Pacific Rim was not a romance, and didn’t need to be

Over the weekend, I saw Pacific Rim with my BFF and girlfriend. My anticipation for this movie has been building up for months–basically ever since I saw the first trailer and heard a very familiar, GLaDOS-esque voice for the computer interface. It was, in fact, Ellen McLain, who voiced GLaDOS in the Portal games. (Not a spoiler.)

The rest of this reaction post will contain spoilers.

Also, this post contains my opinions and reactions to the movie. I hate that something so inherent as far as I’m concerned isn’t necessarily obvious, but there you go.

The movie promised Big Damn Monsters, and Big Damn Heroes – by way of Giant Robot. It delivered on that from the outset, and kept delivering right up until the wrap. This movie never promised to be more than a Giant Robots vs Big Damn Monsters movie, yet it delivered so much more.

I’ve already seen some talk about shipping Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori, and to those people I might suggest they’ve entirely missed the point of the movie. It wasn’t a romance. Furthermore, it didn’t need to be a romance. And two people can share a deep, emotional bond and life-threatening experiences that they overcome, together, to subsequently ride a helicopter into the sunset without the vaguest promise of a future romance between them.

Guillermo del Toro did this on purpose, and it’s something that is pretty revolutionary for a summer blockbuster film. And make no mistake about it, this is bred and designed to be a summer blockbuster, and it does it very well. Two hours of giant robots vs monsters is total popcorn fare, and oen of my only complaints was that I wanted more–more Crimson Typhoon, more Cherno Alpha, more Coyote Tango that didn’t even make it into the movie. More Stacker Pentecost, who brings nothing to the drift: no ego, no past, no baggage. More of the Wu triplets, more of the unyielding Russian Kaidonovsky team who held their wall for six years undefeated against all takers. There’s allegedly about an hour of footage that got left on the cutting room floor in del Toro’s drive to pare the movie down to a two-hour release, and I hope beyond hope that we’ll get to see it all.

Before I dive back into the fantastic platonic relationship that del Toro built, and his two leads represented on screen so well, I want to touch on all the high points that the movie realized for me, personally. I went into this movie with such high expectations, such keen anticipation, with each of my friends who saw it before me only whetting that further, once or twice I thought to myself “surely, it can’t live up to all I hope it will be.”

It did. It definitely did. It had everything I wanted and more. Let me break it down.

GIANT FUCKING ROBOTS.
They epitomized FUCK YEAH MECHA in every regard. The design, the color, the vibrancy, the weapons … the breathtaking scale of them. To me, robots are self-guided, and mecha, or suits, Gundams, whatever you want to call them require pilots. These were mecha being piloted by people, real human beings, and they were epic in scale and completely real in the way they came across onscreen. The excited geek in me who put together a Deathscythe Hell Gundam kit with only Japanese instructions fifteen years ago was completely hyped by all the mecha detail. I didn’t think about how much thought and planning went into the physics of them, the blueprints, the design, mapping out the way they moved–it was up there in all its megaton glory, bringing mecha to live-action life.

BIG DAMN KAIJU.
I have to acknowledge the two most massive, obvious draws for the film. The kaiju (monsters) really delivered. They were all very different, and each of them were realized to the last detail. Reflecting back on it, you could tell that a lot of production, a lot of thought, went into each one–like any good mecha story, the monsters had distinct traits and characteristics, evocative, individual names that reflected their traits (Knifehead!), different classifications – in this case, they were categorized One through Four, Four being a massive kaiju that dwarfed any that had come before. They movied and attacked in varied ways, and there was a clear evolution in the way they fought and learned over time.

Breathtaking visuals.
If this movie doesn’t receive some kind of Oscar nod for the stunning visual effects, the amazing cinematography, and the strong use of color, it will be a sick Hollywood snub. Then again, it wouldn’t be the first time an action and/or sci-fi movie has been passed over for critical acclaim. Pacific Rim was a fully immersing visual experience that, even without 3D, really leapt out of the screen and wrapped you in what was going on.

The female character has the strongest character arc.
There are enough movies depicting the moving journey of the young man overcoming his hardships to triumph in the end. We’ve seen it plenty of times, okay? And though Raleigh Becket has his own share of troubles to work through, in many ways they are an afterthought, a sub-plot, to Mako Mori’s journey. We see her timeline, in scattered pieces, from a helpless child with her heart laid bare to a determined, resourceful person overcoming past trauma and difficult odds to pull out the win.

Mako comes into the movie in the second act, but she dominates it. She does not yield. She carries through and pulls together past the point her mentor is certain may break her, or be her team’s ruin. She isn’t the love interest. She isn’t the prize. She doesn’t exist for the male gaze. She is the hero.

Strong mentor/surrogate parent relationship.

So many times, what we see in Big Damn Action movies is broken relationships, failure to communicate, or child vs. parent because The Parent Is Wrong. Pacific Rim gives us a strong mentor and surrogate parent figure in Stacker Pentecost, and a strong person who has been guided and encouraged to make her own decisions in Mako, yet clearly seeks to follow and emulate the person she holds in such high regard. She doesn’t want to defy Stacker; she wants to prove she can do it. When he draws the line, she respects it. When there is conflict between them, you can see it’s because they’re both trying to do their best by the other person.

In a certain sense the movie relies on familiar tropes to pre-tell the story for us, but those are built upon in the way these characters react and embody them. Throughout the story, Stacker Pentecost and Mako Mori are considerate of each other, they want to do right for each other, and they establish a strong, positive relationship that carries through to the end.

One of the moments in Pacific that is less likely to get any kind of scrutiny is toward the movie’s conclusion, and it’s not subtitled. Mako’s last message to Stacker Pentecost is “先生、愛しています,” or “Sensei, ai shiteimasu.” It’s hard to translate the inflections and unpack the meaning of this phrase for a Western audience, which is why I’m sure del Toro chose not to subtitle it. It was important that she say it, but so many people would misunderstand a flat translation. That translation boils down to “Teacher, I love you,” but it means more than that, in terms of the culture and context. Better people than I will probably tackle this subject, but there are different forms of “I love you” in Japanese, and saying the more serious forms of it to someone is a once in a lifetime occurrence. You can bet that Mako never said such a thing to Stacker before. And it didn’t mean she was in love with him, which a Western audience would assume. She loved him, as a teacher and as a father. But that was the first time she’d ever said it to him because it’s so powerful and understood without words. It was respect, and love, and farewell.

It takes a team.
The entire movie epitomizes team spirit, and the fact that we can’t go it alone and be successful. The Jaegers can’t be piloted alone–it takes two. And this concept shapes and sets up the entire spirit of the movie. There is no lone hero, no one person shouldering the load. The neural handshake requires at least two to drift together and share the burden. Gipsy Danger isn’t successful without the team behind it, however soon we lose that team. The Americans can’t win without all of the world nations banding together. The last Jaeger pilot crew standing is half American, half Japanese. The scientist team is also multi-national, and each of them brought resolution to pieces of the puzzle, without which everything would have failed. The Jaegers needed the scientists as much as the scientists needed the Jaegers for protection. We did it together. It’s an important and powerful and deliberate message.

People of color in command and heroic roles
This is lower down on the list because, frankly, they could have done better. It’s a shame that one POC in a main role, one POC in a major supporting role, and a plethora of Asians in the background (I’m sorry, Wu triplets, but you were in the background) can be seen as “good enough” from a diversity standpoint. You could argue that cis, hetero white men were a minority in the film overall, but they were also the most prominent, visible characters that got the most screen time. We got to see the Wu triplets playing basketball for about five seconds, and going to a valiant death. Wait, now I’m not sure which point I’m arguing.

For all that the movie could have stood improvements from a diversity standpoint (vast, kaiju-sized improvements), it does portray people of color in arguably pivotal roles with (mostly) positive representation. When is the last time you saw someone who wasn’t white commanding the troops, and launching a last stand defense to successfully save the world? Go ahead, think about it. I’ll wait.

It’s an important foothold that I only hope moviemakers can build off of and continue. I’m sick of whiny white guys saving the world and getting “rewarded” with white girls. (Specifically with Shia leBoeuf in mind, here.) And yes, for the record, I am white. Like it should matter when I’m bringing this point.

Science nerds win.
This point is pretty short, because nerds have been gaining a lot of traction in popular culture though there’s still a great deal of misunderstanding and bullying out there for people who are “different” and “other” compared to the expected norm. But in short: the science nerds save the day. They had an entire subplot, and without their efforts, the team and the whole world-saving initiative would have been unsuccessful. (It would have been even cooler if one of the science nerds had been a lady, but hey, we take what we can get.) The science nerds were played for comic relief as always, but they still brought forward some plot-pivotal moments while moving through the typical science nerd tics.

Realistic fights, and real damage.
In war there is a death toll, and Pacific Rim did not sugarcoat it. I saw a factoid regarding Cherno Alpha on one of my many Pacific Rim-diving Tumblr tag searches: the Jaeger cockpit for Cherno Alpha is centrally located. That provides the greatest possible amount of shielding for the Jaeger pilots, but it also means no escape pods. When they fight, they win or they die. When Stacker Pentecost said they held the line for six years, it’s significant. These are tough, all-in Jaeger pilots.

You can’t fight a war without losses. The movie takes place at the end of a long war of attrition, and we get to see the worst of it. People die, Hannibal Chau makes money off war profiteering and scavenging, and the effects of war linger and take their toll on the main characters, especially Raleigh, Mako, and Stacker. A father loses his son. Husband and wife die together fighting. There’s self-sacrifice and blind panic and fatalism. These people aren’t walking away with a few bruises and dusting themselves off to build an awesome new world. The damage is substantial.

