What Death Means in Film, or How the Coolest Character in ‘Pacific Rim’ Ruins the Movie [Opinion]

My friend and roommate Jeffrey recently showed me Pacific Rim for the first time (I missed it in theaters). For the most part, I thought it was fun – I mean, it was overwrought and cliché, and I didn’t care about any of the characters, but I went in expecting big, dumb, goofy robot / monster fights, and that’s what I enjoyed about the film.

And one character, more than any other, summed up the big, dumb, goofy fun aspect of the film – Hannibal Chau, played by the great Ron Perlman.

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For those who haven’t seen it, some minor spoilers for the film follow.

Hannibal is an eccentric black market dealer in Hong Kong who specializes in Kaiju parts. He’s got cool shades, outrageous fancy clothes, and these very nice shoes with metal tips that jingle when he walks. He’s got a badass scar, a badass knife, and all the best lines.

I was enjoying Hannibal Chau more than any other character in the film (not that that’s a high bar, you understand), and then the scene comes when Newton (Charlie Day) is almost killed by a Baby Kaiju, which then strangles itself with its own umbilical cord. Chau tells Newton that he knew the Baby Kaiju would die, because of the cord and the baby’s underdeveloped lungs. And then he is promptly eaten by the “dead” baby, and all that is left is a jingling shoe.

I continued to more or less enjoy the movie (it’s dumb, but it was worth a good laugh), and then the scene during the credits came, where Hannibal Chau cuts his way out of the dead baby Kaiju, pokes his head out, and yells, “Where’s my goddamn shoe?!”

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And at that very moment, the entire world of the film was basically ruined for me.

Let me be clear – despite how cliché the movie is (which is to say, very cliché), I enjoyed Pacific Rim, and I was sold on the world, mostly because there was a very clear message: “Arrogance will get you killed.” It’s one of the first things we see, when the lead’s brother tells him “Don’t get cocky,” and 10 minutes later he’s dead.

Chau’s death reinforces that message. He claims knowledge of the Kaiju, more than any other character in the film, and he proves it more than once. And at the end of the scene with the Baby Kaiju, as Chau rattles off the reasons the baby “died,” he is showing off, flaunting his knowledge – and once again, the cruel hand of irony comes down on top of him, in the form of an underdeveloped Kaiju fetus. Once again, we learn not to be cocky.

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Except, no, never mind. Turns out, the message is, “Arrogance will get you killed, unless you’re played by Ron Perlman, and then the audience will love you so much that the director will add a scene where you come back to life and nullify the entire message that the film has taught us about death.”

This may seem like I’m reading too much into it, but I have always  been interested in what death in a film says about the world of that film. Which characters die, and under what circumstances, can tell you a lot about the rules and the message of the movie, even more so than the apparent morals presented on-screen. The deaths show you the writer’s intent often more clearly than any platitudes or Aesop messages.

A fairly clear example of that, when talking about recent films, is Man of Steel.

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Man of Steel was a movie about Superman’s origin story that wanted us to think that it was all about isolation, but it wasn’t – it was a movie about death. In the course of the film, Clark loses two fathers, one mother, a supervillain, dozens of soldiers, and several thousand Metropolis citizens. And in a way, their deaths could be seen to rationalize the feeling of isolation Clark feels – but they actually don’t. Because most of them die completely without consequence.

Clark’s Kryptonian parents die because Superman is from a doomed world – that’s who he is. Yet before they die of inevitability, his father is murdered for no real reason other than to reinforce the villain. Clark’s human father dies because he does not want his superhero son to use his powers to help people, and Clark agrees for some baffling reason. Zod dies because Clark snaps his neck, and there’s no getting around the senselessness of having Superman kill a dude.

And then there’s Metropolis.

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I will readily admit that, at this point, everyone has thrown their hat in to comment on the brutal scenes at the end of Man of Steel. It’s almost pointless now to complain about it a year later, when everyone else has already said it, but I bring it up because it reinforces my point. The film seems to be about hope – that’s what a lot of the dialogue is about, at least. But then there’s a scene where several thousand Metropolites die for no reason, and Superman is put in a scene on the other end of the world for the soul purpose of getting him out of the way so the filmmakers could obliterate maybe a million people.

That is not the act of a film about hope. It’s the act of a film about nihilism.

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Another terrific example of death saying something profound about the world of a film is Boba Fett in Star Wars. When he first shows up in Empire Strikes Back, Boba Fett was instantly beloved. But when Return of the Jedi rolled around, Lucas either didn’t know about Fett’s popularity or didn’t care (and I’m inclined to think he didn’t know, given that we’ve since seen his attempts at fan service at every turn) – so Fett goes out like a chump, literally killed on accident.

And the Star Wars franchise is filled with unceremonious deaths, from Obi-Wan Kenobi to Darth Maul, and even to Jango Fett. In fact, when Mace Windu is killed in a fantastically over-the-top fashion (as requested by Samuel L. Jackson), it actually feels incredibly out-of-character for the franchise. Seriously, he’s amputated, electrocuted, and defenestrated (thrown out a window) – it’s the closest thing Star Wars has to a Tarantino death scene.

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But these abrupt or unceremonious deaths help sell the (relative) realism of Star Wars – this is a war, and sometimes important characters go down quickly. And while the prequels are mostly just terrible fan service, we even see this message carried through in those films. Even Jango Fett, who is almost like a “take two” on Boba Fett, an attempt to actually make a character as cool as the audience seemed to think Boba Fett was – even he goes down fast. He gets a few awesome moments, both against Obi-Wan and in the final battle, but when Mace charges and deflects Jango’s laser blasts, all it takes is ONE swipe of the saber to cleave the gun, and ONE swipe of the saber to cleave his head off, and then Jango just slumps down.

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No awesome last words. No moment of prophecy. Just a decapitated, unceremonious corpse.

In The Dark Knight, we get another very deliberate use of death, only in this case it’s weaponized against the main character – almost every important death is a character who represent hope to Batman.

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This goes all the way from the Judge towards the beginning, the woman who was the only Judge brave enough to prosecute over 100 mobsters at once, to Jim Gordon (faked death, but it still counts), Batman’s closest ally, all the way up to Harvey Dent (symbolically killed) and Rachel (very literally killed), who both represent a life for Bruce where he can retire from being Batman.

All of these people represent the dawn of a a world that doesn’t need Batman. And the Joker blows them up to take that option off the table, both in-character and from a writing perspective. He kills them as if to say, “NO! Wrong! You don’t get to retire! You’re mine forever!”

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That’s exactly what the Joker wants – a world where crime is elevated to the level that deserves a Batman, despite the fact that Batman (at least in the movies) would like nothing more than to retire. He wants to create a world that doesn’t need him to fight crime, and the deaths in the film represent the death of that dream.

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Death in films tells you what the writers and directors think about the world of the film. In The Dark Knight, it’s meant to establish that Batman is absolutely necessary. In Star Wars, it establishes that death is random and senseless (unless you’re a main character). In Lady in the Water, there is a scene much like Hannibal Chau’s death scene, where a film reviewer claims to have knowledge of how the world works, and then is immediately murdered – once again establishing that the only way to survive is not to be arrogant (or to be a film reviewer, if you’re in an M. Night Shyamalan film).

In Pacific Rim, the message is, “Be a cool, interesting character that the audience likes, and you’ll never die.” Although with that in mind, given how many uninteresting characters there are in that film, it’s remarkable anyone was left on screen by the credits rolled.

The monster fights were cool, though. I will give them that.

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