and nowhere near a city. So just nuke the thing!

Once again, I found myself inventing explanations just so that I could make it through the movie, but I kept failing:
  • Maybe the monsters are impervious to explosives and only vulnerable to hand-to-hand combat? Wait, no, that doesn’t work because the robots themselves launch missiles at the monsters! Why do that up close instead of long range??
  • Maybe the monsters feed off of nuclear energy and it just makes them stronger? But wait, our heroes go to their dimension to nuke them there at the end, so wouldn’t that just... Ah, screw it.
Ultimately, this is a movie that’s fueled by contempt for its audience. It’s saying, “You want monsters vs. robots so much? Fine, you got ‘em, just don’t expect us to make sense of ‘em.” It presumes its premise and chugs ahead without looking back.

When we looked at Groundhog Day, we saw that the filmmakers wanted their viewers to ask, “What should Phil do with his day in this town?”, instead of a lot of other questions that might arise, so first they took five minutes to cleverly clear all of those questions off the table, leaving the audience to naturally ask the one question they wanted us to ask...

Pacific Rim also wants us to ask only one question: “How can we use these robots to defeat these monsters?” But in order to get us to naturally ask that question, they would have had to clear several more obvious questions off the table first, such as “How else could we defeat these monsters?” Unfortunately, they just couldn’t be bothered, so the audience just rolls their eyes the whole time.


j.s. said...

HISHE is hilarious. The video for PACIFIC RIM has one of the international leaders, ignoring a smarter colleague who suggests nukes (and mimicking all the fanboys and development execs) proposing instead: "I say we build giant robots as big as Kaiju, so we can watch them fight!" Exactly!

Jay Rosenkrantz said...

I don't know, for me this problem wasn't a problem. Do we really need to know why they can't nuke them? Can't an audience just assume if they could nuke them, they would? Let's say they have giant forcefields around them that make nukes ineffective. If a single line in the opening ("we nuked them at first... but they had forcefield defenses!) could explain away this problem, is it really a problem? I can see it being a big issue if later in the film they effectively nuke one of the kaiju out of existence, but they didn't...

A way bigger issue for me is why they didn't just use the sword the whole time... but even there I'm willing to accept it because the moment when it's deployed is so fun.

I really feel like the whole giant robot genre just doesn't play well for the cynical :) Interested to see if/how you could fix this movie up!

James Kennedy said...

While we're at it -- why didn't they just make the robots twice as big? Then the robots could just, I don't know, step on the kaiju or whatever.

This whole movie was just a big bowl of wrong. I really hated it.

I have popped my popcorn and wait with bated breath for the richly deserved evisceration.

Geekademia said...

As a brief aside, it's easy to assume that the Fellowship didn't use the eagles because they too would have been corrupted by the ring's power. That I think is a pretty easy inference to make. As for Pacific Rim, there are a lot of ways they could have chosen to address the myriad questions the audience would be poised to ask, and basically they chose none of them. The easiest would have been that if Kaiju kept coming, constant nuking of them would lead to massive environmental damage to the oceans which would inevitably spread to land. Of course, even that fails to explain why the military, which proved costly yet effective against Kaiju in the past, didn't simply back the Jaegers up in fights, or why they didn't camp outside the Kaiju spawining pits and beat them down there while they were vulnerable, or any of the other numerous logistical problems.

Matt Bird said...

Good LotR explanation, Geekademia: a good example of convincing fan theories that help you enjoy the books/movies.

And yeah, the "Pacific Rim" How it Should Have Ended also points out that, since we can see that the robots operate just fine on the ocean floor, they should just camp out next to the breach. Ultimately, no explanation would have worked if the breach was always in the same place. Every one of our theories would have made more sense of the breaches could open up anywhere at any time.

I like your "we have to stop nuking them because we're about to trigger Nuclear Winter explanation. They might have worked if we had seen one country that used nukes too often (let's say maybe Chile, which has its own isolated environment due to the Andes) and now was deserted because of nuclear fallout.

But the best explanation is one I'll discuss tomorrow: just show them improvising after the first attack, instead of a status quo after 15 years. For anything else, we're bound to ask "They couldn't come up with anything better than that after all these years?"

Da5id said...

But why we need the two pilots working inside the robots? Why doesn't they pilot the jaeggers remotely, like drones? Sorry, I forget Pacific Rim is another nonsensical masturbatory fantasy directed by childish geek Guillermo del Toro. Logic is not allowed.

j.s. said...

All of this puts me in mind of the very real, innovative and fast technological advances that happened on both sides of the existential threat that was WWII: codebreaking, camouflage, radar, jet engines, rockets/missles, nuclear weapons, etc. Compare that with the lackluster ideas to battle the Kaiju: a big wall that doesn't work and some giant robots that are both too expensive and a pain in the ass to pilot.

Let's hope the international science and technology community has more of a WWII style approach to the coming challenges of global climate change. Or else we'll all be stomped by an on-going Kaiju-like disaster.

J.A. said...

This might be slightly off topic, but to me the major problems in PACIFIC RIM come from the fact that it doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. There are moments where it veers into full-on STARSHIP TROOPERS-like over the top fun, and for me those moments are the best in the movie. But a good chunk of the film doesn't play that way, especially in the horribly acted and directed dialog scenes. There were little moments when I thought it was going to start having fun with what it was doing, (when "sword" pops up on the screen, the great intro of Ron Perman) but it never quite got there. Instead it was full of corny action-movie dialog and gags that fell flat to me (all the horrible stuff between the two scientists, the thing eating Perman, etc... -kind of the worst example of someone trying and failing to implement the suggestions from your "monotonous intensity" post).

When the blonde Russian pilots showed up we all cheered, because we felt like the film was finally going to realize it's potential to be an over-the-top, "who cares if this makes sense?" totally indulgent entertainment. But it never delivers. Instead we get a flaccid romance, back story we don't care about, and nonsense plot points which still feel as if they are expecting us to take them seriously, instead of laughing at them.

And please, I know it's a silly robot movie, but when two people are neurally linked, can we not have them ask each other if they are OK?

It's been argued to me that I'm not taking the movie for what it is, and that I either want the movie to either be more like STAR WARS or more like STARSHIP TROOPERS, but I think my problem isn't made out of whole cloth, it comes from the film itself not knowing what it wants to do.

j.s. said...

Which is sort of why I'd like to see a full scale Meddler type intervention here rather than an exhaustive catalog of no-nos. This project had a lot going for it in theory, especially with Del Toro directing. The challenge for the screenwriter was to deliver the genre goods that made everyone want to make it and have it all make sense and not seem so otherwise paint by numbers or gratingly mashed together tonally. I'd love to hear how Matt would have done it, starting with triage on the premise.

Matt Bird said...

Lots of suggested fixes are on the way, I promise!