By John Mills
Seeing Pacific Rim Uprising brought something to the forefront of my attention that I didn’t expect to be thinking about this week: how blatant some of the pandering to Chinese audiences has become in American blockbusters. This trend is nothing new, and some have been bemoaning it for several years now, if not longer. It’s a natural development of a couple of factors; namely, increasing media consumption on the part of the Chinese public, and the expansion of the involvement of studio involvement in films. Now, I know just enough about how movies are made to know that I don’t know enough to accurately talk about the process, but “studio meddling” is often cited as a primary reason for why a movie didn’t turn out the way a director wanted. There’s a line I have to walk carefully here, between reasonable frustration, and just old-fashioned racism.
Its naive to say that movies are “just art.” Some, naturally are, but to call $100 million blockbusters “just art” is facile. There is obviously an economic aspect to the equation, especially for movies made with the funding of big studios. For movies with huge budgets, A-list casting, and a CGI crew big enough to rival some small cities, there needs to be a return on investment. In a similar vein, US media is, by and large, the world baseline. It’s hard to escape American media around the world in some form or another without completely cutting yourself off from the grid, and even then, some ad jingle will be bouncing around in your head for eternity. This is why the really big money-making movies always make more outside the US than inside it, the market is naturally larger. Properties like the Avengers and Star Wars have basic mass market appeal that net those films hundreds of millions in profit. This is not the problem. The problem stems from the tier of blockbuster-style films that deliberately pander to foreign audiences to ensure those few extra bucks.
The fourth Transformers film was a particularly egregious example of this. The third act moves to Hong Kong, has random chunks of dialogue spoken in Chinese, and shows every Chinese character, including those within the notoriously backlogged Chinese Communist Party, as an effective and decisive hero. It’s almost insulting for how saccharine it is. Pacific Rim Uprising does something similar. Like I said in my review of Uprising, the first Pacific Rim may have been largely set in Hong Kong, but it doesn’t feel forced. That’s just where they are. The foreign language spoken in that movie is little bits of Japanese between Mako Mori and her adoptive father, played by Idris Elba. In Uprising, we get a beautiful Chinese tech entrepreneur who saves the day at the last second out of nowhere, with no real interaction with the heroes before that. Its clumsy, forced, and plays to what I guess could be called an sense of Chinese exceptionalism.
There’s an understandable desire to appeal to broader audiences, especially for those financing these films. That being said, most of the time it feels hamfisted and blunt. There has to be a middle ground that will both raise the appeal for foreign audiences without feeling so much like pandering. I believe in you Hollywood, you can do this one, simple thing.