Suspension of Disbelief



It goes without saying that if you’re going to watch any Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster, that you’d better be prepared to check your sense of reality at the door.  Perhaps a post-kids lapse in movie watching has something to do with me forgetting this fact.  But with streaming services improving in quality – image quality is getting a little closer to Blu-ray, and 5.1 sound is now not a rarity – I was able to watch Pacific Rim recently. And boy did it provide a reminder that filmmakers these days feel free to take a few… liberties.

If you haven’t seen the movie but intend to, the rest of this post will probably have some spoilers, so stop reading maybe.

Whatever else I have to say about the film, I will acknowledge that as far as giant robots taking on giant monsters in hand-to-hand combat goes, you really can’t beat this film.  Visual design and effects are truly top notch.  In fact, they’re so good that it’d be perfectly enjoyable – perhaps even more enjoyable – to watch Pacific Rim in a foreign language you don’t understand, without subtitles, so that you can marvel at it’s beauty without wasting any of your brain cycles thinking “wait, what!?”  In fact, in the absence of dialog, you’d probably come up with a more plausible explanation for what you were seeing on screen.  And indeed, if you haven’t yet seen the movie, don’t let the mountain of criticism below deter you, as its production values alone may well be enough to keep you entertained; if a boxing match can be entertaining, well, then certainly this movie can be too.

So, with the good out of the way, on to the point of this post – the logic and the science of the movie are downright stupefying. I’m fully aware that you really can’t make a giant robot vs. giant monster movie that’s grounded in any sort of truth, but I think what disturbed me enough to write this is that beyond just making up flux capacitors or something to that effect, there are just so many things wrong here that I’m pretty sure even Olivia (who is 5) would be confused. There’s no particular narrative to my criticism, so in no particular order, here are some of the biggest head scratchers:

