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Saturday, July 27, 2013

Pacific Rim: Giant Vs. Strange

At the beginning of Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro's take on city-destroying mayhem, the term kaiju is defined on screen as meaning "giant monster." In fact, the Japanese term actually means "strange creature," and was coined to describe a genre of Japanese movies featuring monsters who were strange and who were also very often gigantic.

Pacific Rim is almost certainly the greatest giant monster movie ever made, but it's not quite in the same genre as the kaiju films that inspired it.

The film opens up with admirably compact exposition. By the time the title card shows, we've already seen more and better giant monster action than found in the entirety of Roland Emmerich's detestable 1998 attempt to Americanize Godzilla. This far in, we've also learned why IMAX was a necessary invention. If you're seeing Pacific Rim in any other format than IMAX 3D, you're missing out on an incredible spectacle.

The premise is pretty simple. Giant monsters are invading through a dimensional rift in the bottom of the ocean, and humanity has built giant robots to beat them back. The robots are piloted by pairs of humans who are psychically linked in order to handle the complexity of the machines. The plot develops a bit beyond this, with contributions from wacky scientists, including Charlie Day upending his usual typecasting as an idiot in a restrained (for him) performance, and yet another a memorable gangster turn from Ron Perelman.

But the fundamental structure of the movie is giant showdowns. A series of simplistic but well-drawn characters drive the action, with basic but effective emotional hooks, buttressed by fine to great acting from stars Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi. The "humans" story is far, far better than that found in the the typical kaiju movie, and it invests viewers in the personal stakes, without rising to the level that it distracts from the main event.

And what a main event! Armed with IMAX and 3D, and a seat near the front of the theater, Pacific Rim delivers a size of experience -- and an experience of size -- that has literally never been seen before. I found myself craning my head back to look up at monsters and robots that were viscerally gigantic. As an aficionado of kaiju -- I've watched all 28 Godzilla movies, most of the other Toho kaiju movies, all of the Gamera movies, and Toho's live action TV series Zone Hunter --  I found myself grinning uncontrollably at various points in the movie, as the giant mayhem kept coming. As a spectacle, Pacific Rim is unbeatable. I might have tweaked a few things, but there's really nothing much to complain about here.

All of this begs the question, especially for a notorious fan such as myself: How does Pacific Rim compare to Godzilla in all his incarnations, and the many other kaiju who went before?

Oddly, there's an apples and oranges problem.

The kaiju genre is long and storied, but embedded powerfully within it is the centrality of the monsters themselves -- not simply as plot devices, but as characters with distinct features and usually distinct personalities. With a few exceptions -- the original Godzilla (1954), Mothra (1964) and Daimaijan (1966), for example, -- the humans are MacGuffins whose main purpose is to contextualize the monster.

Even when the human stories are powerful, as in the outstanding Gamera: Revenge of Iris, the personalities of the monsters are equally weighted. Viewers care about the monsters, not just their human opponents. The monsters are, ultimately, the protagonists in most kaiju movies. Although there are exceptions, such as the bizarre and notably non-giant Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963), by and large, the monsters are the stars and the characters for whom we reserve our affections. As testimony to this fact, only a tiny handful of the hundreds of human characters featured in 28 Godzilla movies have ever made more than one appearance (even though the actors sometimes come back in different roles).

Japanese kaiju have motivations, often very clear and specific ones with relevance to contemporary concerns such as the environment, nuclear weapons or geopolitics (as in the blatantly Japanese nationalist Godzilla in the 2001 film, Godzilla, Mothra and King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack). More often than not, Godzilla is angry about something, whether it's pollution (Godzilla vs. Hedorah). alien invaders (Godzilla vs. Monster Zero), attempts to manipulate him (Destroy All Monsters), or the desecration of his predecessor's bones (Tokyo S.O.S).

Kaiju carry a strange sort of moral authority, even when they're bad. But the kaiju of Pacific Rim are quite literally the tools of a fairly generic invasion whose authors are extremely vague and whose motives appear to be purely pragmatic.

Here, the monsters are a series of challenges to be overcome, more often glimpsed than seen, with fundamental designs reminiscent of some of the worse excesses of the Gamera series, although executed much better here. Pacific Rim is about the humans who fight monsters, not the monsters themselves. Although each is given a nickname, they can hardly be distinguished from each other except by virtue of size. They're massive and menacing, but generic. Similarly, the destruction they wreak is oddly underplayed, considering its blatantly apocalyptic overtones. We don't spend much time watching cities fall.

Instead, Pacific Rim is all about the battles. In this sense, it most closely resembles 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars, the very last Japanese installment from Godzilla's production company Toho. But even in that movie, the personalities of the monsters shine through (albeit mostly thanks to their familiarity from movies past). Pacific Rim delivers the most spectacular experience of a giant monster movie ever filmed, but the monsters themselves are ultimately forgettable.

