SPOILERS FOR PACIFIC RIM AND OTHER DEL TORO FILMS WHOOPS
A reading of Pacific Rim:
Right off I want to say that I enjoyed the movie while cringing and being hugely disappointed every single time a character said the word “bitch” or repeated the name of the main jaeger, “Gipsy Danger,” which is a huge ethnic slur toward Romani people. Everyone involved in the production should be ashamed of these things, and we should all speak up about them, especially because it didn’t matter at all. None of the language was integral to the plot or characterization; the people working in design, directorial, production, and screenwriting capacities should be ashamed about it. I’ve actually been looking for a post that goes deeper into this issue, but I’ve not found one yet; if you do, please let me know so I can put it into this post as further reading.
Beyond those issues of representation, which are both glaring and important, I want to talk about what Pacific Rim is doing as a film. Guillermo Del Toro almost exclusively makes films that carry explicit political messages within science fiction or fantasy contexts–Mimic is about the fundamental horrors of urban life, Hellboy II is a manifesto on social destiny and difference, and Pan’s Labyrinth personalizes the sacrifices and casualties of the Spanish Civil War. So when I say that I believe that Pacific Rim is political, I don’t just mean it in the way that I teach my film students: “Every film has a politics,” I tell them, “and part of our job in these classes is to parse what a film does, how it does it, and why it is doing anything at all.” Part of this is breaking my students of classical auteurist models of understanding art or communication in general; the idea that communication is transparent and that every media work carries the explicit intentions of an author (the favorite right now being Christopher Nolan) is very, very strong in the freshman mind.
This is death of the author 101 kind of stuff, but I think it is important to lay out this idea that films (or art in general) have lives outside of their creator so I can immediately turn around and say that this film is a profoundly personal Del Toro film. Where I said above that every film that Del Toro makes is political, what I really mean to say is that Del Toro’s politics are written in giant red block letters all over the screenwriting and directorial choices he makes.
While Mimic is certainly about urban life, it is also about what makes us human when the conditions around the very concept of “humanity” are altered. “What is a human?” haunts all of his films, even when the question is reduced to abstract questions of sameness and difference. For example, Blade II presents the vampire community and its unthinkable, mindless other that is nonetheless the perfect form of vampire. A quick flip of vampire and human brings us back to a familiar Del Toro question: are we, as a species, simply the aggregate of our worst qualities? Hellboy II certainly suggests it, with Hellboy finally taking Prince Nuada’s claim that humans will never accept a demon among them seriously. He quits the human world. The lights come up, we walk out of the theater. The enemy is beaten, but the outcome is bleak.
I’m not going to go into the trauma of political “winning” as it is presented in Pan’s Labyrinth.
In essence, Del Toro’s films are all ritournelles, finite loops that come back over and over again to the same point. They are all concerning the same anxieties about what it means to be included in the category of human. He is also concerned about the limit of that category, by which I mean that he is interested in these inclusions and exclusions as well as the pure accidental nature of the human. There is a reason that he keeps attempting to adapt Lovecraft–for Del Toro, humans are weak, finite beings at the hands of an indifferent universe. When the Angel of Death tells Hellboy that his existence comes at the cost of all of humanity, the lives of humans don’t really factor into the struggle. In Blade II, humans are weak, corruptible, and barely present except in their capacity to be consumed by more powerful beings. Pan’s Labyrinth features a fantastical world in which humans are merely bit players in a fantastical drama played out by opaque and ancient beings.
It is in this capacity that I want to talk about Pacific Rim. It is a continuation of Del Toro’s general philosophy of the human condition, but it is also an evolution of the movements he was clearly making in Pan’s Labyrinth. The difference is that Pacific Rim isn’t a fantastical drama; it is an inhuman one.
The immediate objection that comes to mind, I’m sure, is that Pacific Rim IS ALL ABOUT HUMANS. It trades on simplistic tropes borrowed from anime filtered through a Hollywood summer blockbuster machine, which means that we get lots of people saying literal nonsense about digital vs analog giant robots while intoning each other’s super ridiculous names and having very serious emotional looks all the time. It hammers content atom-thin and papers over the film’s central concept.
The central concept is giant robots punching giant monsters.