  • Knee Deep Jaegers.  Jaegers, the name given to the human-built robots designed to fight the Kaiju (monsters) are enormous creations, probably 20 stories or so in height (though scale varies about as much as reality in this movie; I’m basing this on scenes where the Jaeger above is walking in the streets of Hong Kong).  Yet somehow, even when fighting way out at sea far beyond any visible land, Jaegers stay between knee and waist deep.  Despite that the average depth of the Pacific Ocean is somewhere around 4,0000m.  Near the beginning of the movie, when you first see this, you naturally assume they must have some kind of propulsion system that allows this.  Then they show it actually walking.  Guillermo Del Toro should probably have lunch with James Cameron sometime, I think.
  • Let’s just build a wall.  The movie shows us images of increasingly large Kaiju smashing through buildings with abandon.  Apparently, the plan that world leaders agree upon after seeing this is construction of a wall around the entire Pacific ocean.  Now sure, after the U.S. government shutdown, perhaps the concept of elected officials coming up with incredibly boneheaded ideas isn’t so far fetched.  But seriously, the Pacific ocean is about 40% of the Earth’s surface, so with the radius of the earth being just about 6,300km, a “simple” circular wall would be over 30,000km long; and a wall is only as good as its weakest point.  Also, the Kaiju can (a) fly and (b) spit acid that dissolves buildings instantly. But as if all this wasn’t enough, what do you think are the odds that we’d go for a solution in which we co-exist on a planet with hostile, powerful creates on the other side of a wall?
  • Dinosaurs Version 2.0.  At one point in the movie, it’s posited that the dinosaurs were an earlier incarnation of the Kaiju, but they died out because the earth’s atmosphere wasn’t sufficiently conducive – but now, thanks to our polluting, we’ve essentially terraformed the planet for them.  I’m no climate change denier, but really, Santa Claus going rogue and striking back at commercial toy factories by making Kaiju instead would rate higher on the scale of possibilities than this.  First, the dinosaurs were around for millions of years – Wikipedia says they were dominant for 135 million.  Since their estimate lifespan is +/- an order of magnitude of that of humans, we’re talking a couple million generations of dinosaurs.  For a species capable of evolving a biological EMP generator in a few weeks between attacks, you’d think a few million generations would be enough time to adapt to carbon dioxide levels.  Also, if you can survive in the molten core of the planet and under the pressure present in the depths of the Mariana trench, it seems unlikely that the lack of pollutants in the atmosphere are going to pose much of a problem.  Besides, if the Kaiju are the dinosaurs, returning, well, that would make them the indigenous species on this planet, wouldn’t it?
  •  Just One Nuke.  If there’s one thing that Hollywood taught us, it’s that no matter whether you’re spacefaring invaders attacking earth through a dimensional portal above New York, an advanced artificially intelligent lifeform that conquers the entire planet with Tom Cruise clones, or – in this case – evolved dinosaurs that live in lava and liquid metal, you’re always susceptible to that one well-placed nuke.  Unless you’re the aliens from Independence Day, in which case, you’re impervious to nukes but come with the typical single-point-of-failure design flaws also on display in this movie.  Considering that the earth’s substantial internal heat is believed to come largely from ongoing radioactive decay that keeps the core of the planet at a toasty 11,000F – hotter than the surface of the sun – it seems like if that’s what you call home, then one nuclear reactor going critical would probably seem like a blinking LED.
  • Neural Overload.  It takes two (or three) people to control a Jaeger, because apparently the neural load of controlling a big robot with two arms and two legs that mimic what you do with your own anyways is a bit too much. Have the writers of the movie ever seen the likes of Innovation playing Starcraft 2?  (You’d think so, since the initial Jaeger suit-up sequence borrows a huge number of elements from the SC2 Wings of Liberty opening cinematic). Anyways, how do they overcome this neural load? Oh, that’s right, by keeping you in a continuous mind-meld with another human. That ought to help!
  • Steam Machine.  At one critical juncture, a single Kaiju creates an EMP shockwave that not only renders nearby Jaegers completely inert, it also has a blast radius big enough that it shuts down all of Hong Kong from offshore. Naturally, the Jaeger used by our heroes isn’t affected, because it’s an older model. Which runs on what, steam?! Which then connects into your brain exactly how?
  • Must Be A Hanzo Sword. After losing all offensive capability, our clever heroes remember that their Jaeger is equipped with a handy sword (with it’s own dedicated button, because I guess it’d just be too much to include this as part of the neural link). This weapon-of-last-resort just happens to be so darned sharp that it can cleave even the largest of Kaiju clean in two (where plasma cannons, giant spinning saws, and other such things seem to leave little lasting impact). Clearly, they must have enlisted the help of Hattori Hanzo in crafting such a blade. The sword is in fact so effective that you’d think our defense strategy would consist of a whole bunch of ICBMs outfitted with a sword tip.  But since Kaiju are apparently a delicacy – and pop out of a relative small fissure in the ocean at a known location – I’m thinking the more likely solution is a USDA Prime Kaiju factory built on top of the fissure that just applies sword to Kaiju immediately upon emergence.  Seems more practical than a 30,000km wall, in any event.
  • Battle Etiquette.  When watching movies about historical warfare, few things seem more ridiculous than battles in which both sides line up on opposite ends of a field, march at each other, wait till the other side is in range, and then open fire. How you’d convince a solider to stand in the front row is beyond me. Anyways, despite adapting the ability to withstand shots from a plasma cannon in short order, the Kaiju apparently have their own sense of battle etiquette, which is to attack one at a time – but at ridiculously complex yet largely irrelevant intervals. You’d think that you’d at least build up a small handful of troops – or better yet, an overwhelming army – before firing the first shots in a war. Instead, not only do they attack linearly, they send their weakest variants out first. Oh, and they also send pregnant moms that are almost ready to gestate into battle, despite that the attacking Kaiju are all supposedly engineered clones.
  • What We Already Knew.  Finding a compatible human pair that can link to each other neurally is a difficult and complex process, where apparently the best predictor of compatibility is how well you spar against each other with a staff (good thing they didn’t cast Jet Li in this movie). On the other hand, a random pair of scientists is apparently quite able to pair with a newborn hive-minded Kaiju baby. What critical, game changing piece of information do our intrepid scientists discover? That if we do exactly what we did before (throw a nuke in the hole), exactly the same thing will happen as in all prior attempts to do the same thing. Who’d have guessed!
  • Manual But Not Quite.  It seems like the first thing to break in just about every piece of high-tech equipment is the self-destruct timer or autopilot or whatever a heroic character needs to escape their demise. Whether it’s Star Trek’s autopilot being knocked out even while main navigation, impulse power, phasers, life support, and communication are all working properly, or the timer on the bomb in Armageddon, this has become a Hollywood cliche. Still, Pacific Rim manages to surprise here; when the automatic timed self destruct fails and requires a manual override, you think you know how things are going to end.  But no, it turns out the manual override also has a nice delay, which happens to be just long enough to escape the blast radius if your escape pod moves at impossibly high speeds on account of being so far underwater that in reality, it’d actually be crushed by water pressure like a tomato at a Heinz factory.

Normally, I can’t remember the names of the characters in a movie even immediately after I watch it. That I can remember any of the above is only a testament to how outrageous some of the ideas from the movie are. If anyone is in doubt about the need for better science, technology, engineering or math education – then I highly recommend watching Pacific Rim.

One Comment

  • Andrew

    The whole premise itself is flawed — gigantic robots defies gravity.
    If a cube of length 1cm is enlarged x10 for both its length and width, then its weight will be 100 fold.
    Simply put robots 10 stories tall will … collapse.

    Mark, I generally agree that this movie is full of plot devices (aka plot holes).
    The idea of building a wall as the last line of defense, the last minute introduction of the “mighty” sword trump card are outright ridiculous.
    As an anime mecha fan however I appreciate the movie’s attempt to incorporate many concepts that have been floating around for ages, such as the twin pilot thingie which was featured in a number of mecha shows. Afterall it is another plot device to keep the story going.

    P.S. Transformers on the other hand are ok as they are aliens 🙂
    P.P.S. It would probably be a disaster if you & I attempt a neural bond to play Starcraft — you are too fast and I’m too slow!

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