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Why Is It So Fun to Watch Big Robots Punch Big Monsters?

And a few other thoughts about ‘Pacific Rim Uprising’

“There’s something really satisfying about watching giant robots beat up giant monsters.” That’s how Granger Willson opens his recent Vulture video essay, “The History of Giant Robots in Pop Culture,” a fun, breezy overview of everything from Tetsujin 28-go to Transformers. But despite all the deep digging Willson did for the piece — which is tied to Pacific Rim Uprising, where a lot of giants robots beat up a lot of giant monsters — he never comes back around to that initial observation.

But seriously, why is it so satisfying to watch robots and monsters duke it out?

It’s a question that journalists wrestled with when the first Pacific Rim opened back in the summer of 2013. Esquire writer Zachary Sniderman spoke with professors, psychologists and cultural observers to get some insights, and while there are many explanations for our fascination with big fighting robots, the article narrowed it down to three: “First, they’re cool to look at. Second, they realize the universal, childish wish to be bigger. And third, they revel in our desire to break stuff without fear of being in trouble, or getting in trouble (i.e., with mom and dad).”

I wouldn’t want to speak for women, but for men (and boys) there’s something perpetually alluring about the sight of a powerful, shiny robot fighting something else really powerful, whether it’s another robot or a monster. Guys outgrow so many things from our childhood, but an epic robot battle hits a nostalgic sweet spot. Adulthood is about being responsible — learning how to be a grown-up, getting your shit together, etc. — but there’s always a part of us that can’t let go of that giddy, youthful craving to watch all hell break loose.

When I was a kid, one of the reasons I loved the Transformers animated show more than G.I. Joe was that, because it starred robots, the episodes were way more violent. On G.I. Joe, the writers had to be reasonably restrained — all the characters were human beings, and there are limits to how much the body can take — but on The Transformers, the Autobots and Decepticons were always blasting each other with laser guns and rockets. You can do a whole lot of damage to a Transformer, and because they’re not humans, it somehow didn’t seem that depraved.

It’s the same mentality that feeds into the appeal of the Pacific Rim films: We never have to be troubled by the level of violence because, hey, it’s just some big-ass robots and scary, evil alien monsters. Who cares what happens to them? These movies aren’t good at all — the storylines are cheesy, the characters are dumb — but I suspect Grade School Tim might have loved every single second of them. (That guy would have still hated the Michael Bay Transformers movies, though. He had standards after all.)

Here are a few other takeaways from Pacific Rim Uprising:

#1. There’s nothing sadder than an old internet meme.

In the movie, which is set in the not-too-distant future, one of the characters gets amped up to fight monsters by watching an old video that inspires him. What clip? Dear god, this one:

Yep, in 2018, that dumb “Trololo” song is back — you remember, the YouTube video of a 1976 performance by Russian singer Eduard Khil that was mocked and parodied all across 2010. People didn’t laugh at my screening when “Trololo” popped up — they groaned, as if we were all just embarrassed for the filmmakers that they were pulling out such a crusty old reference.

What’s great about internet memes is their powerful disposability. This stuff’s not built to last. We spend a few weeks obsessing over “Too Many Cooks,” then we move on to something else. We all lost our minds over rickrolling for what seemed like forever, but really, it was only about a year or so, right? And once a meme’s over, it’s over — we don’t want to be reminded of it ever again. And definitely not in a totally mediocre action movie.

#2. Charlie Day, I love you but you’re bringing me down.

Pacific Rim Uprising features John Boyega, who was so great in Attack the Block and became a star thanks to The Force Awakens. A big, dumb movie like Pacific Rim Uprising isn’t gonna hurt the guy — it’s a paycheck, it helps his visibility, and besides, he’s always got Star Wars in his back pocket. So I didn’t spend much time lamenting him being stuck in a bad movie. Charlie Day, on the other hand…

A few years ago, I sat down with the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia star for a cover story profile, and I found him to be a really charming, sweet and smart guy who was nothing like his lovably racist, idiotic TV character Charlie Kelly. At that point, his film career was just getting started — he had done the Horrible Bosses movies and had a fun voice cameo in The Lego Movie, but that was about it.

The problem is that, as of yet, Day still hasn’t figured out how to play a character who doesn’t seem like Charlie Kelly. Whether it’s Horrible Bosses or last year’s Fist Fight, where he’s merely a wimpy Charlie Kelly, it’s just less-funny variations on his Sunny character.

