“To fight monsters, we created monsters of our own.” Isn’t it always the way? According to Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), the bromidic-white-guy center of Pacific Rim, the monsters in need of fighting emerged from an extra dimension beneath the sea in 2015. Godzillian and then some, the Kaiju not only wreak havoc, but they’ve also got a plan to get it done.
Raleigh’s narration opens the film, taking long minutes to explain—with help from video footage of talking heads and burning cities—how the Kaiju have evolved in just a few years, changing from massive, lumbering creatures to scheming combatants with multiple jaws and the sorts of scary maneuvers that sci-fi moviemakers like to dream up. In turn, Raleigh goes on (and on), humans created gigantic robots called Jaegers, gigantic, Iron-Man-looking robots (see: the Atlas). Each is individually designed, equipped with multiple weapons choices (see: first person shooter games) and manned by two pilots who must be compatible, capable of something called a “neural drift” (see: Vulcan mind meld, or maybe Avatarish psionics). As these two pilots drift into one another’s minds, they share memories and feelings, as well as synchronized movements on some sensationally weaponized ellipticals.
Pacific Rim goes on to show lots of monsters fighting, first in ways that engaged late night TV joking and commercial product (action figures) and then in more wholly destructive ways, decimating whole cities at time. The escalation has led civilian governments around the world to taking a different course, defunding the Jaegers program in favor of building a wall against the Pacific Ocean. Preposterous as this sounds, the visuals are both more and less connected to a recognizable world. Some 250 feet tall, constructed by hard-hatted workmen, the wall alludes vaguely to current border politicking (US and Israeli versions both come to mind) as well as medieval fortresses and lord-of-the-ringy embattlements.
That this wall is ineffective is foregone, especially as the rowdy-cowboy pilots persist in their efforts to fight the monsters as monsters (now not only defunded but technically gone rogue, because that’s what the best superheroes must do nowadays). The “rebels,” as their captain Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) prefers to call them, are a laboriously multiculti crew. Stoic and furious, he maintains his position as a “fixed point” for his crew, brooking no insurrection except when it serves the plot, which it does, frequently. The several sets of pilots are briefly identified by skin color and attitude (the spikey-blond-haired Aryans, the Chinese deft gamers), with some set off by their Emotional Issues: Chuck (Rob Kazinsky) competes with his dad Herc (Max Martini) (as well as any other male who comes his way) and both Raleigh and his new partner Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) have suffered particular familial upsets.
The question of sharing minds in order to attain awesome piloting partnerships is not a little fraught, and when they’re not rocking and socking on the Kaiju, the question emerges rather glaringly. Raleigh and Mako are singled out for wanting “vengeance,” though most everyone in sight might be accused of same, and this is at once a shortcoming (the motive is emotional) and also a boon (um, the motive is emotional). While Raleigh’s ordeal is acted out at the start of the film (before it lurches to “Five Years Later”), Mako’s is rendered a few times as fragmented memory, which makes it both exceptionally nightmarish and also movielike. As a child, she’s a sole survivor on devastated city streets, her blue coat and red Mary Janes vivid against a grim grey high-rising backdrop, the Kaiju stalking her humungous and very, very loud.
This evocation of a touchstone trauma is plain enough for anyone who’s seen Schindler’s List or a Godzilla or J-horror movie, but that very process of sharing the trauma is made visible here, as Raleigh walks right into the little girl Mako’s (Mana Ashida) memory, leaning over her and reminding her, again and again, that because it’s a memory, it’s not real, and because of that, it can’t hurt her. He may be right within the movie’s logic, but he’s also dead wrong within that logic, for of course, the movie is all about how memories (and movies of and as memories) shape real perceptions and responses, presents and possible futures.
The realness of Mako’s trauma functions on multiple levels, and the image of Raleigh visibly walking into it is multiply disconcerting. First, it’s hardly news that little girls are especially potent bearers of cultural baggage (see: Pan’s Labyrinth), and so the long minutes spent on this child’s abjection may seem as familiar as they are disturbing. Second, her trauma is different in kind from his more generically heroic one, being politically and historically weighted by those allusions to US atomic bombs lurking behind the Godzilla references.
This comes on top of Mako’s other representational burdens: she’s the only girl with more than a couple of lines, as well as the dutiful daughter, ingenious Jaeger designer, and instantly big-eyed admirer of Raleigh, shown repeatedly to be gazing upon him, presumably your designated stand-in. And yet, for all her apparent supporting-roleness, Mako embodies Pacific Rim‘s most compelling moments, not as she creates, pilots or confronts monsters, but as she endures their effects.