November 28, 2013

Pacific Rim

I'm fine with the same only different. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, an early 19th century playwright, poet, and Whig Member of the British House of Commons, archly said of a fellow politician,

The gentleman has said much that is good, and much that is original; but that which was original was not good, and that which was good was not original.

In other words, I quite enjoyed Pacific Rim, a fun, blow-em-up, alien invader film, even though it is a carbon copy of Independence Day. Except underwater. And with monsters and mechas instead of fighter planes and spacecraft.

Mecha is a well-established science fiction/fantasy genre in Japan, featuring futuristic mechanical devices, especially gigantic human-piloted robots (as distinct from Iron Man type exoskeletons).

I generally avoid mecha series because mecha don't make sense tactically, ergonomically, or thermodynamically. As Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington pointed out:

If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell's equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell's equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation—well, these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the Second Law of Thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.

Shorter version: the ain't no such thing as a free energy lunch. Adhering—if only in spirit—to the Second Law of Thermodynamics would greatly improve science fiction across the board.

The appallingly bad science in most Hollywood science fiction notwithstanding, compelling characters and a well-told story can make up for a lot in the stupid department (the scientifically stupid Independence Day being a case in point).

Pacific Rim is certainly the best live-action mecha movie ever made. It's exceptionally faithful to its Japanese roots, not only in the robot designs but in the mind-melding between the pilots, key to mecha series like Simoun and Eureka Seven.

They even got an actual Japanese actress (Rinko Kikuchi) to play an actual Japanese character!

Still, there's nothing wrong with being good and original. It's high time Hollywood got past the Independence Day premise: aliens trash the Earth to exploit its natural resources. Thankfully, the invading aliens are invariable really dumb.

Pacific Rim logically falls apart when it's revealed the monster are being directed by sentient beings. At least the aliens in Independence Day attacked en masse. If conquering the Earth is the objective, doing it piecemeal makes no sense.

Except to give the beleaguered humans a sporting chance. Though this revelation comes late enough in the movie that it can simply be shrugged off.

A few delightful characters help the medicine go down: a pair of mad scientists reminiscent of Leonard and Sheldon from Big Bang Theory, and Ron Perlman as a dealer in dead monster parts (watch the final credits to learn his ultimate fate).

Mecha anime series closer to fantasy than science fiction make the bad science easier to intellectually digest. But there is one series that succeeds as hard science fiction: Patlabor. (Sorry, but Neon Genesis Evangelion does nothing for me.)

Patlabor starts out by establishing a realistic premise: "Patrol Labors" evolved out of heavy construction equipment. A drunk at the controls of a semi-sentient earth mover could cause a lot of problems, necessitating equally equipped cops.

True to the spirit of the Second Law, they're hauled around on huge flatbed trucks and their batteries constantly have to be recharged.

The Patlabor franchise is also responsible for an outstanding entry in the albeit tiny category of monster vs. mech movies, a well-crafted and deeply moving drama in any genre: the feature-length Patlabor WXIII.

Unlike the mecha-centric television series, WXIII is a traditional police procedural, with the mechas playing a supporting role. The monster is man-made, the product of maternal love and human tragedy. No aliens invade and no apocalypse looms.

As I've argues elsewhere, small and mundane human problems often make for far more compelling drama than the ending of the world.

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