It makes a lot of sense that the movie can be literally nonsensical at points because the point of the film, or at least the point of access that it is presenting the audience with, isn’t based on your enjoyment of the plot. I thought that what little there was was enjoyable–the narratives of loss and fear of loss that powered every non-comedy character worked well enough that I didn’t immediately recoil. It kept me in the movie, I was minimally invested, and it chained together robot and monster fights.
Despite the fact that the camera lingers and the plot meanders around the human characters, it isn’t really about them. They’re all sketches of people at best. We often talk about movies or games with barebones plots that merely exist to chain together action pieces, and that is exactly how Pacific Rim works. More importantly, that is the strength and purpose of the film.
I think the standard reading is something like this: there are alien horrors in a parallel dimension who fight a proxy war with humanity via giant monsters. We also fight in this proxy war, but we have giant robots. The aliens control their monsters through a hivemind connection that makes them operate as giant puppets; the humans do the same. Therefore, the movie is about the struggle of the plucky human spirit against alien invaders, and that’s the end of it. Additionally, there’s a subplot where Charlie Day has to go the the middle of Hong Kong to ask Ron Perlman, a monster war profiteer, for a monster brain with which to fight back with. Ron Perlman is shown to be an evil capitalist who lives in billionaire luxury (he has an anti-kaiju bunker, after all) in the middle of the slums. He shows some hubris and is mean to Charlie Day, he gets violently eaten, and we’re satisfied. Big puppets fight big puppets, the credits roll, and a postcredits scene shows Ron Perlman is alive after he cuts his way out of the monster. He quips. We laugh. The lights come up.
Watch this short interview with Guillermo Del Toro. Listen to him talk about Godzilla.
What’s immediately apparent to me in this interview is that short of that one moment where he remarks on an actor, there’s no mention of people here. He presents Godzilla as a profound, existential film focused on war and destruction, but never as a film about the human relationships in the wake of Godzilla (of which there are plenty). Pacific Rim is for me like Godzilla is for Del Toro–it is about the inhuman drama playing out between huge nonsensical machines and (sometimes larger) mutating, organic monsters. It is about having a sense of wonder at these giant creatures that cannot make any sense to us. It is about being caught up in a flow of spectacle that is not merely spectacular but also profoundly political in that these monsters and robots have no regard for humans as a species.
Sure, the human controllers do–the trauma of the opening sequence is derived from two people in a giant machine caring for a few individual humans. But much like the Spanish Civil War in Pan’s Labyrinth, it is something that merely exists on the surface of things. It is a plot to keep us watching, to keep us from realizing the paralytic horror and nihilism behind the structure of the filmic world that we are seeing. The world of the faun in one that doesn’t need human beings, and actively takes glee in their temptation and murder (I’m thinking specifically of the monster who eats children.) The parallel universe geneticists of Pacific Rim drive the same point home: if you peek behind the curtain in this film and think about the structure of the universe we’ve been presented with, there’s something infinitely creepy about it.
We are not alone. More than that, we are not special.
I think it is easy to imagine Del Toro being allowed to run free and break with blockbuster sentiment and take the premise of the film to its horrible conclusion. The world goes dark. The exterminators come through. The jaegers fail one by one. The slow creep of nonexistence overrides everything, and as Charlie Day explained in the film, we deserve it. We made the world perfect for them. Why wouldn’t they come?
So it is an inhuman drama in that it isn’t about humans, not really. It is about the posthuman world, the world of climate change and oversaturated carbon, the world where the only politics possible is the politics of the impossibly complex and unexplainable robot that, despite not being explainable at all, nevertheless has political agency. It is a swarm of nations and capital and metal and nuclear energy. It is an assemblage made as explicit as possible. It smashes up against another assemblage, slightly more organic, but assembled and machinic nonetheless. What matters is how they smash. What matters is what pieces fall off.
What can a giant monster body do?
Despite the fact that my suspicions of Del Toro’s real Lovecraftian nihilism are not verified, I still find the end of Pacific Rim to be bleak. After all, the existential threat to the human species is eliminated. The world can finally repair and rebuild. The transnational efforts of the wall programs and the jaegers can be discontinued, and business can continue as usual. The fact that the closing scene of the film, the last bit of screen time, is devoted to the evil, selfish, violent businessman being birthed from the body of the prime antagonist of the film is profoundly bleak. This international cooperation is over. The desire to break across any number of identity lines in order to achieve something that had to be achieved is abandoned. We get a white man asking for his shoe.
There’s a part of me that wonders which outcome was worse: total extinction or business as usual?