Scientists vs. “Pacific Rim”

I reckon it’s one of those evenings again when instead of doing something that I had already planned in advance (in this particular case it was a plan to review a film) I will be forced to address an issue that has been brewing in the back of my brain for a while.

It has come to my attention that a film that I thoroughly enjoyed (“Pacific Rim”) weirdly enough has sparked a discussion about the erroneous and allegedly denigrating portrayal of science and its practitioners. Therefore, I feel compelled to voice my own opinion on the subject, as I have not only enjoyed the film and have not been bothered by its take on science, but – as a scientist myself – I think I am reasonably qualified to do so anyway being a member of the community that has supposedly been affected by “Pacific Rim’s” ignorant, superficial and (help me, thesaurus, you’re my only hope) defamatory depiction of the world’s intellectual elite.

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In the last week’s episode of Slashfilmcast, as a sort of impromptu debate in between film reviews, the problem of “Pacific Rim” and its goofy scientists has been raised, wherein it was argued that the scientist characters portrayed by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman have nothing to do with how a real scientist looks like and that the film-makers have completely over-stepped the line between a comedic caricature and a slanderous mockery. The comment by a real-life professional particle physicist from Penn University, Sean, who must have left the screening deeply offended by how Guillermo Del Toro and Travis Beacham have shown his profession in an allegedly negative light, has only cemented my resolve to partake in the discussion.

Let me ask you this: why do we seem to be having a problem in the first place? For all I know, “Pacific Rim” is not the first and will most certainly not be the last film that is punctuated by raging inaccuracies in its portrayal of science and the mechanistic aspects of reality (i.e. how come a kaiju can be a silicon-based life-form, but still have DNA), but for some reason the general consensus is to single it out as dumb, unrealistic, and offensive in its ignorance. A quick Google search will actually show you, how determined some people have gotten in their attempt to call the creators of “Pacific Rim” on their bullshit. I completely understand the idea of applying real science to point out where exactly a given film is inaccurate; hell, I used to do that myself years ago. It’s just one of those things that nerdy young apprentices of science do in their down time and I was no different. I’m sure I’m not the only one in here, who used to have very heated debates with friends about the intricacies of warp drive, wormholes, mechanics of giant robots, or whether in real life a character would survive the ordeal, from which he seemed to have escaped unscathed on screen.

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But would anybody do the same for a fantasy film? Would anybody question the mechanics of conjuring a fireball by a wizard in his battle against a hell-spawn demon? Of course not, simply because we inadvertently assume that we are dealing there with a different universe that might or might not have completely different and obscure mechanics. Nobody questions, why the seasons in “Game of Thrones” last for generations, because it is the very premise on which this entire world is built. So, why can’t we do the same for giant robots and monsters?

Where exactly is the difference then? After all, “Pacific Rim” creates a universe (tangential to our own; I can’t see any kaiju roaming the Pacific coasts, can you?) where an alien race uses an inter-dimensional gateway to dispatch big-ass monsters to fight the inhabitants of Earth. At this point, I am not allowed to question anything about the so-called realism of the universe, because the fact giant monsters can emerge from a different dimension to fight gigantic robots is the very convention used in this film. It’s commonly referred to as poetic license and pretty much assumes that it is well within the author’s powers to create a world as he sees fit and we shouldn’t apply any laws of our nature to explain the events depicted in the story set in the aforementioned universe. Well, we still do it for the fun of calculating things (non-nerds will never understand it though), but I find it unjust to judge the quality of the film based on the mechanics of the universe it shows and its apparent lack of realism. Somehow, I can’t remember anyone being that snipy about “The Avengers”, “Man of Steel”, or “Iron Man”. I guess, nobody is bothered by giant ships floating in the lower stratosphere, men flying at supersonic speeds and/or dressing in suits of armour that can do anything short of cooking a dinner for five. Again, where is that line “Pacific Rim” has crossed?

If you’re somehow capable of grasping the notion of “Pacific Rim” having nothing to do with reality, then most of the initially contentious areas of this film will become irrelevant (maybe excluding the wind-resistant umbrellas), so that we can focus at the problem actually raised by Sean the Physicist. Well, he thinks it is berating to depict scientists (regardless of their field) as loud, goofy, inconsiderate or reckless. He goes a step further though claiming it is damaging to the scientific society, when the general public is shown that kind of stereotypical-bordering-on-racist portrayal of a scientist that fails to show their real motivations, their real desires and dreams, and what real scientists actually do for a living. Because that’s how Hollywood films usually show scientists – as mad, sinister, socially awkward people that use long words, wear white lab coats and dream of world domination. But don’t they do the same with policemen? Aren’t they typically obese, donut-eating, rule-disregarding trigger-happy, alcoholic macho cowboys addicted to adrenaline? …Or politicians? …Or journalists? Seriously, pick a profession and you will find that Hollywood does a near perfect job at creating its stereotypical and potentially damaging image in high-profile blockbusters. So why would the scientists be exempt exactly?

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Does every police drama have to pay due homage to the trials and tribulations of the law enforcement officers? Conversely, does every Sci-Fi film have to be scientifically accurate and/or truthful in its depiction of science? Hell, No! Do you want to know why? Because it’d be boring – that’s why!

I know that we – scientists – tend to have some form of a god complex which makes us feel unique and special, so that we can create our little bubbles in which we’d dwell completely divorced from the mundane problems of the real world. Therefore, we are led to believe that whatever it is we do, it is magnificent and ground-breaking and if we can get just that one grant, or that one paper out, then we could change the world and we would be remembered for eons…

But, let’s be honest for a second. What are the real motivations that drive a scientist to spend days and nights in the lab, to stare at white boards full of equations, to run countless simulations, or to never stop thinking about work? Is it the inherent desire to understand the world? Or maybe the selfless need to help others? As much as I’d like to think so, the truth lies far from it. In the grand scheme of things, as with any other profession, I might add, the main goals of any practicing scientist are fame, power, and money. I really don’t want to delve deeper into the rotten nature of the scientific community, but modern science – for the most part – has nothing to do with selfless sacrifice for the greater good. A scientist these days doesn’t pursue the problems he finds interesting, but rather the ones that would yield publications. Research than cannot be published is simply not worth the hassle. Moreover, the scientist strives to publish his findings only in the most prestigious of journals, so that he can secure the grants for his future endeavours and so that he could feel better among his peers.

Exactly – peers! But, have you ever tried to explain your research to a civilian? How many practitioners of science are capable of addressing the general public, so that the crowd understands the importance of their work? And worse yet: how many scientists actually do that? Try and ask members of public to name 5 physicists, astronomers, chemists, or biologists and you’ll see how lacking the perception of science in the real world is. A simple question of who won the Nobel Prize in any of the scientific disciplines would reveal how little people actually know, and it’s not their fault, honestly speaking; it’s the hermetic shut-off nature of the scientific community filled with elitist individuals who despise teaching that’s responsible.

So, yes! I’d like my film scientists to be divorced from reality sometimes. I’ll gladly take the goofy guys from “Pacific Rim” or the socially awkward bunch from “The Big Bang Theory” any day of the week. It’s not that I don’t enjoy seeing faithful portrayal of any profession, but there is time and place for everything and at times a little bit of comic relief (be it caricature or not) is much welcome. If you’re worried that the youngsters will take that kind of depiction seriously and it would steer them away from pursuing science as a career – well then, they wouldn’t make good scientists anyway, if they’re that easily discouraged. I know some of you might feel they are getting the shorter end of the stick when the cops, pilots, soldiers and any other gun-wielding profession gets all the appraisal and flag waving. But a true scientist should be immune to applause and continue on his journey to the truth in spite of it all, so if you’re offended by wacky scientists in blockbusters, maybe you’re not a scientist after all, but more of an attention-seeking lab-rat suffering from abandonment issues that thought becoming a researcher was a great career move.

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In closing, I’d like to bring one more thing to attention. While it’s perfectly reasonable to discard the scientific validity of anything that Hollywood tent-pole releases try to pass as science, I find it baffling that there are individuals out there claiming to have been offended by the idea of Charlie Day’s character sticking an electrode into a hunk of alien meat and attaching it to his own brain. I am really struggling to understand the problem. Could it be that a ‘real scientist’ would never ever ever ever ever do anything like that, because it’s a reckless, potentially harmful behaviour and nobody can possibly fathom what repercussions it might bring?

Well, have I got news for you… Self-experimentation has been and most likely will remain indispensable as a tool of scientific progress. It embodies the pinnacle of human curiosity – which by the way the scientists should carry forward for the future generations – without which many discoveries and ground-breaking observations would have happened much much later. Simply because the breed of scientists has a long history of researchers tasting their synthesized chemicals, or injecting themselves with home-made vaccines, or various bacteria, I do not have a problem with seeing that on the screen.

After all is said and done, in this day and age when we are advised not to endanger ourselves in the name of curiosity, I think every scientist out there should share the sentiment that we think it’s really (!!!) cool to be able to do something like that; just to feel how it’s like for a moment. Because that’s what science is all about and I’d very much like the young people to understand it, however comedic it comes across, there’s nothing wrong in showing a guy willingly establishing a wired connection with a hunk of meat. It’s all about learning the truth and heeding the cry of our inner curious child that makes us boldly go where no man has gone before. And if any particle physicist ends up offended by that, then he must have a huge chip on his shoulder, and maybe – just maybe – he’s not a real scientist at all. Science is not a job that you do and it has nothing to do with scoring a position at an Ivy League institution. Being a scientist is a state of mind; it’s the desire to do what nobody else would think of doing. So, to the best of my knowledge, even the wacky scientists in “The Independence Day” or “Pacific Rim” end up rather faithful in that regard, everything else aside.

Rant Over.

 

“Pacific Rim” – Nerdgasm!

I have no real idea where to start this little review of mine, so I think it best to go back to my very childhood, when it all began. And it looks like it’s going to be a long one.

You see, in my younger years before I could proudly call myself a teenager, the bulk of my exposure to cinema was limited to two main streams: actioners (which are a topic for a separate occasion) and sci-fi; the horror came a few years after. Even now I can remember clearly the smell of my favorite VHS tapes with “SW: New Hope”, or “The Terminator”, and the sound they made when inserted into the VHS player, or the horror when the player would try to eat them. I could only watch them before or after school in the living room provided my dad wasn’t around, because he would immediately assume control of the remote and have me stop whatever I was doing. After all, ‘how many times can you watch the same movies over and over again’, he’d wonder before sending me off…

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Right, so apart from my sacred VHS tapes that I guarded with my life, I (a 9-year-old brat) had my favorite film rental place that I visited daily looking for some new eye-candy. The owners didn’t mind I was renting some really brutal stuff (well, they didn’t allow me to watch “Alien” until I was a bit older), but for the most part I could watch whatever I wanted; and all this was paid for with the money I used to scrounge up by not eating at school all that much. I know, very healthy… I did have some sandwiches, but whatever money I got to buy something to drink was always inadvertently saved up for a movie fund.

One fine day, I took a film from the Sci-Fi shelf that was called “Robot Jox”. I took it home, watched it with my mouth wide open, and I can’t really stress how awesome it felt, but I think I had my first nerdgasm then and there. I quickly continued and watched it three more times before I had to take it back to the rental place, but I was hooked for life at this point in time. If you haven’t seen “Robot Jox”, it’s a film about a world where instead of conventional warfare, the humanity decided to solve all territorial and/or political disputes by staging epic fights between gigantic robots piloted by the bravest of men. Need I say more? Giant mechs, fights, sci-fi… What more could a nerdy boy want from a movie?

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After “Robot Jox” came “Robot wars” (the unofficial sequel to “Robot Jox”), and after that I discovered the breadth of Godzilla films. Needless to say I watched them all multiple times. And to top it all off, almost as a cherry on the nerdy cake of awesome, came “Tosho Daimos”. If you lived in Poland in the early 90’s and had access to a TV, and if you were born in the 80’s – well, there was no chance you didn’t know what “Tosho Daimos” was. For the unfortunate few, “Tosho Daimos” was a very old (made in late 70’s) anime TV series aired under various names in various countries that told a story of the Earth’s struggle with an alien nation of angel-like humanoids that involved the aforementioned aliens sending giant robots to destroy us. And our last line of defense was Daimos – a giant bad-ass transformer robot piloted by a karate master Kazuya, where the pilot was in sync with the machine and the robot mimicked every move made by its pilot. Note here, that “Tosho Daimos” actually predates “Transformers”, just sayin’… And standing here now I can say that I still consider “Tosho Daimos” to be the pinnacle of awesomeness and a provider of the weekly nerdgasmic experiences in my gleeful times of youth. If you sum it all up with other giant mechs and monsters, you’ll get the idea where my biggest soft spot is and how to touch it.

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That brings us to 2013 – with the summer season in its latter half I have seen some really epic nerdy entertainment (“Man of Steel” and “Star Trek Into Darkness”), as well as some really tragically bad (“Iron Man 3″, pretty much… Note that the other usual suspects, “The Lone Ranger” or “White House Down” don’t open in the UK for another while), but there was one film that I have been waiting for the most, and it was Guillermo Del Toro’s “Pacific Rim”. I have seen all the trailers and featurettes, all the interviews; I’ve been following the viral campaign and participating in the collective hype, because to me “Pacific Rim” was not just another blockbuster, but it was supposed to be a journey in time to those wonderful years when I discovered my inner nerd.

I think it’s safe to say that just minutes before the lights were dimmed and the screening was about to commence, I was a bit nervous, because I subconsciously feared “Pacific Rim” could probably never satisfy my expectations that I have been building up throughout all my life. Up to that point, there have been only a few titles (“Independence Day” to name one) that have managed to tickle my inner nerd in a way it’s been tickled back in the day. I don’t want to sound dismissive of some really awesome cinema that I had the privilege to watch over the years, but I believe there was only a handful that made me squeal internally like a little piggy. And in the department of giant robots and/or monsters, I haven’t really seen anything worthy of being the torch carrier in the nerdy marathon that is my life.

Up till now, that is, because “Pacific Rim” was just awesome! It was everything I hoped it would be and more. It was over 2 hours of brilliant entertainment that teleported me back 20 years and made me feel like that young boy again discovering the meaning of cool.

Before going any further I should probably say a few words on the film’s synopsis. In that regard, imagine that at some point this year, a monster of unbelievable size walks out of the Pacific Ocean and levels San Francisco. It takes a good deal of military effort to actually bring it down, but we are ultimately successful, we bury our dead, start to rebuild and go about are lives. But then another one shows up, and another… and another… Before we know it, we are under full-frontal attack from what we refer to as kaiju (jap. giant monster) and our regular forces are simply not enough. To overcome the threat that we uncover to be coming from an inter-dimensional rift deep in the Pacific Ocean, the mankind gets together and develops The Jaeger Program – a program that involves building massive robots matching the kaiju in proportions, so that we could fight them on equal grounds. Because the scale and complexity of piloting the Jaeger robots turns out too much for a single human to handle, each of them carries two pilots who link up their minds in the process called ‘neural handshake’ and act as one mental entity piloting the uber-massive mech.

After the initial success of the Jaeger program, mankind pushes back the kaiju onslaught, but soon thereafter the monsters evolve and adapt to fight the robots. After one too many terrible defeat, the Jaeger Program led by a veteran pilot Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is about to be scrapped and humans decide to build massive walls on the Pacific shores hoping to contain the threat. Pentecost doesn’t believe walling off and isolation is going to work against the more and more powerful kaiju streaming from the rift, so he decides to attempt to go all-in and bring the war to the kaiju. He brings together whatever Jaegers are still operational along with their pilot teams, he recruits a washed-up former superstar pilot Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and with a helping hand from a pair of (maybe a bit too wacky) scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) he devises a plan that would hopefully end the war once and for all.

I think it needs to go down in writing that if there’s a person out there capable of making a super-nerdy sci-fi blockbuster of epic proportions, it is Guillermo Del Toro. The film starts off in high gear and doesn’t slow down for a second with the volume of brilliantly produced imagery and action. On top of all that, the attention to detail in the production design is simply outstanding. Everything in “Pacific Rim” has been carefully designed and nothing looks to have been glossed over. Every little thing from the pilot costumes, door knobs, through lively cities being trampled, all the way to the kaiju and jaegers – they are all designed with the utmost diligence. Plus, contrary to, say, “Transformers” (pick any of the three) “Pacific Rim” actually makes you aware that what you see on screen are not toys, but massive giant robots that suffer from intertia and everything else that goes with humongous mass.

With all that, the fights (the bulk of the film) are extremely dynamic and creatively designed. At no point in time “Pacific Rim” gets boring with the sensory overload, but rather Del Toro’s ideas keep on teasing your ‘geek within’ with cooler and cooler stuff. Probably thanks to the careful design, the film’s CG effects don’t even feel artificial, so the overall experience does not wear off after a while, but rather carries on with the awesome entertainment.

 

As a plus I may add that I was worried initially that “Pacific Rim” would fall victim to the very common phenomenon of having all the best scenes and sequences revealed during the marketing campaign (“World War Z” is a perfect example of just that), but in all honesty, the trailers tease maybe a small fraction of what “Pacific Rim” has to offer in terms of imagery. And quite frankly, the amount of cool sequences I’ve seen in it was so overwhelming I couldn’t even cherry-pick the best ones. There were just too many. In fact, the whole film (from a perspective of a day or so) feels to have been a near constant stream of action and epic battles with only little breaks in between.

Nothing in the world is perfect, though, and “Pacific Rim” does have flaws, most of them in the characters and the plot development. As you might expect, spectacles of that scale very often suffer from a generic and/or underdeveloped story. While the story in “Pacific Rim” in the general sense holds together quite well, the characters, their backstories and their dynamism tend to be quite underwhelming. It looks to me that Travis Beacham (who wrote the script) was more concerned in getting the universe right, a task in which he was most successful. The world is pieced together quite believably with only a few major leaps in logic, but I dare say that any sci-fi suffers from that condition to certain extent. The neural handshake and the phenomenon of drifting are explained quite well, and most attempts at challenging the logic in the general story are answered somehow within the story, so all potential holes look to be patched up convincingly, so I wasn’t majorly bothered there. Additionally, if you’re interested in a greater backstory to “Pacific Rim”, Travis Beacham has released a graphic novel (“Pacific Rim: Tales from the Year Zero”) that fills in the blanks between the first sightings of kaiju and where the film picks up.

Sadly, as much as I loved the universe of “Pacific Rim”, I couldn’t say the same about the character arcs. They are as generic as they can possibly be with the war-torn scarred veterans struggling to get back in stride, maverick-type jocks, rookies hoping to prove themselves in the eyes of their leader, stencil-type crazy scientists who do crazy crap and think later, but are ultimately vital to the success of the mission, hard-boiled veteran generals who are a bit softer on the inside, and so on…

Does the mediocrity of the characters destroy “Pacific Rim”? Hell, no! If – hypothetically – the characters in it were completely rewritten more creatively, I think nothing about the film would have ultimately changed, simply because between the epic battles and rampaging kaiju there is little space for it. In the end, nobody cares, because there’s more stuff happening at any given moment for anybody to stop and think whether Raleigh’s personal problems are a bit too sketchy. And apart from all that, a film like “Pacific Rim” needs a good one-liner here and there, a cast of characters that don’t overwhelm the screen with their problems and a good pep talk before all hell breaks loose – this is the modern-day “Independence Day” in all respects.

In summary, “Pacific Rim” is just about a perfect summer blockbuster in my view and it saddens me to see that it’s not doing very well in the box office. But then again, it is not a film for everyone. If you happen to have been more of a popular guy in school and you were never picked last for a football team, chances are you will never get this film on a level that I did. Because for us, nerds, giant robots and monsters are special and we tend to get excited about things that normal people would dismiss in a film like “Pacific Rim”. For an average customer, whether a robot wields a sword or not is nothing big. Personally, I can’t even find proper words to describe how cool it looks when a massive Jaeger draws a sword – it’s just a whole new level of awesome. Guillermo Del Toro in “Pacific Rim” is clearly communicating in a language privy only to a certain kind of people; people who would never call action figures ‘toys’ and who would gladly engage in a serious discussion about the intricacies of fighting a dragon. And quite fortunately, I happen to be one of those, for whom “Pacific Rim” was made. Are you?