'Pacific Rim' Movie: Why This Conflict Might Fail With Audiences

Guillermo Del Toro (Hellboy, Pan’s Labyrinth) has said in interviews that his inspiration in directing Pacific Rim comes from his abiding love for the Japanese monster movies of his youth. The question is whether a broader audience will buy into that love and catapult Pacific Rim to box office success, or whether they won’t and Pacific Rim (with a reported $180 million budget) will become one of this summer’s biggest flops.

The first signs of trouble came from early tracking which indicated that the Adam Sandler sequel, Grown Ups 2, would win the July 12–14 weekend, though since then Warner Brothers and Legendary Pictures have shifted their Pacific Rim marketing into over drive. But marketing alone may not be able convince audiences that Pacific Rim is indeed something special and not more of the same.

My concern is not that these box office statistics are any kind of real gauge of quality or even popularity (I’ve criticized box office reporting in the past), but rather what these early tracking and audience perceptions say about contemporary movie going. Can they give us some insight into the climate of contemporary Hollywood and/or the tastes of the mythical “average” moviegoer? 

I would argue that Del Toro is one of the most creative and intelligent filmmakers working today. Pan’s Labyrinth is one of the new millennium’s most incredible cinematic works. But even that film’s success couldn’t prevent the sidelining of his proposed adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, due to the question marks around the box office potential of an R-rated big budget horror film. Pacific Rim draws on an established genre (the monster movie), but Del Toro insists there are more than a few twists. Firstly, the film drops the viewer a decade into the battle against the kaiju, as the monsters are called here in a nod to Japanese pop culture. It’s an established world, and Del Toro wants to plunge the viewer right into the adventure rather than the opening act. Secondly, a neural bridge links the pilots of the giant robots, Jaegers, that humans have created to fight the kaiju, opening the film to the possibility of exploring questions of identity and monstrosity that have characterized all of Del Toro’s films to some extent. 

What does it say about the state of the film industry if a director of Del Toro’s passion and talent can’t drum up audience interest? People who care about creative big budget film making should be worried about a trend away from originality and the lack of diversity in film making for broad audiences. We say we’re tired of the same old, same old, but do the number of butts in seats tell a different story?

There are a couple of reasons why people may not be dying to see Pacific Rim at this point. Outside of the fanboy/ComicCon circuit, I’m not sure that the prospect of seeing monsters and robots smash each other is enough. One reason is potentially brand confusion: after three box office smashing Transformers films, do people think this is just another Michael Bay violence-orgy? While the trailers that emphasize the out-sized robot action are admittedly impressive, do they communicate to audiences how this film is different? Del Toro has promised his film will deliver something different, but I’m not sure the marketing has communicated that yet, despite the impressive special effects.

The other big gamble (and the part that explains why the Adam Sandler sequel was tracking higher than this film) is the fact that this is not based on a preexisting film or media property. No 50-year-old comic book character. No beloved TV show. No board game. Despite the complex intertextual borrowings (the concept obviously brings to mind Japanese pop culture staples Godzilla and the mecha genre of anime), Pacific Rim is an original story. Audiences don’t have the history, but are being asked to embrace a new vision rather than the same old. This is both the film’s challenge in terms of marketing and also, as Scott Mendelson at Forbes notes, its biggest opportunity.

In recent months Steven Soderbergh offered an address on the “state of cinema” at the SFIFF and George Lucas and Steven Spielberg weighed in with their predictions about the end of the current Hollywood industrial model, where we see fewer big films and rising ticket prices.

If enough big films like Pacific Rim tank, we could see the end of ambitious original films on a big studio budget. If that happens, it won’t be just marketing that is to blame (though, as John Carter showed, that played a part), but an audience willing to settle for the lowest common denominator rather than take a chance on a unique vision.