During the 132 minutes of Pacific Rim I failed to have a single thought - not always a bad thing

Director Guillermo del Toro has spoken with open passion about this ludicrous, ludicrous film. In fact, he's right: it's pretty good.

“Entertaining” has become a euphemism for “crap, but with pretty set-pieces": a pleading entreaty offered by sci-fi apologists to save face when discussing yet another underwhelming summer movie we were foolish enough to get excited about.

It becomes an ever weaker descriptor as the years go by, cheapening in value with every genre movie that doesn’t quite work. The rush of excitement when the BBFC card appears on screen deflates quicker and quicker each time, leaving only a distracted internal voice that gnaws on plot holes and wonders when it will all be over.

Sitting through Prometheus last year, and then World War Z and Star Trek earlier this summer, that voice was as loud as popcorn. I began seriously wondering whether satisfying genre movies were even possible anymore or whether – worse yet – my brain was burnt out on effects-driven movies, jaded to spectacle and doomed to overthink any piece of simple fun.

During the full 132 minutes of Pacific Rim, however, I don’t think I actually had any thoughts.

Before a single critical neuron could fire, the film grabbed my mental wrist like the ancient mariner and gruffly set out its pitch with a relentless opening montage. “Here” it said, “is a story about people getting in huge robots to have fights with monsters, and it’s going to be loud”. Leaving no time for me to digest this, it proceeded to launch into the most astonishing fight between a robot and a monster.

Then there was more, and more, and more. The film stuck with its preposterous internal logic with complete attention to detail, and was paced in such a way as to never really leave time for reflection.

Director Guillermo del Toro has spoken with open passion about this ludicrous, ludicrous film. His single-mindedness triumphed in the finished product. Rather than the lumpen, episodic structure so familiar from the design-by-committee approach to blockbusting, Pacific Rim successfully maintained a constant escalation of pitch.

The visual storytelling was superb, with fights choreographed and shot more in the manner of a sports movie than a typical effects-led effort. There was no shaky-cam, no loss of spatial awareness or sense of scale, and no confusing, staccato smash cuts to flailing metal of the kind that the Transformers movies were so rightly pilloried for.

The world of the film was relentlessly imaginative, from the way city streets were built around the skeletons of fallen monsters, to the alien skin parasites collected and sold by black marketeers, right down to the patches and insignia on the uniforms of the heroes (yes, heroes. Pacific Rim is not the kind of film that has ‘protagonists’).

Everything could have been generic and still have contributed to something that was just as marketable, but instead reeked of hours and hours of careful design. 

In fact, the only thing to give my suspension of disbelief a wobble was Burn Gorman’s demented parody of a bookish scientist. Even though his role was written with the same level of operatic lunacy as the rest of the film, it felt awkwardly off-the-shelf in a way that nothing else really did.

In general, the human drama in Pacific Rim was inevitably going to be its weak point. But everyone involved could act, and the attempt to tackle real emotion was far enough in advance of the genre standard to make it seem mean-spirited to make a meal of the issue.

Certainly, Idris Elba bellowing “we are cancelling the apocalypse” came pretty close to unpardonably silly, but after two hours of gigatonne punching, that level of cheesiness seemed genuinely necessary in a way that I can’t honestly explain after the fact.

And that is, essentially, where any conversation on this movie ends for me. I can’t necessarily explain how del Toro got away with it, nor do I feel any real need to understand why. I simply really, really enjoyed how it felt to be watching the film. As I understand it, that’s entertainment.

I am robot. A still from Pacific Rim.

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit