Though Pacific Rim was arguably a more original and complex movie than Godzilla, it fizzled at the box office — while Godzilla's formulaic fun earned so much money its first weekend that the studio has already ordered a sequel. What made one giant monster movie succeed where the other failed?
Top image: Godzilla concept art by Franklin Hong, via Slashfilm
This is the perennial mystery of Hollywood: Why does a genuinely imaginative movie die, while a so-so movie succeeds brilliantly? The most obvious answer in a lot of cases is that audiences love a brand that they recognize. Godzilla is a household name, and the monsters in Pacific Rim were weird, wiggly unknowns. Fans have been waiting for a long time to see a new Godzilla movie, and there's just something ineffably satisfying about seeing something familiar done slightly differently. But watching an international team fight giant robots against bizarre kaiju of the depths? The story felt familiar, but not familiar enough to go down like narrative comfort food.
But I think this explanation is far too superficial to explain the divergent fates of these movies. Godzilla delivered a lot more than a familiar brand.
One of the bold decisions that the creators of Pacific Rim made was to set the movie over a decade after the giant monster apocalypse. We get a few minutes at the beginning of the movie that establish how the world had been destroyed by giant monsters, and all the ways humans had tried to fight them. We learn about the giant robot Jaegers, and how they have to be piloted by two people in "the drift," a tech-mediated psychic link. That's a hell of a lot to take in before the action even starts.
Godzilla, by contrast, built its strange, monster-hunted world over the course of the whole movie. We begin with mysterious forces ravaging a nuclear power plant, then learn that it's caused by monsters, then meet those monsters, and only halfway through the movie do we even begin to think about who this Godzilla creature is. As for how we'd fight these monsters — well, there are no new technologies to figure out, and no new political groups to mobilize them. We're using good, old-fashioned nukes, deployed by the Navy. We are only gradually pulled into an unfamiliar scenario where giant monsters mate with each other by sharing a nuclear warhead in the kaiju version of a French kiss.
Pacific Rim assumes that we can just get dropped down into a completely bizarre, science fictional world, and then instantly relate to the characters in it. For seasoned science fiction fans, this is not a bad assumption. One of the tropes of SF is finding yourself in a bewildering, unexplored world that you have to figure out. And that works nicely in a novel. But not so much in a two-hour movie.
Both Godzilla and Pacific Rim ultimately show us bizarre situations where people are fighting giant, improbable monsters. But Godzilla is set in the immediate, apocalyptic aftermath of the monsters' arrival. And Pacific Rim is set firmly in a future world where monsters have completely transformed every aspect of life on the planet. That makes Pacific Rim the more interesting, complicated movie from a worldbuilding perspective. But it makes it a harder sell as popcorn entertainment, no matter how many robot punches you've got.
Godzilla and Pacific Rim are arguably movies designed to appeal to kids — or at least, the kids in us all. And in Godzilla, kids figured pretty heavily in the plot. We begin the movie from a kid's perspective, as little Ford watches his parents' nuclear power plant fall apart. And then, when Ford is an adult, one of his major motivations is to get back home to protect his own kid. Even when he's not protecting his own kid, he's protecting other people's. One of the best scenes in the movie is when he saves that little boy in Hawaii, while the MUTO tries to chomp the train they're riding.
In Pacific Rim, there are no kids. One of the most moving moments in the movie does involve a little girl, but that's a flashback intended to give our adult character Mako a meaningful backstory. There are parent/child relationships, but they are all between adults. In a movie that makes us think of childhood, nobody's motivation is to protect a vulnerable child. Instead, their motives are abstract. They want to save the Earth. They want to save other adults, most of whom they respect as colleagues and allies.
Indeed, the one parent who wants to keep a child safe in Pacific Rim, Stacker, has to learn that his protectiveness isn't warranted, because his daughter Mako is now an adult. So the arc of the film isn't "rescue the kids" but "realize that kids don't need rescuing because they can save themselves." That's a perfectly good arc, and it made Pacific Rim a true original in its genre. But it robbed audiences of the mommy-daddy-baby emotional configuration that they expected. Even the potential romantic relationships in Pacific Rim were shut down — Raleigh and Mako turn out to be fantastic colleagues, but in a way that's more bromance than romance.
Pacific Rim hung its emotional baggage on relationships that were hard for many people to identify with. It was a movie about families that didn't show us any traditional family relationships. Even though Godzilla didn't show us a lot of family bonding, it didn't ask us to question the nature of family bonds themselves. We knew that lurking under Ford's individualist heroics was the need to rescue his wife and kid.
Audiences expected to see kids in both giant monster movies, but perhaps more profoundly they expected to feel like kids while watching them. How else could we possibly enjoy GIANT ROBOT PUNCH or FIRE WEAPON SHOT INTO MOUTH without happily regressing a little bit?
And this is where Pacific Rim's final mistake comes in. Despite its kid-friendly premise, it was a movie about being an adult and taking responsibility for saving the world. All our heroes use every tool at their disposal, from mad science to giant robots, to fight back against their adversaries. The bad guys (or maybe the stupid guys) are the politicians who want to build walls and hide behind them like babies. To the extent that we identify with Raleigh, Mako and Stacker, we identify with the idea of taking action rather than waiting for somebody else to rescue us.
But in Godzilla, the main point of the story is to be rescued. All our efforts to fight the MUTO are doomed to fail, and it's only when Godzilla randomly decides to fight them off that we're saved. In fact, there's a scene where one of the scientists essentially says that our only hope is for Godzilla to save the world while we run away. Like Ford with his son, Godzilla becomes our parent figure, protecting us from destruction. This is a perfect emotional touch in a movie that works in part by infantilizing its audience.
Even if you wanted to view the Jaegers as rescuing humans from the monsters in Pacific Rim, you couldn't. Throughout that film, we are just too aware that they are driven by humans, with human failings. The Jaegers are hardly like the super-powered parents of our dreams, who always save us when we cry or get scared. They are just tools, driven by adults who are fighting to save a world so different from our own that we can't recognize it.
A lot of us cheered for Pacific Rim because it didn't give us two-dimensional, boring relationships between its characters. But it's harder for mass audiences to get on board with human relationships that don't feed easily into our emotional needs, especially when they're coupled with unfamiliar post-apocalyptic concepts. Godzilla may have succeeded because it treated its audiences more like kids, leading them gradually into an unfamiliar world — and guiding them with a parental hand, instead of forcing them to imagine growing up and fighting for themselves.
Annalee Newitz is the editor-in-chief of io9, and this is her column. She is also the author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction.