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Anti-Climatic

I’m still thinking about Pacific Rim, because, man, what a movie.

The obvious awesome moment of it all comes during the Hong Kong battle. Two Kaiju attack the city, an unprecedented event. They take out two of the Jaegers defending the city and incapacitate Striker Eureka, the strongest of the lot. The task of saving the city falls to pilots Raleigh and Mako, an untested team that failed their trial run.

This time, though, they ace it. Piloting Gipsy Danger, they defeat the Kaiu Leatherback in a decisive battle in the harbor, then move through Hong Kong in pursuit of Otachi. The ensuing battle is nothing short of epic, involving crashing through buildings and using an oil tanker as a bludgeoning weapon. It culminates with Otachi flying into the upper atmosphere with Gipsy in tow. To free themselves, Raleigh and Mako break out Gipsy Danger’s sword and slay Otachi, then land in an empty stadium.

It’d be hard to top that sequence. It’s a wonderful culmination of Raleigh and Mako’s character arcs thus far, and an excellent action sequence that really utilizes the scales of these giant robots and monsters in a great way (see: oil tanker as an improvised weapon). This is the movie’s midpoint, the climax is yet to come. How then does Pacific Rim go bigger?


It doesn’t.

Pacific Rim finds a different route for its climax. There’s already been an epic Robot vs Monster fight and it doesn’t feel the need to try and outdo itself. The final battle: Striker Eureka and Gipsy Danger versus three Kaiju, is a straightforward affair that takes place underwater without too much pomp and circumstance. This is fine because killing the Kaiju isn’t the goal of this mission — the objective is to get into the breach and blow it up. The Kaiju aren’t so much an opposing force as they are obstacles for the heroes to get past. In this movie supposedly about robots fighting monsters, the big climax isn’t a fight between robot and monster.

This frees the movie to go really big at its midpoint, without having to hold anything back nor fear of tiring out the audience. Any action movie runs the risk of numbing its audience to spectacle by the time the climax hits; Transformers is just so many giant robots fighting each other that the final Big Fight just feels like one of many (conversely: it’s remarkable how John Wick keeps its fights feeling fresh and interesting without tiring you out). When Pacific Rim puts all its energy into one fight sequence, it allows for all the Awesome to be present — and be as a direct result of Raleigh and Mako being able to work as a team.

Much of the movie is themed around connection and teamwork — remember, it’s how the Jaegers are controlled! Not long before the Hong Kong fight, Raleigh and Mako pilot Gipsy Danger together for the first time and it does not go well. They’re effectively grounded from operations and ostracized by the other pilots and crews. Hong Kong is their chance to prove themselves. And they do.

But what about the actual climax? By digging into the other part of the movie — teaming up together to save the world — Pacific Rim recenters around teamwork. The final fight isn’t a fight, it’s a relay race with everyone buying time so someone can get to the breach and blow it up. Remember, Pacific Rim is not a war movie, these are Rangers, not soldiers; they aren’t fighting to kill but fighting to save everyone else. A final fight with the goal of defeating the Kaiju would be derivative of the midpoint; by making the big climatic choice Raleigh and Mako’s to take Gipsy into the breach, Pacific Rim goes all-in on its themes of unity and love. The biggest, most important thing in the story isn’t slicing a Kaiju in half with a sword, it’s doing everything you can (together!) to save the world. The fight isn’t the point. Saving people is the point.

This choice to have the final climax be a smaller spectacle than the midpoint can be used to spectacular effect. Captain America: Civil War’s Airport Battle is the big thing in the middle of the film, with the final fight between Captain America and Winter Soldier against Iron Man being a more intimate, smaller fight that’s equally as intense because it’s all about the movie’s theme of divisions. The Lord of The Rings books don’t climax with a big fight against the forces of Mordor (that’s the ending of Book Five), but with Frodo and Gollum grappling for the ring at the Cracks of Doom in Book Six, because this is a story about the smallest doing the most. The Battle of Crait doesn’t hold a candle to the duel in Snoke’s Throne Room, but The Last Jedi’s climax is about self-sacrifice and fighting for a cause. Luke doesn’t defeat Kylo Ren by besting him in combat, he wins by being the most selfless, the most devoted.

Going smaller for a climax runs the risk of being anti-climatic, especially because we, as an audience, are trained to expect the Big Thing at the end to be the biggest. When done well, though, a good climax brings the movie together, usually as a fusion of character arcs, story, and theme. For Pacific Rim, it’s all about saving the world. Together.

Ugh, I just really really love Pacific Rim.

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Linear Versus Open World

E3 was this week, which means most major video game companies were showing off the upcoming games they have lined up. There’s a lot to be excited for: Star Wars Battlefront looks great, Dishonored 2 is getting Emily Kaldwin as a protagonist, Kingdom Hearts 3 is finally in development. But me being me, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End and the glorious gameplay demo they showed off is what I cared about most.

The game looks great, showing again why Naughty Dog is one of the best in the industry. Telling too is the discussion surrounding the game The Uncharted games, like the more recent The Last of Us, is incredibly narrative focused. More so than role-playing games — traditionally the story based game — Naughty Dog’s recent slew of action adventure games have been all about the story. Furthermore, the games are very linear. Where Final Fantasy VII had side quests, Uncharted keeps going in one direction. You’re basically playing through a movie.

