Pacific Rim (2013) is one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies. Guillermo del Toro's love letter to classic monster movies and Japanese mecha is expertly crafted popcorn fare. Once the novel introduction--a masterclass in exposition and montage--passes, every story beat is telegraphed from a mile away. Every origin story, every heroic sacrifice, every unlikely partnership, looms large in our narrative peripheral vision before landing. It's tautly executed and stylish, but safe: "Save the Cat" storytelling, propped up with monumental action setpieces that make it an ideal background movie, perfect for an annual re-watch during a long writing marathon.

With a sequel, Pacific Rim: Uprising due to hit theaters in a few weeks, I thought I'd write a bit about one feature of the original's soundtrack that has always struck me: the main theme is constructed in a way that perfectly mirrors its larger-than-life action, and its comfortingly broad story strokes.

Pacific Rim was scored by Ramin Djawadi (Iron Man, Game of Thrones, and most recently Ava Duvernay's A Wrinkle in Time) and features Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello on its title track (used for the film's end credits). Djawadi wrote distinct themes for the heroic Jaegers (the giant robots that defend humanity), and the lumbering, mysterious kaiju (giant monsters who emerge from an undersea portal to attack coastal cities).

The Jaeger theme's metric structure is what makes it so striking. Most heroic themes seem to begin either on the beat (think of the fanfare that begins John Williams' Superman theme, or the orchestral flourish from Guardians of the Galaxy), or with a strong, single upbeat (Star Wars, Indiana Jones). The Jaeger theme's upbeat, on the other hand, occupies two beats, beginning on the "and" of three. As shown below (in comparison to some of those other themes I mentioned), this makes the pick-up both exceptionally long, and metrically very weak.

Pacific Rim (2013; Ramin Djawadi)

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Superman (1978; John Williams) [1]


Star Wars (1977; John Williams)

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Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981; John Williams)

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Admittedly, this wouldn't be all that notable if the film didn't so frequently match the theme's opening downbeat to the action on screen. A good example is shown in the clip below. Gipsy Danger (the Jaeger piloted by our heroes Raleigh [Charlie Hunnam] and Mako [Rinko Kikuchi]) appears on the scene of a desperate brawl in Hong Kong harbor. "Alright Mako, get ready, this is for real," Raleigh yells. The underscore's tense silence says the same thing to the audience. The beast charges. Gipsy Danger bends at the knees as the theme enters, preparing to throw its shoulders up like an offensive lineman. The combatants collide as the downbeat lands and the rest of the orchestra enters. The moment seems agonizingly (or perhaps, thrillingly?) long; the underscore is less an upbeat and more of a complete suspension of musical time while we wait for the blow to land.

Such mirrored anticipatory gestures--from the Jaeger and the soundtrack, simultaneously--happen over and over throughout the film. Pacific Rim luxuriates in its own scale, fully understanding that the joy of watching a 30-story tall robot fight a 30-story tall lizard lies in the deliberateness of it all. The movie's fight scenes seem to unfold in slow motion. Gipsy Danger's uppercuts swing for acres before they land on the kaiju's jaw, and the viewer's pleasure lies not in the impact itself, but in the several seconds of anticipation: the frisson of just how awesome that punch is going to be.

(Slow motion, not coincidentally, has been a part of kaiju movies since the beginning: it's what gave the very first, man-in-a-suit Godzilla [1954] a sense of mass and scale.)

After Gipsy and the kaiju grapple for a few seconds, the monster gains the upper hand. It hurls the massive Jaeger toward the shore. The music stops as the robot soars silently, helplessly through the air. For five whole seconds Gipsy rotates gently; the soundtrack rushes back in as the robot nears an overpass, the rapid escalation of noise just before impact mirroring the release of the breath that the viewer is meant to have held until now. The Jaeger scrambles to its feet and digs its hands into the ground, dragging its fists through row after row of shipping containers to arrest its momentum: the monumental blows of Pacific Rim have after-effects that sprawl for as long as their anacrusi. The action sequences, and the soundtrack, are all about momentum. The antagonists charge toward each other, building up speed towards a clash that will finally bring the soundtrack back in. 

These (pseudo-)silences have much the same effect as dropping the bass in a pop song: the ubiquitous "BRAAAM" sound of contemporary cinema is nothing without the absence that precedes it. As Robin James has written of EDM drops, the sudden silence "build[s] intensity towards a valley instead of a peak." We anticipate the soundtrack's re-entry just as the EDM listener anticipates the return of the beat; the lurching absence is more powerful than the soundtrack itself, for it signals our anticipation.

The musical kinetics of the theme--the way it enters on an upbeat that points ahead to an eventual accent--mirror the massive wind-up that accompanies any meaningful gesture in this world of kaiju and jaegers. In the clip below, Gipsy Danger trudges up the street, dragging a barge behind it like a club. The robot transfers the barge to its right hand, hoists it, swings; the theme re-appears, aimed--just like the makeshift cudgel--squarely at the monster's jaw. Just as we are meant, in a summery popcorn movie like this, to watch each plot twist wind up and gather energy before it lands, so too are we meant to hear both the theme and the lumbering combatants pulling back, coiling up in potential energy, as we marvel in anticipation of what is about to happen.


[1] Note that the actual Superman "March," after the fanfare, has the same pickup as Star Wars

[2] See the first chapter of Robin James, Resilience and Melancholy: Pop Music, Femininism, Neoliberalism (New York: Zone Books, 2015).