I believe Pacific Rim to be a good movie. I believe it to be something worth seeing in just about any regard, but probably not for the reasons you would think. Of course I love that there’s a movie built around my childhood love of giant things hitting each other and destroying valuable city infrastructure (I did, after all, grow up in the 90s where every cartoon featured one or both of those things), but there’s something much more interesting to discuss within Guillermo del Toro’s latest film.
You may have carried prejudices into the theater, or maybe still hold them if you never saw it, but Pacific Rim isn’t about small things like robots and monsters. Those are the things you see, yes, but that’s not what the film is about. If you’ve ever seen any other del Toro flick, you’ll know that his visuals are often vehicles for themes you would otherwise reject through words. Hell Boy II: The Golden Army, for instance, pours lavish beauty onto grotesque creatures to keep you aware of the contrast of dreams and fantasy with gritty reality. Pan’s Labyrinth moves those two circles of the real-unreal Venn diagram closer together and reminds you that the otherworldly isn’t so far off.
The giant mechs and space-born creatures represent a simplicity present throughout the entire film that makes complex and enormously interesting questions easy to digest and flies in the face of modern summer cinema’s desire to complicate narratives for a so-called “cerebral” movie-going experience. Star Trek Into Darkness is a good example of this, where plot points compound upon each other with twists and turns for the sake of twists and ultimately opens more doors than it has time to close, but this trend has been going on long before. Those Pirates of the Caribbean movies probably had something to do with it. Dead Man’s Chest and At World’s End combined were basically five and a half total hours of nonsensical, masturbatory backstabs and double crosses.
Pacific Rim, though, establishes everything early on in straightforward terms: gigantic things that want to destroy our cities are coming out of a portal in the ocean. We, the human race, banded together to beat them back into it by creating equally huge robots. And it worked for a while, reducing them, in our minds, to nothing more than humorous caricatures of danger and fetishizing the pilots that protect our shores. It is a system that we could see working for the foreseeable ever.
But then things change. How do we know? Well, a Jaeger—the aforementioned humongous machines—falls while fighting what should be a routine kaiju attack. A pilot is killed in action. And we are immediately taken from the simplistic, relatively idyllic life of a multitude of Jaegers defending our world to an independent, ostensibly poorly or unfunded organization of four mechs. In this short amount of time, we get years of history and understand the current context of the world. We know who is good, who is bad, where we started, and where we are now. It’s simple and intuitive, even with things as improbable as sea space creatures and neural links are involved.
And as much as the movie shows off those unbelievable, bombastic battles, a nearly commensurate amount of time is spent talking about the Drift, or the link between the two (or more) pilots controlling the Jaegers. It’s repeated in various ways throughout the film how the Drift works, and we are shown in several instances why it’s important to be Drift-compatible. We are given a human relationship between Raleigh and his brother and then between Mako and Raleigh to ground this abstract concept, and then eventually thrust into a waking nightmare of a memory from Mako to show how potent and how real this mental connection is.
This opens up the thematic elements of the film, namely the one about relationships between people. When you Drift with someone, you share everything there is within and about you with another person. All of your memories and feelings and experiences flow into the other person and vice versa. It’s a necessary step for two people to capably pilot a single Jaeger together. And the question that Pacific Rim asks is what’s left between two people when you already know everything there is to know about a person?
This most obviously is shown through the father-son pilot team of Herc and Chuck Hansen. While they also add fuel to the fire of the incompatible combinations theme, they most strongly represent the contrast of internal withholding and external expression. Actor Robert Kazinsky who plays Chuck says that del Toro wanted their dog Max to function as a proxy between them so all the love they show towards Max is actually for the other person, but that is just another layer on top of the complexities of this implied-expressed struggle.
It comes to a head late in the movie when the two part ways for spoiler reasons, but they stand face-to-face briefly. Herc questions what is there to say when you’ve already been all around and inside a person’s head. But Chuck answers: everything. The difference between action and thought is that action carries weight. It requires effort and thus in its hold a great amount of meaning. They’ve read each other like books through the Drift, but they need to know the other person can acknowledge what they’ve seen. They need to hear them say that they love each other rather than just bury it each time the words peek their heads out of the sand.
It’s a surprisingly deep consideration to make in a movie ostensibly about robots versus monsters. And there are many more just like it in the film, but I’m not sure I could fit everything I have to say in a reasonable amount of words. It does, however, speak to what I really appreciate about Pacific Rim. While it does address every Saturday afternoon of my nascent years where my Power Rangers would battle television remotes that came to life, it also manages to wrap up significant and complex themes in an exceptionally simple and straightforward tale of good versus evil. More than that, it’s human good versus ambiguous and unrelatable alien evil. We get a visually gripping but mentally uncluttered canvas on which to paint our more meditative studies. Maybe more movies should give that a try instead of adding more for the sake of having more.