The late 70s and early 80s were my formative years, that glorious time when your reading, listening and viewing tastes are all formed pretty much for life, which pretty much means that I was doomed as a mainstream consumer. Heck, it was the age of Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, the third or was it fourth revival of heroic fantasy and sword n’ planet as both the Conan and John Carter series got reprinted again, and Mike Grell’s Warlord came out. And of course, it was the age of Voltes V and Mazinger Z.
A time I was kicked back into, grinning goofily, the other night as wifey and I saw Pacific Rim. Aside from the incredible marriage of CGI and visualization that del Toro and the ILM wizards put into the movie, what impressed me most about this movie was that it was both an original work, not based off any existing license, while at the same time being an effective homage to two Japanese genres (super-robot anime and kaiju movies). It’s a good demonstration to Hollywood that you don’t always need an existing franchise base to make a blockbuster!
One reason the movie works so well for me is that del Toro and Beacham got the balance of MICE elements just right. Huh? Mice? What’re mice doing in my mecha? Not the furry li’l cheese-eaters, I’m talking about Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient – Milieu, Idea, Character, Event, and the idea of analyzing the balance between them.
According to Card in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, all stories have MICE but in varying proportions. Speculative fiction tends to be heavy on Milieu and Idea, and sometimes Event, since that’s where most of the speculativeness will lie. And here’s the disconnect between the classically educated film critic vs. the sci-fi fan: your typical professional critic is oriented toward mainstream fiction, which is biased much more heavily toward Character. When I asked wifey to see the movie with me, we noted that there’d been some negative reviews; I dismissed them, though, because the reviews that provided more meaningful info for this particular movie – the scifi and gamer blogosphere – were generally positive. (That, and Eddie Boy Escudero, a photographer whose eye I admire very much, was raving about the visuals on FB).
The trick in speculative fiction is to get the MICE balance right, specially with Character. Too little, and we’ve no way into the story, no one to relate to and carry our viewpoint. Too much, and we’ve got soap opera, the surest way to bore a scifi geek. So what del Toro and Beacham did, painting Pacific Rim’s characters in very broad, light strokes, worked very well for the movie because in the scheme of things, M, I and E were very heavy in the story.
I’m speculating on how the writers put Pacific Rim together, but I’ll stake tomorrow morning’s coffee (which is a necessity for continued life and the world’s survival!) that Event and Idea came to them first: what if Earth was invaded by giant honking monsters, and what if the only way to fight them was with giant robots? ‘Casting’ the characters was then a matter of thinking up what went well with these initial givens.
The movie being very much a homage, the templates were already to be found in 70s robot anime: the suffering hero, the hotshot bastard who proves a true samurai in the end, the commander doomed to lead a suicide attack, the super capable ninja babe. Having put it that way, I’m sure you can imagine how badly a lesser director could’ve botched this!
Instead, like skilled sushi chefs, del Toro and Beacham seasoned their mix with a very light hand, letting the quality of the ingredients shine true. As wifey noted, it worked even if you didn’t realize it was a homage, and it works even better when you do. Mako Mori, as played by Rinko Kikuchi came out as very believable and interesting – badass but vulnerable, and with definitely more role in the story than token romantic interest. If the character hadn’t been cast as female, they’d still have needed to fill Mako’s role.
And when you have Ron Perlman pimped out as a Hong Kong crime boss, you got all the character you need … This guy practically stole the show, all the more effectively for me because I somehow missed that he was in the cast, so his appearance on screen was a total surprise. As Hannibal Chau, black market dealer in kaiju parts, he also made the Milieu of the movie feel much more solid – and was an amusing dig at the Chinese talent for finding pharmacological uses for anything that moves.
So there you have it – E = kaiju invasion, I = jaeger tech, C = anime archetypes successfully reloaded, M = near future Earth and a Hong Kong that feels like Hong Kong. Of course, these were not my thoughts during the movie: those were more like OH, YEAH! BAM! POW! YEAH!