It’s a direction that Neil Druckmann, A Thief’s End’s creative director, deeply believes in, even if that’s not where many other major studios are going. There’s a tendency towards the open world, where games put players in a massive world for them to explore. Bungie left Halo, a very linear shooter, to make Destiny, something that looks a lot more like an RPG with hints of an open-world. Ubisoft’s flagship Assassin’s Creed series lets players roam the ancient world, finding their own fun and pursuing optional objectives. The player doesn’t have to have Ezio continue pursing the Borgias, instead they can recruit more assassins or collect money to improve equipment. Unlike Uncharted, they aren’t forced along a single, linear path.

This is arguably one of the great potentiality of games. Players can do whatever they want and craft their own narrative out of a sandbox. Rather than being shepherded along a preset path, players can strike out and find their adventures. Games, after all, let the consumer have a lot more interaction with the story than a movie or book. Letting players explore takes full advantage of the medium.

But it doesn’t always work narratively. Pacing is incredibly important when telling a story. The audience can’t get bored halfway through or even distracted from the central core. I think this is where open world games come up short. I enjoy the Assassin’s Creed games for what they are: relatively mindless adventure games with some great conspiracy theory set dressings. But more often than not I get waylaid by exploring or doing side-missions and going after treasure. It remains fun enough, but they don’t exactly bring me in closer to the main character’s arc. I couldn’t care less about what Ezio was up to in Turkey, it was more fun to explore Constantinople.

Naughty Dog is instead opting to bring players into a narrative and let them experience it first hand. Games can let you live as someone else and experience things you usually don’t. What Uncharted and The Last of Us do so well is let players live a different life. The Last of Us had me feel like a father, Uncharted 2 let me be an action hero. More than that, though, these are characters we care about. By keeping the narrative and the action zeroed in, the players isn’t allowed to be distracted by side quests. Rather, the character and story remain front and center and with them a genuine emotional experience.

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It’s All In The Pacing

Time is relative. Some scientist said that at some point. For my purposes, it means that one minute can seem longer or shorter depending on the context. That minute in traffic is far longer than that minute playing video games before work that got you stuck in traffic in the first place.

Naturally, this applies to stuff like movies too. A two hour movie can feel incredibly long or it can flash by in an instant. Why? Pacing. Pacing is important. Really important.

Let’s look at An Unexpected Journey. It’s a three hour movie but, unlike the prior The Lord of the Rings films, feels much longer. The simple reason for this is for lack of content: the film takes much to long repeating points. The run in with the rock giants, for example, is a lengthy sequence that adds nothing to the plot (except an extra action scene). Sure, there’s a small moment showing Thorin’s growing acceptance of Bilbo as part of the team, but that’s a beat that’s seen elsewhere. Sequences like these bog down a movie and draw it out. The Return of the King and the rest of the trilogy were bursting with story and characters: every scene added another layer to one or the other. Those films didn’t feel bogged down as every beat felt necessary to the movie at large.

Transformers: Age of Extinction feels overlong in a different way: there’s way too much going on. Though visually pleasing (as you’d expect from a Michael Bay film), it’s a narrative mess. There’s no clear antagonist antagonizing the heroes and, as such, the heroes have little plan thwarting to carry out. With no central throughline pushing the story along, the film winds up feeling like a series of vaguely connected misadventures involving giant robots. Which wouldn’t be so bad if we actually gave a crap about these characters but, this being a Michael Bay film, we really don’t. As such, it’s 165 minute runtime really starts to drag after a while.

Guillermo Del Toro, another purveyor of giant robots, had this to say about film lengths: “All I know is that as an audience member, my ass meter starts ringing its fire alarm after two hours.” Essentially, there’s a point where it starts to feel like you’ve spent too long sitting in that chair. If a long movie is paced well it won’t seem long at all, if it’s paced poorly it’ll feel even longer. That said, you’ll probably start to notice how long you’ve been there as the two hour mark fades behind you.

Take Del Toro’s own Pacific Rim as a great example of a well paced movie that doesn’t feel too long. Big set pieces are linked together through emotional beats: The opening and Gipsy Danger vs Knifehead leads to the introduction of Stacker and Raleigh’s arrival at the Shatterdome before we see Mako’s flashback which in turn gives us a quiet character focused chunk before the big battle around Hong Kong. We get another break as Newt and Gottlieb work out the secrets of the breach before the final confrontation. These lulls not only to allow us to get to know and love the characters, but also give us breathers between action scenes and make us long for the next one. Del Toro, ever conscious of the audience’s collective ass meter, ensures that neither character/plot progression or action scene ever outstays their welcome, rather they work together to keep the movie puttering along, keeping us entertained throughout.

The LEGO Movie opts to follow Campbell’s monomyth and wisely never spends longer than necessary on individual beats. Not only does this allow for the movie to move along at a nice slick pace, but it means that when it comes time for it to spend time on something really important — take the conversation between the father/son and Lord Business/Emmet — there’s leeway for it to sink in without slowing down the plot.

At 143 minutes, The Avengers is a comparatively long movie. But it does as Pacific Rim does, stringing together smaller character moments between bigger set pieces, yet never allowing any to last too long. Add that to a group of great characters who you’re happy just to watch hang out with each other and it’s easy to get lost in the movie. And getting lost is the best, because suddenly you forget about time and your ass meter and just enjoy the movie.

Movie runtimes are one thing, how long they actually feel is another entirely. Watching Sex and The City (151 minutes) for class felt like an eternity, whereas The Dark Knight (165) felt just right. Time is relative — especially when watching movies. That’s where pacing comes in.

Note: Of course it’s not all in the pacing, but it is terribly important. Sometimes, a fascinating subject matter and engrossing characters are all you need — see Lost in Translation. That said, this blog post assumes that’s understood

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