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Drift compatibility: “Pacific Rim” and the international blockbuster

Downplaying lackluster stateside box office earnings, Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) has been touted for its international popularity, currently representing over seventy-five percent of the film’s worldwide gross. While its number one debut in China at the end of July registered as the sixth biggest ever for a Hollywood title, subsequent foreign openings were predicted as a measure of the likelihood (read “financial viability”) of a sequel. Surprisingly, however, box office returns from Japan’s August 13 release saw the giant monster/giant robot action film come in a disappointing sixth below international flop The Lone Ranger (2013), a Disney adaptation of the American radio drama widely regarded as promoting racist stereotypes of Native Americans. One of the year’s few aspiring summer blockbusters not directly linked to a remade or adapted studio property, Pacific Rim unabashedly embraces two distinct youth-oriented science fiction entertainment genres from Japan: the “kaiju” film genre of fighting monsters begun by Ishiro Honda’s Gojira (1954), as well as the “mecha” anime genre featuring human-piloted mechanical giants typified by Hideaki Anno’s sprawling Evangelion franchise. A beautiful mess, del Toro’s ludic fanboy enterprise wears its heart on its oxidized steel and slimy rubber CGI sleeves. We can only hear a tinge of Akira Ifukube’s iconic score as the first full monster is revealed in a moment referencing Gojira’s sinking of the Eiko Maru fishing boat. Though Pacific Rim’s robots remain distinct from little Shotaro’s Iron Man, it isn’t hard to imagine del Toro watching Tetsujin 28-go (1963, known as “Gigantor” in the US) as a boy during the mass export of Japanese entertainment products to Mexico, the director’s home country.


Guillermo del Toro, Rinko Kikuchi, Mana Ashida, and a cartoonish “Knifehead-kun” on press tour in Tokyo (click above to view Japanese TV coverage)

While the film employs state of the art computer-generated imagery, the monsters—literally termed Kaiju in the world of the film—always resemble the physicality of those brave bipeds to first don monster suits and topple model buildings. Rather than strive toward a reptilian accuracy as in 1998’s Godzilla creature (better known to kaiju purists as G.I.N.O., “Godzilla in Name Only”), Pacific Rim’s animation design highlights its monsters’ obsolescent analogue forebears, now alive in contemporary character rigging and motion tracking processes. We can feel the beasts’ inner humanity and be dazzled by their animal-like features while also appreciating the “man in the suit” aesthetic pioneered by Ray Harryhausen and Gojira’s Honda. (View kaiju and mecha fan mash-ups of the Pacific Rim trailer here and here for evidence of such appreciation.)

Likewise, the mechs in the film—here named “Jaegers,” after the German word for hunter—are given anthropomorphic form. They are not strictly robots as the film’s boilerplate synopses would suggest, but extensions of their pilots. Contained within the Jaeger skull is a cockpit for its two pilots who share the neural load of controlling the massive machine, splitting the left and right hemispheres of its mechanical body. Crosscutting between Jaeger interior and exterior, the movement of the pilots’ bodies dictate that of the machines, a practical narrative device connecting dramatic situations between life-size empathetic characters and action-packed battles between machine and monster. This mirrored movement reveals the artifice of production not unlike the human physicality of the Kaiju character designs, and further, generates a call and response chain between pilot and Jaeger that extends to the viewer in the cinema and the implausible beings onscreen. Here, the film attempts a highly immersive environment in reviving outmoded science fiction genres, offering a cinephilia outside the 3D format now a standard for summer blockbusters, which Warner Bros. retrofitted to the project in postproduction for release as both 2D and 3D. The psychic bond—or “drift”—created between pilots not only allows them to control the machine, but permits access to each other’s memories. We are also given access to these visions in a series of rapid blue-tinted montage sequences during Jaeger power-ups, referred to as a neural handshake. Seemingly pragmatic, the drift enlivens the film’s themes confronting globalization and hybridity, plunging those familiar with its generic coordinates into a profound encounter in global entertainment cinema with variable aesthetic and, as surmised above, economic consequences.