That’s especially true in the Pacific Rim films, where he plays an ethically slippery, joke-y scientist who’s meant to be the comic relief but is mostly annoying. I take no pleasure in saying that: Day’s such an inspired comedic presence on Sunny that I keep waiting for him to latch onto something equally great in movies. But Pacific Rim Uprising ain’t it.

#3. Movies need to stop using ‘I Want to Know What Love Is.’

Some songs, because they were used in such an iconic way in a particular movie, shouldn’t be allowed in any future movies. Think Stealers Wheel’s “Stuck in the Middle With You,” which scored the horrifying ear-cutting scene in Reservoir Dogs. Now if it pops up in a film, it’s probably cause the director wants to jokingly reference the Quentin Tarantino scene.

Not to give away any spoilers, but Pacific Rim Uprising scores one comic, messed-up “romantic” scene to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.” That cheesy, super-earnest 1980s power ballad shows up in a lot of movies — too many, actually, as it’s appeared in everything from Bad Moms to Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel. Like with Pacific Rim Uprising, most movies that incorporate the Foreigner hit are doing it ironically — the painfully sincere song is mocking whatever’s happening on screen — but “I Want to Know” actually has not one, but two indelible cinematic moments. One of them is incredibly moving — and the other kills the song so dead that nobody else need bother making fun of it ever again.

The first is in Swedish director Lukas Moodysson’s Show Me Love, a late-1990s drama about two teenage girls falling in love in their soul-crushing small town. “I Want to Know” comes on during a crucial moment when they’re sitting in a car alone, their budding feelings rising to the surface. No doubt Moodysson knew that most of us laugh at the Foreigner song, but he was making a point by incorporating it into a gay love story: For people who are afraid of revealing their sexuality, being brave enough to want to know what love is — and wanting your crush to show you — is kind of a big deal.

The other great “I Want to Know” moment comes in Rock of Ages, the not-very-good adaptation of the hit hair-metal musical. In the movie, Tom Cruise’s arrogant rock star and Malin Akerman’s timid journalist duet with utter sincerity as they confess their sexual longing for one another, ripping off each other’s clothes and grinding on a pool table. Director Adam Shankman and his stars weaponize what was always lurking underneath the song’s sickly-sweet sincerity: It’s all just a calculated ploy to get laid by seeming sensitive.

The Rock of Ages version removes any subtlety or pretense, turning it into the lustful mating call for two horndogs down to clown. The performance is really funny, especially because Cruise and Akerman take it so seriously. “I Want to Know What Love Is” may be a silly song, but for these two airheads, it’s their “You Are the Sunshine of My Life.”

#4. Why don’t movie titles use colons?

Used to be, when a movie spawned a sequel, the studio would indicate that by putting a number at the end of the title. Did you enjoy The Godfather? Well, here’s The Godfather Part II? Want to know what happened after Lethal Weapon? Great, here’s Lethal Weapon 2. Now, that’s never always been the case — The Empire Strikes Back wouldn’t be half as cool if it was Star Wars 2 — but generally there once was an attempt to clue in viewers on which installment of a franchise they were watching.

That has shifted radically in recent years. The Iron Man and Guardians of the Galaxy films stick to numbers, but the other films in the MCU settle for what’s probably the most common sequel-titling strategy of the modern era — using a colon. So you get Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Age of Ultron. This is a fairly elegant way of getting around using numbers, but we’re truly living in the darkest timeline since movies have now decided to leave the colon out altogether.

Let’s start with the Star Trek reboot. After the 2009 film, Paramount decided to ignore punctuation and go with Star Trek Into Darkness. What does that title even mean? At least when the 1990s Batman movies tried this shtick, it sorta made sense. Batman Returns? Sure, he returned after the first movie. Batman Forever? That kinda sounds like a slogan or a chant: Yes, I suppose I would like Batman to be around forever. But Star Trek Into Darkness? Is that like Star Trek After Dark? And then there was Star Trek Beyond? Beyond what?

Nothing matters anymore.

We have the problem again with Pacific Rim Uprising. I know this is an irrational pet peeve, but it drives me crazy: Where is the goddamn colon? How am I supposed to even read that title? All in one breath: “pacific rim uprising”? What’s a pacific rim uprising? Now, try this: Pacific Rim: Uprising. Isn’t that better? It puts the proper pause in the title so that you understand what’s happening in this installment. “Oh, apparently there’s some kind of uprising that happens in this one, Martha. We don’t want to miss that.”

Make sure to check back in July when Mission: Impossible — Fallout comes out and I have an aneurysm.