Bombast and unabashed spectacle.
Pacific Rim hits all of the notes you’d expect from an over the top, loud, action-packed summer flick, and it hits them well. It’s not reinventing anything, and it knows that, and it uses that, playing off your expectations to show you what you may have seen before, plus a little bit more. It knows what it is, and it revels in it – and maybe you’ll revel in it too, in all its sheer giant-mecha-fighting-monster glory.

Some people are making noises about Pacific Rim ripping off this, that, or the other. This film isn’t trying to be anything it’s not–it knows it’s coming from a rich melange of source material dating back decades. It’s not trying to be new and original. It may be trying to be the biggest and the best so far, and that I’m willing to grant it.

Because it bears repeating: THERE IS NO ROMANCE. And the movie deals with emotions on several levels successfully without a romantic subplot.

From the very first opening frame of Mako’s introduction, she is purposefully portrayed as someone who stands on her own, not as a sex object, and while she starts out in a support role, not as subservient.

Raleigh didn’t see Mako as a woman. He saw her as a person. This is a very important distinction, and one reason that validates the fact that Pacific Romance didn’t have a romance sub-plot. You could quite legitimately say it had a relationship sub-plot, where two people learn a great deal about one another and experience important, life-changing moments.

There’s this moment on the candidate testing floor where Mako accuses Raleigh of holding back. He’s winning all his matches, but it’s clear he over-matches them. He stands straight, looks her in the eye, and basically says the same to her. She’s hand-selected all the candidates who faced him, but she’s holding back her best. She is the best candidate, and it’s something that is quickly proved on the testing floor. Also, I don’t know anything about the ranger training program, but 51 simulations with 51 take-downs, which Mako mentions in a self-effacing manner (which is very Japanese) sounds pretty damned impressive. And Raleigh recognizes that, as well as her all-around competence, immediately.

Another pivotal moment happens in the Jaeger cockpit of Gipsy Danger when Raleigh enters his rebuilt Jaeger for the first time, and I was wondering how Raleigh would handle that moment. He returns to the cockpit from which his brother was torn, while they were drift connected. How can he take the same place he had before? But how can he take the other place, where his brother stood? Raleigh doesn’t even hesitate. He takes his brother’s place, and I believe this is a consciously figurative as well as literal decision. He becomes Mako’s big brother. He accepts the greater responsibility, and the greater risks.

If Raleigh seeks to defend or intercede for Mako it’s not because he sees her as an object of lust. It’s because he sees her as a person worthy of respect, someone who should be granted her choice to fight, or toward the end, because he’s seen someone torn away from him and this time, he’s going to take the fall and send his partner to safety.

On Mako’s side of things, she’s not watching out for him through peepholes because she’s got a crush on him. Raleigh unnerves her, and she wants to observe him. She’s studied him closely enough to choose fighting partners, potential drift matches for him, but he’s maybe different from what she was expecting, though she still believes he’s unpredictable enough that he poses a risk to their all-important mission. There’s a connection there, but it’s not love, it’s drift compatibility. They prove it with such a strong neural handshake, they’re both caught up in reliving their past traumas.

They push past that and save each other, and they save the world. They manage to do it without trying to get into each others’ pants, and thanks be to Guillermo del Toro to have a female lead who doesn’t have to be sexualized in order to do that.

Anyhow, these are all my initial impressions, my first takeaway from my first viewing of the film. There’s so much to see in Pacific Rim it’s impossible to catch it all in a single viewing, so I’ll definitely be hitting the theatre again while it’s still playing on the big screen. And I hope you will too, because FUCK YEAH MECHA. Also, stay for the extra clip embedded in the end credits. Blake Perlman’s song Drift was pretty good, too.

One comment

  1. 1) re Realistic fights, and real damage: the cool thing was, they showed the deaths of the Jaeger pilots, but they went OUT OF THEIR WAY to minimize “civilian” causalities, which most big disaster/monster/roboty movies do not do. del Toro wanted to make a point, didn’t want to glorify the situation, and wanted it as bloodless as possible. That’s rare.

    2) re Science nerds win: one of the science nerds was disabled! You don’t see that a lot, either. While I agree that there could have been more women (eughhhh so many more women) and more POC, I was pleased to see that we got worlds above what we normally do. It’s one of those “yay!!! but the fight continues” type things.

    3) I agree that there’s no romance, there are definitely seeds for one, and I think a good faction of the audience will assume there is meant to be some pre-romance or even outright romance between the characters. Do I agree? Not necessarily. Do I think it’s an inaccurate read of the media? Nah. Do I think del Toro kept it as platonic as possible, but was well aware of the possibility of the audience assuming there was more there than platonic affection and respect? Absolutely. Was it pretty ground-breaking that there wasn’t a kiss to seal the potential romantic deal, as opposed to the forehead touch (bawww) we did get? TIMES INFINITY.

    In short, we need more movies like Pacific Rim on about fifty different levels. We need them to push boundaries.

    And we need more GlaDOS, damnit.

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