Despite this, Pacific Rim succeeds on nearly every level. But it doesn't quite belong to the genre that spawned it. Its relevance for kaiju films stems primarily from the challenge it presents going forward. The new American Godzilla (2014) is squarely in Pacific Rim's sights. Before this movie, all director Gareth Edwards really had to accomplish was to suck less than Emmerich's 1998 travesty.

Now the new American take -- and for that matter, all future Japanese kaiju films -- must clear a much higher bar, and history is not full of success stories on the production values front. If they succeed, it could bring a renaissance for the kaiju genre, but if they fail, del Toro's affectionate tribute could mark the start of a dark period of retreat for the strange and beloved creatures who have blazed a destructive trail through Japan's cities for more than 50 years.




Jihad Joe by J.M. Berger Jihad Joe is the first comprehensive history of the American jihadist movement, tracking the phenomenon from the 1970s to the present. The book has been praised in reviews by the New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, the Washington Times,, Library Journal and more. It is available in hardcover eveywhere books are sold, as well as Kindle, Nook and Google ebook editions.


ISIS: The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M. BergerJessica Stern and J.M. Berger co-author the new book, "ISIS: The State of Terror," from Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins. The book, on sale now, examines the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, its potential fall, how it is transforming the nature of extremist movements, and how we should evaluate the threat it presents. Jessica Stern is a Harvard lecturer on terrorism and the author of the seminal text Terror in the Name of God: Why Religious Militants Kill. J.M. Berger is author of the definitive book on American jihadists, Jihad Joe: Americans Who Go to War in the Name of Islam, a frequent contributor to Foreign Policy and a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World.

Read an excerpt in The Atlantic | Listen to an audiobook excerpt

Buy now | Buy Kindle version


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For NPR's On the Media, J.M. Berger dissected problems with the coverage of Inspire Magazine.

J.M. Berger discussed the Boston Marathon bombing with BBC television and radio, and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Berger also wrote about the attack for Foreign Policy and spoke with reporters from The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, the Christian Science Monitor, Radio Australia, AFP and many others.

J.M. Berger discussed the State Department's counterterrorism initiatives on social media with the Associated Press.

The Associated Press spoke with J.M. Berger about the recent reward offered for the arrest of American jihadi Omar Hammami

Wired covered a story first broken on INTELWIRE about American Al Shabab member Omar Hammami denying he wrote the jihadist raps attributed to him. "The raps were pretty terrible," J.M. Berger told Wired. "If he's not responsible for even one, that's a black mark erased from his record."

J.M. Berger was quoted in a Buzzfeed story on the Christopher Dorner case.

Berger was quoted in several recent stories on terrorist use of the Internet, including the suspension of Al Shabab's Twitter account. Associated Press, LA Times, Al Jazeera, Washington Times, Toronto Star.

CNN's Starting Point (above) and Out Front with Erin Burnett invited J.M. Berger to reveal new details about Wisconsin white supremacist shooter Wade Page and his recent encounters with law enforcement sources investigating domestic terrorism.

Berger was quoted in stories on on Wade Page, the white supremacist who opened fire on a Sikh religious assembly in Oak Creek, Wisc., by the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and more.


New America Foundation panel, "Infiltration and Surveillance: Countering Homegrown Terrorism," with J.M. Berger and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman.


J.M. Berger was named one of Foreign Policy's Twitterati 100, "the 100 Twitter feeds you need to follow to make sense of" global turmoil and conflict.

In an exclusive report for Foreign Policy, J.M. Berger reveals the reason that Somalia's Al Shabab wants to kill American jihadist Omar Hammami.

J.M. Berger's investigative piece Patriot Games: How the FBI spent a decade hunting white supremacists and missed Timothy McVeigh was named a long-form journalism pick of the week from

INTELWIRE and J.M. Berger were quoted in a New York Times story on the latest Al Qaeda terror scare.


  • Homegrown violent extremism (HVE and CVE)
  • Terrorist and extremist use of the Internet
  • Lone wolf and loosely networked terrorism
  • American jihadists including Anwar Awlaki
  • History of jihadist terrorism in the U.S.
  • History of right-wing extremism in the U.S.
  • Al Qaeda infiltration and targeting of U.S. military
  • Early Al Qaeda history and structure
  • Terrorist tactics and financing
  • Jihadist activity during Bosnian civil war
  • Document research and FOIA


    New York Times: "a timely warning from an expert who has not lost his perspective"

    Washington Times: "How these American jihadists became radicalized, recruited and trained... constitute the core of Mr. Berger's important book."

    Zenpundit: "Berger neither condemns nor excuses: he sees, he asks, he researches, he reports. ... a book to read... a book to admire." "well-researched and incredibly accessibly presented history of American involvement in violent jihad."

    Publisher's Weekly: "lifts the veil on the phenomenon of American jihadists..."

    Library Journal: "an easy read... the better choice for those seeking ... objective [journalism]."

    Buy "Jihad Joe" now!