Flipping the Script on: ‘Pacific Rim’

Welcome to “Flipping the Script,” a monthly column where I will reconsider recent films that have been panned, frowned upon, or simply under appreciated. I believe that movies should speak to us on a deep, personal level, and this column will consist of films that have done that for me despite widespread derision or apathy. Join me on my noble quest for cinematic redemption!
Robots vs. monsters. Enough said, right?

Not quite. Pacific Rim, Guillermo del Toro’s 2013 science fiction epic, didn’t pack much of a punch in the domestic box office, and it has continued to simmer under the radar of devotees to bulkier franchises like Transformers and Star Wars. Yet with a sequel now in development, high-profile casting news and intriguing set photos are beginning to trickle out, whetting the appetites of moviegoers who have championed the strengths of the original film over the past few years. Yes, the robots are gnarly, the monsters are scaly (and scary), and their clashes are literally Earth-shattering. But Pacific Rim impresses just as much with its thoroughly human core.

Charlie Hunnam and his opening voiceover drags us right into the story: Dinosaur-like aliens called Kaiju have emerged from an interdimensional portal at the Earth’s core to wage war against the Earth. In the wake of unprecedented death and destruction, humanity comes together– much like in the heady sci-fi hit and 2017 Oscar nominee, Arrival– to develop a weapon powerful enough to vanquish the aliens and save humankind. That weapon? An army of robots, of course! Or as they’re called in Pacific Rim, Jaegers: a series of skyscraper-sized, metal-plated behemoths operated by two co-pilots who control the machine’s movements from within.

Raleigh Becket (Hunnam) and his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff) were the Jaeger Program’s star fighters until Yancy’s brutal death in a rescue attempt gone awry. Years go by, and the Kaiju attacks increase in frequency while the Jaegers get steadily pummeled. In a typical bureaucratic move that provides so many blockbusters with their main tension, the world governments have decided to shut down the Jaeger Program in favor of building an “anti-Kaiju” wall. (Yeah, that’ll work.) Fortunately for action gurus, Pacific Rim is not a film about border patrol. And so the gloriously named army marshal Stacker Pentecost (played by ye God among men, Idris Elba) takes charge of the remaining Jaegers and recruits a lost and lonely Raleigh to the new base in Hong Kong for a final, alien-smashing hurrah.

Each Kaiju-Jaeger battle is a cacophony of orchestrated chaos, and every punch landed is a thrill of power and awe. They tumble in the roiling Pacific Ocean as though it is a kiddy pool, and they hurl tons of cargo containers through buildings like a rhinoceros swatting a fly. (It’s a bit too heavy on the disaster porn, but, hey. A genre’s a genre.) The cinematic apocalypse is often breathtakingly gorgeous, and Pacific Rim – helmed by frequent Guillermo del Toro cinematographer Guillermo Navarro–  is no exception. The interdimensional rift from which the Kaiju emerge is a cosmic soup of multicolored madness, and the retro-futurism of Hong Kong baths the later battles in polychromatic light. As for the aliens: del Toro is, as always, a gothic genius.

Plus: What would a raging rumble be without a Sports Center-ready soundtrack? Look to none other than Ramin Djawadi of Game of Thrones fame for the head-nodding, rock ‘n’ roll theme music.

There is, however, an added visceral layer to the spectacle: the man (and woman!) within the machine. To co-operate a Jaeger, two people must engage in a mental link– a process called “Drifting” – culminating in a “neural handshake,” which binds their minds with the machine. The pilots’ presence inside the Jaeger elevates each robot-alien fight by imbuing it with more personal stakes, while the Drifting process itself allows the film to deeply explore what makes each character tick.

One character in particular stands out not just in the context of Pacific Rim, but in the pantheon of great female action heroes and, indeed, among female characters throughout all of film. That character is Mako Mori (played by Rinko Kikuchi), a rookie pilot who was brought up by Pentecost after her family was killed by a Kaiju attack in Tokyo when she was a little girl. Mako is exceptional in many ways: she’s fierce, fiery, complex, talented; in short, she has all the markings of a successful female action hero. Extra diversity points for her non-Anglo-Saxon ethnicity, too.

Pacific Rim

Mako is, unfortunately, the only woman of note in the male-dominated film, a fact that causes Pacific Rim to dismally fail the feminist-inspired Bechdel Test. But the depth and arc of Mako’s character inspired a whole other gauge of feminist quality: The Mako Mori Test. This Bechdel Test alternative, proposed by Tumblr user chaila, is passed if a movie has a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story. Our eponymous heroine, of course, passes the test with flying colors. Though Raleigh’s arc kicks off the narrative, Mako’s brings it all home: she wants to fight to avenge her family, and her personal struggles and goals are not dependent on those of the white, male lead. It’s a sad reflection on the industry that this is so rare, but it certainly makes Pacific Rim all the more laudable.

In fact, del Toro– who is known for crafting complex female characters in his films– was very deliberate in how he constructed Mako’s character. He also purposefully shied away from developing a romantic plotline between Mako, the female lead, and Raleigh, the male lead. The two are undoubtedly compatible physically and mentally, which is why they match so well as co-pilots– or in the movie’s terms, that’s why they’re so “Drift compatible.” And yet, rather than sexualizing the characters, the movie explores their platonic relationship in a way that feels more meaningful. There is intimacy, of course– the duo shares a brain space in order to fight aliens, after all– but the absence of a romantic necessity is invigorating and refreshing. (In that sense, Pacific Rim succeeds where a movie like, say, Rogue One, fails; Rogue One presents a similar tableau of male-dominated action heroes, and the budding romance between the one heroine, Jyn Erso, and the dashing-but-complicated Cassian Andor felt– if you’ll forgive the inescapable pun– very forced.)

Which is all to say that the emotional heart of Pacific Rim is built on a bedrock of compelling, intricate relationships, and not one of them is a (standard Hollywood) romance. Mako and Raleigh become teammates, confidantes, friends; Mako and her adoptive father, Pentecost, have a tumultuous but ultimately cathartic father-daughter bond, and even the irritatingly shrieky Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day, natch) and the comically stiff Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) enjoy a quirky rapport.

Pacific Rim

Big picture aside, the geektastic details of Pacific Rim heighten its appeal even more. There’s Yancy’s “Hey kid– don’t get cocky” Star Wars reference at the beginning of the film, and Ron Perlman playing, essentially, a classic Ron Perlman character: a slippery, mysterious businessman with gold-tipped shoes, a gaudy suit, and a cheesy-but-badass nom de guerre. Finally, there’s the film’s celebration of multiculturalism– though so many apocalypses tend to originate and center on the United States (poor New York City, the target of 98% of all alien invasions), Pacific Rim settles down mostly in Hong Kong, and the languages spoken and mythologies invoked reflect that diversity.

But if you come for just the robots and aliens…. Well, hey. You’re in for quite a party.
Allyson can be found hiding from adult responsibilities on Twitter at @TheFakeFangirl and overanalyzing time travel stories at The Fake Fangirl.

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