Still, Mori entering the drift

Still, Mori entering the drift

Within the world of the film, the Jaeger have been built by an international coalition in order to defend humanity from Kaiju, who for the past twenty years have been emerging at increasing frequencies from a breach in the tectonically volatile basin of the Pacific Ocean. By the time the film’s central narrative begins, the collaborating governments have abandoned the Jaeger program, and refocused on the construction of a coastal wall. While rumors of special bunkers for the rich and powerful circulate, the wall is easily penetrated by large Kaiju. Meanwhile, the few remaining Jaeger pilots and technicians from American, Australian, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian backgrounds are rounded up at a base in Hong Kong by the English Stacker Pentecost (played by Idris Elba, in a role originally offered to Tom Cruise) in a last ditch effort to save humanity from certain extinction by attacking the monsters at their underwater source. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), an American pilot brought out of retirement after his co-pilot brother was killed in action, is found to be drift compatible with Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a pilot trainee adopted by Pentecost after her family was killed in Tokyo during one of the early Kaiju attacks. Mori’s childhood encounter with the Kaiju Onibaba (in which she is played by child star Mana Ashida, who absorbed the majority of Japanese press related to the film) represents the sole instance of historical trauma attached to the Kaiju origin, a memory accessed in the drift by Becket as they first prepare to pilot their Jaeger together.

While the original Gojira, and to a greater or lesser degree titles in the Toho studio franchise that followed, clearly negotiated a painful relationship with nuclear power in the construction of its origin story (the prehistoric creature having been awoken or mutated due to earlier nuclear testing in the Pacific Ocean, and returning to rampage urban areas during the country’s economic rebound), no such real world connections are offered for Pacific Rim’s Kaiju. A soft ecocritical tone is adopted late in the film as del Toro’s brilliantly campy Drs. Geiszler and Gottlieb (comic duo Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, the classic SF role of expositional scientist appropriately split in two) discover that the Kaiju are clones participating in an alien hive mind colonizing planets, and have been laying in wait, since the time of dinosaurs, for humans to begin polluting the atmosphere. However, their harmful presence as a consequence of monstrous human activity is barely comprehended by the characters. Just as character design elements are never directly quoted from other films and anime, neither are the political underpinnings of these previous genres excerpted as motivation behind the monsters.

Still featuring Russian Jaeger, Cherno Alpha

Still featuring Russian Jaeger, Cherno Alpha

Rather than create machines that could exist within other mecha worlds, the Jaegers take visual elements familiar to their respective country, such as Gipsy Danger’s inspiration in the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, and John Wayne for the US, and Soviet tanks and a nuclear reactor for Russia’s Cherno Alpha. As a convention in both the kaiju and mecha genres, new features of machines and creatures are unveiled at key points in battle, such as a Jaeger sword or elbow cannon, or a Kaiju’s ability to sprout wings and fly. Nuclear weaponry is given no more symbolic value than these “Go-Go-Gadget” reveals, receiving most prominent attention when the Kaiju Leatherback releases an electromagnetic pulse deactivating the technologically advanced Jaegers before Becket and Mori come to the rescue with their older model, heroically declaring “Gipsy is analogue. Nuclear.” In the Gojira franchise, each new weapon humans create to defeat the kaiju, beginning with the Oxygen Destroyer, is understood as a final solution necessitating moral introspection, the plans for which are to be destroyed upon use. In Pacific Rim, the presence of nuclear weaponry as well as the Kaiju are a given, and the film’s central themes of survival and love within cross-cultural encounters are undermined by its generic precursors’ noble message of nuclear nonproliferation. In a way, Pacific Rim‘s global pop cultural inspirations constitute, even while simultaneously obscuring, its timely story as the film plays out on screens across the world this summer.

Guillermo del Toro with one of his movie monsters

An operatic roller coaster with numerous intertextual entry and exit points, the bridge between pilots of del Toro’s multicultural cast emerges as an appropriate nexus through which to consider the stakes of the film’s international circulation, its triumphs and pitfalls. While the question of monster origin remains under-explicated by Geiszler and Gottlieb, the doctors are careful to diagram the creaters’ connection to the human world. Drifting with a harvested Kaiju brain, the pair discovers that passage between the subterranean Kaiju world and that of humans and their machines, between “our world and theirs,” as they say, is only granted to those with the monsters’ genetic code. Relating the pilots’ drift with that of the scientists and city-crushing Kaiju would seem an abject proposal, if it were not for the fact that the monsters of del Toro come from a place of awe and love. Beyond good and evil, the romantic battle with their robotic opponents encourages viewers to dream together; and acceptance of this big budget monster’s earnest invitation is appropriately uneven.

Joel Neville Anderson

PhD Student, Visual and Cultural Studies, University of Rochester

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