The “monster” movie is so simple that it begs for self-important critical analysis. Any first year film student can tell you about how films like Attack of the Giant Crab Monsters are actually ways Americans of the 1950s expressed their anxiety about nuclear weapons.
Some writers think The Blob is actually about fear of Communism, rather than a human-devouring ball of slime. Of course, every film consciously or unconsciously exploits motifs, cultural assumptions, and symbolism that reflect deeper societal truths – but sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and a giant flying lizard monster is just a giant flying lizard monster.
What is more important than the beasts is how contemporary films treat the response of their heroes to the existential threat. If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, filmmakers are the educators, grooming the mass public to accept certain ideas in preparation for them to be implemented as policy. The acceptance of global security forces instead of national armies, the worship of blacks as natural leaders, and the promotion of an international political creed of egalitarianism, secular humanism, and intrusive (but benevolent) government are all themes emerging from the new wave of action and comic book movies like GI Joe and The Avengers. The common theme is a war against Tradition in favor of the Whig Theory of History, whereby humanity progresses fearlessly from advance to advance in preparation for the glorious dénouement of universal human rights, democracy, and equality.
The films of Guillermo del Toro have been some of the most explicit in this regard, with overt Traditionalist villains serving as the foils to his predictable heroes. In Pacific Rim, del Toro takes a new tack, with heroes who rage not against some destined reckoning for decadence, but against primordial creatures from another dimension. However, even here, he uses some the hallmarks of that same universal story, the Narrative of white dispossession, internationalism, and eternal progressivism that we keep being told over and over. But of course, like someone might say about critical analysis of the Invasion of Astro-Monster, sometimes you just have to watch the movie as a movie.
Pacific Rim is a loving homage to the Japanese cinematic traditions of “Kaiju” films and the now stereotypical giant robots like those featured in the influential “Gundam” series. The first shot helpfully informs the American audience that “Jaegar,” the term for the giant human combat robots, means “hunter,” and “Kaiju” means giant beast.
With these linguistic contributions from the Axis Powers out of the way, del Toro quickly drives straight for the jugular, with an awe-inspiring shot of a Kaiju attacking the Golden Gate bridge. A swift montage shows us how this attack is only the first of many. Humanity responds with the “Jaegar” program and begins defeating the beasts. Rather than figures of elemental terror, Kaiju become toys, Jaegar pilots become heroes, and humanity is complacent. This capitalist assimilation of existential horror rings true, and is a powerful implicit critique of modern media culture.
The self-satisfaction ends when a new breed of Kaiju begin challenging the Jaegars. Our hero, Raleigh Becket, is a Jaegar pilot along with his brother, who simultaneously pilot the craft through the “drift,” a sort of mind meld that allow two people to share the burden of guiding the giant war robot. In a riveting and horrifying scene, we see Raleigh’s brother ripped out of the craft by a Kaiju, with Raleigh only barely surviving and defeating the beast. He manages to guide his Jaegar, “Gypsy Danger,” to shore and collapse. And only then do we get the title shot. Having tasted the epic scale, emotional impact, and shockingly powerful action sequences of the film we gear up for what could be a genuinely great movie.
Alas, it is not to be. The movie settles itself into the familiar groove of action movie clichés and Kali Yuga cultural signifiers. The head of the Jaegar program is our official HNIC, Marshal Stacker Pentecost. The Marshal is played by Idris Elba, fresh from playing the Nordic God Heimdall in Thor. The Marshal’s job is to intimidate the non-blacks around him, snarling lines like, “One – don’t ever touch me. Two – don’t ever touch me!”
We also have the shadowy international authority with officials containing greater wisdom and power than the stupid national leaders. We see the various heads of state cut funding to the Jaegar program in favor of a passive strategy of building a giant wall. Of course, this fails miserably, though this doesn’t change the position of the stupid American President. Significantly, the stupid American President who cuts the Marshal’s funding is a white man who looks almost exactly like Mitt Romney.
The Marshal, the real leader of the human race, is more enlightened than everyone else. Furthermore, though he is apparently dependent on national governments for most of his funding, he seems to have complete power over the program, tactical autonomy, and a willingness and ability to cut deals with outside parties, suggesting he has no supervision. Like the SHIELD of The Avengers universe, it’s the shadowy forces accountable to no one who must defend us, and thank God, because national leaders are idiots. Marshal Pentecost is like Nick Fury in a giant robot.
Though the authority belongs to a mysterious international command, each nation seems to have been responsible for contributing their own Jaegar. As the bulk of the film takes place after years of increasingly destructive Kaiju attacks, there are only four robots left.
The surviving Jaegars represent a collection of national stereotypes last seen in Mike Tyson’s Punch Out! The Russians of course have a Jaegar that looks like a giant metal thug, which simply bashes its opponents into submission. The female pilot looks like Ivan Drago‘s wife from Rocky IV, reinforcing a subtle media bias in recent years that Russia is Aryan (and, therefore, suspiciously evil) while the man is a hulking, bearded giant. Both have hair dyed peroxide blonde. The Chinese Jaegar has three arms, with three brothers piloting it, perhaps a nod to the stereotypical image of China as filled with numerous identical drones. Both of these drones are dispatched in a battle, and the pilots suffer horrible deaths, but no one really seems to care. It is Anglosphere characters that we are concerned with.
