Zack Snyder's Maybe Bigger, But del Toro Knows How To Use It
It's always a pissing contest when it comes to blockbusters. With hundreds of millions of dollars behind them, directors and writers must feel obliged to go 'bigger' to earn their keep. In the last year or so, the industry standard of 'bigger' seems to refer to the level of destruction you can bring to a city. Whether it be with gigantic robots or with superheroes who just don't give a shit - the box-office is overflowing with city-dwellers in constant fear for their lives. But as Man of Steel has shown, going big needs a human scale. Guillermo del Toro is one of the only directors of late to actually imbue his on-screen spectacle with a legitimate scale. Despite Pacific Rim's gleein shattering glass and crumbling buildings, it's somehow avoided the recent furore over blockbusters exploiting 9/11 imagery as a shortcut to scale. Writers from around the web have chastised Man of Steel for this sort of callous referential behaviour and its seeming inability to remove itself from the well-worn images of fleeing citizens covered in debris. Kyle Buchanan of Vulture has been quite vocal and given his two cents here (though he seems to have gone too far in the other direction). As he mentions, the pitfall of such gratuitous wreckage is that it never directly references the human cost of its spectacle, rendering its appropriation of toppling skyscrapers distasteful, if not wholly exploitative. In fact, Scott Collura from IGN has even gone so far as to recruit a "disaster expert", whose diagnosis is that Man of Steel would have cost Metropolis 129,000 lives and some $700 billion in structural damage (read the rest here).That seems to be a recurring problem for Superman's latest outing. The entirety of the film's narrative is bereft of any lasting consequence - scenes don't coalesce into any cause and effect progression and this lack of context renders the climactic battles lacking in any impact, so to speak. If an audience laughs at Jonathan Kent dying, you know you've got a problem with emotional connect. So when it comes to Superman and General Zod flying around, throwing each other clean through skyscrapers, with nigh a moment's notice of the millions of dying peons around them, the size of the spectacle just undermines the point.
And Zack Snyder's payoff for mass destruction? Superman brutally murdering Zod to save 3 people cowering in a train station.
While its levels of destruction aren't quite as exorbitant, Pacific Rim has taken a different tact and instead draws as much attention to size and scale as possible while rooting that in a constant impetus on the human cost. Every shot utilises the immediate environment (as opposed to Man of Steel's cultural signifiers) to emphasise the size of Guillermo del Toro's gargantuan beasts. A great example is the Sydney battle, where a kaiju and jaeger throw down in front of the Opera House. Here you've got 2 points of reference. One is the Opera House, shown literally side by side with the kaiju and the other is the composition of the shot itself, which is obscured by frantic civilians scrambling for cover. More than that, the jaegers are constantly depicted in a state of defence - fending off gnashing kaiju whilst simultaneously helping humans steer clear of almost certain obliteration. More than that, the entirety of the narrative is concerned with the cost of the kaiju war and every character represents the pain and misery of the destruction around them. The Hong Kong battle scene, in particular, is incredible in the way it stages a cohesive action sequence whilst never forgetting the spectacle of it all. After having witnessed 2 other jaegers torn apart (the Chinese and the Russians wiped out of the script in the space of about 5 minutes), the Charlie Hunnam/Rinko Kikuchi jaeger is deployed to Hong Kong to avenge them and save the city. The behemoths battle it out around the bay area, leaving much devastation in their wake. There are a combination of tactics employed here that ratchet up the scene's scale; notable among them are the upwards-facing camera angles or shots from 'ground level'. What proves most effective, though, is the much-maligned Newton's Cradle gag (where a jaeger's fist plows into the side of an office block, slowing down just enough to start the balls clicking). Fobbed off as lame by a lot of audiences, the gag isn't really a gag at all, but an attempt to keep you completely conscious of the size of the spectacle at hand.
Pacific Rim demonstrates 'bigger' is an illusion. It's always more effective to show an audience the size of your spectacle, rather than simply telling them it's big. It almost feels like the equivalent of trying to convince your friends how big a spider is in a photograph. Man of Steel tells you it's big: "Remember the one you saw on the news that terrified you? That big!" Pacific Rim shows it to you by holding a 50 cent coin in the shot.