Matching Monsters with Emotions—Thoughts about Pacific Rim, Hellboy, Eva, and FLCL

I loved Pacific Rim.  Guillermo del Toro is a smart director.  He knows how to be subtle, how to build emotional complexity and thematic depth.  And, miraculously, he’s secure enough in his self-perception to make a movie that goes one step beyond the self-conscious ironic distance one might bring to a giant robots vs. giant monsters movie in 2013, beyond deconstruction & satire, to rebuild the genre with love.  Sometimes this reconstruction feels so on-the-nose that you have to laugh; at least in my theater, there were a lot of laughs at what might have otherwise seemed inappropriate places, but they didn’t feel derisive to me—more like laughs of surprise at the boldness and joy with which the movie embraces scenes, lines, and shots where other movies would feel compelled to wink at the camera in a ‘see, audience, we’re actually way too sophisticated to believe or say this stuff honestly, but we know you’re going to eat it up so here you go’ cynical sort of way.

That subject deserves more words.  But, thanks to Alyssa Rosenberg tweeting a bit about rewatching the Hellboy movies, I spent a piece of last night thinking about internal and external danger, and how they work best when twinned both in scope and texture.  Let’s compare Pacific Rim to Hellboy.  I don’t want to go on to Hulk-length about this, though the subject probably deserves that kind of focus (and an analysis of Pan’s Labyrinth which I only saw once a few years back & so don’t feel competent to discuss right now and anyway this blog’s already way long), so this’ll be cursory, but I wanted to use this space as a scratchpad for the idea.  Maybe I’ll develop it later.

The first Hellboy movie focuses on a series of jealousies and denied emotions at a Bureau of Paranormal Research and Development dedicated to protecting the USA (and the world) against Cthonic creepy crawlies.  Hellboy, the main character, is a “good demon” who has (obviously) identity issues, a strained relationship with his surrogate father, and a tense and complicated romantic history with his ex, Liz, herself a pyrokinetic scarred by her powers’ manifestations.  The introduction of a WASPy FBI agent into this mix further stresses the already-tense situation by creating jealousies between Hellboy and Liz.  Meanwhile, Evil is Brewing in the form of Cthulhu-worshipper Rasputin (yeah, that Rasputin) and his undead Nazi henchmen.  Rasputin wants to bring the old gods back to control / destroy the world; he has a baby old god wriggling inside him, literally.  To accomplish his goal, he’s releasing tentacly demon-dogs into the human world; to stop him, the BPRD must come together as a family in spite of their various issues, and fight back.

Nazi Cthulhu-cultists are excellent bad guys in and of themselves, but they’re even more perfect when set against the BPRD’s dysfunctional-family dynamic.  The BPRD characters don’t know or understand themselves, and are at their best in the heart of that struggle—this isn’t a story of deciding to be Good as opposed to Bad, more a story about internal conflict being a part of heroic life.  Both Nazism and Cthulhu worship (at least in Hellboy) seem to be all about Secret Truths: on the surface the world looks like X, but when you see deeper it is actually Y, and once you understand the world’s Y-ness then all conflict disappears and you can act free of doubt and pain.  Despite their ideology, though, the bad guys in Hellboy tend to have weird and evil uncanny stuff inside them—a wriggly monster in the case of Rasputin, sand in the case of the undead ninja doctor.  (I don’t remember if there’s anything evil inside Ilsa, outside of Nazi.)  Seeming certainty and perfection disguises wriggly horror.

I don’t want to go into spoiler territory with Pacific Rim, but suffice it to say that del Toro shows us kaiju—giant monsters—as overwhelmingly enormous threats, big and intense and vicious and easily identifiable.  The relationships among the protagonists are similarly overwhelming and intense and vicious and unmistakeable—they wear even their secrets on their sleeves.  The towering, city-leveling nature of the monsters gives these big, sincere emotions space to grow.  In any other movie they might seem cramped or foolish; here the heroes need these gigantic naked issues in order to rise against monsters of such scale.

Not that all giant monster movies or anime must take the same tactic!  But the way one handles the monsters, I think, must change to match the quality of emotion.  Neon Genesis Evangelion deals with BIG, horrifying, squicky repressed psychological issues—and so the Angels (Eva’s kaiju) need to be every bit as immense, insidious, and squicky, wriggling into computer systems, boring deep into the NERV center (yes, that’s the real name) where our protagonists live, or straight-up invading main characters’ minds via Hallelujah Chorus (it makes sense when you watch the show).  FLCL’s growing-up story, by contrast, straddles the line between sublime and ridiculous, and deals much more frankly with lust and love—the monsters as a result being similarly over-the-top and as funny as they are terrifying.

Anyway.  Good clean fun.  See Pacific Rim, and get the soundtrack.

On a related note: I had an AMAZING time at ReaderCon.  Thanks so much to everyone I met, and talked with—y’all are great, and I look forward to the next time our paths cross!

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