The Australian Jaegar is piloted by “Chuck Hansen.” His job is to be the cocky blonde bad guy of every action or coming of age movie, something so ingrained in the culture it’s been parodied in films like Not Another Teen Movie or TV’s South Park. As you may have guessed, he thinks that our hero is going to bring the whole program down because of his reckless and unorthodox tactics. Later of course, our hero manages to win a battle and win Hansen’s respect. Cue the Top Gun flashbacks – “You! You are still dangerous! But you can be my wingman anytime!”
Unnecessary comic relief is provided by the two scientists, played by Charlie Day from It’s Sunny in Philadelphia and Burn Gorman. Their role is to come up with a pseudo-scientific explanation why a certain plan won’t work and why they need to do something more complicated instead. Of course, their real role in the film is to drain any emotional import from the story with their hammy acting and flailing around. The film craters when Ron Perlman, of all people, is introduced as a collector of Kaiju body parts needed for certain experiments. All of this is just played for cheap laughs.
But what of our hero? Raleigh follows the traditional action movie formula. After a tragedy, he goes into a kind of self-imposed exile. He is brought back to pilot a craft that is supposedly obsolete, but needed for the struggle ahead. His tactics are unorthodox and reckless – he’s the rebel Americans love to see in their movies.
However, what is truly interesting is the concept of “drift compatible” and how the film uses it to push its multicultural message. Though it’s never really explained (and wouldn’t make any sense if it was), each Jaegar is piloted by at least two people. The psychic burden of piloting the Jaegar breaks one person, so two people have to pilot it simultaneously through a kind of mind meld that involves sharing memories, emotions, feelings, experiences, and battle tactics. The cocky Australian at the end of the film is revealed to have his father as his co-pilot, the Chinese pilots are brothers, and the Russian pilots are a husband and wife team.
However, after the death of his brother, Raleigh discovers that he is “drift compatible” with a Japanese woman on the Marshal’s staff, Mako Mori. The Marshal is overprotective of her, because he saved her when he was a Jaegar pilot fighting to defend Japan from Kaiju. However, Mako fights for her right to be a drift pilot based on her mysterious connection with the hero.
None of this makes any sense of course. The “drift compatible” connection seems to require a kind of deep bond that almost always requires family ties. However, in this film, the conflict is driven by the struggle of the rebellious hero and the non-white female to prove that two people who have no shared history or kinship can work together, and in fact be better than everyone else. Where traditional national and family bonds have failed us, multiculturalism will save the day. One would expect that the partnership would eventually turn romantic or at least sexual, but despite lingering glances and significant silences, there is never so much of a kiss between Raleigh and Mako.
The climax of the film can’t decide whether this is a grim thriller or a farce. With the shrill annoying voices of our Jerry Lewis-like scientists shrieking in the background some vague gibberish about what they must do, two Jaegars are sent to the “breach” deep in the ocean. The scientists have learned that the Kaiju are being bred deliberately as invasion forces for aliens who want to strip the Earth of all resources. That’s right — once again, it’s the same plot from Independence Day. The scientists even get to work in a reference about how pollution and CO2 emissions are responsible for all this.
However, there’s a moment of genuine tragedy. Hansen’s father is unable to fight in the last battle because of an injury. Thus, the Marshal himself takes the spot in the Australian Jaegar, alongside Raleigh and Mako in Gypsy Danger. The father must watch as his son is sent to certain death. In the required motivational speech before battle (also like Independence Day) the Marshal tells us that we are going to “cancel the Apocalypse!” And isn’t that what modernity is all about – telling ourselves that the lessons of Tradition and the laws of Nature and History no longer apply?
Spoiler alert – the world is saved. The Marshal and the blonde cocky pilot – Ebony and Ivory – detonate a nuclear weapon under the ocean, sacrificing themselves. Gypsy Danger is able to get through the breach and use its own nuclear reactor to take out the enemy mothership, or homeland, or headquarters or whatever it is. Both Raleigh and Mako survive with ejection pods swiftly taking them to the surface (without the change in pressure blowing them up somehow.) They even have the “we think the hero isn’t breathing but you’re actually just hugging him too hard” move. Having saving the world, Raleigh and Mako finally consummate their mystical bond and historic victory with – a bro hug.
And that sums up the whole thing. Guillermo del Toro is too good a director not to give us some authentic moments of awe, and an American treatment of Kaijus and Gundams is very welcome. But they had to throw away any emotional import to get cheap laughs, clichéd characters, and tired moral sermonizing.
Insofar as we are told anything, it is that in our most desperate moments, we have to jettison Tradition. Instead, we must rely on feelings, on multicultural partnership, on wishes and fantasies and hopes about what the world might be, rather than what it is. Once again, the world is saved by the plucky multi-racial hero squad overcoming the Old White Males (like the faux Mitt Romney) who almost killed us all.
Now, it’s also about giant robots fighting with swords. But context matters, and symbols matters even more. In contrast to the early scenes of flag-festooned defenders of humanity, the film ends with interracial partnership as key to our salvation. Such imagery has consequences, especially when people start believing their own propaganda.
Perhaps it is a bit silly to look for deep messaging in a monster movie. But believing what this society demands we take seriously seems far sillier. In a country naming asteroids after Trayvon Martin, banning peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for being racist, and giving military imperium to generals who claim diversity is more important than soldiers’ lives, it’s hard to see any of this as meaningless. Like Pacific Rim, American life is moments of campy farce interspersed with tragedy and horror – and the worst part is, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the two apart.