Table For Two: Pacific Rim

By Arturo R. García & Kendra James

(L-R) Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako (Rinku Kikuchi) team up to save humanity from an extraterrestrial scourge in “Pacific Rim.”

Pacific Rim was introduced as an oddity and emerged as even more of one, but in a good way.

While the film was promoted as an homage to the Japanese Kaiju films of old (even outright integrating the term into the story), what audiences actually got was a movie that owed as much to anime classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion as it did to monster smash-’em-ups. And even more surprisingly, one that managed to use those tropes in a thoughtful, downright progressive fashion (albeit while using some wonky dialogue) without skimping on the action the trailer promised us.

Which makes it doubly disconcerting that the movie couldn’t even win its opening weekend at the U.S. box office, finishing second to, of all things, Grown Ups 2. Luckily, the movie’s doing well enough internationally that there’s already talk of a sequel.

But is it worth that kind of effort? Our intrepid reviewers suit up and tackle these questions under the cut. Heavy Spoilers from this point on.

First up, did the movie live up to your expectations?

Idris Elba (R) at the Apple store in Soho, New York.

Kendra: Yes and no, but that wasn’t the finished product’s fault. The marketing team behind Pacific Rim was pretty determined to make me not want to see this movie by leaving out the very human element attached to the whole thing in most of the promotions. For someone like me who’s not particularly into Kaiju films or anime robots (I spent a lot of middle school pretending to enjoy Gundam Wing for my friends’ sake), this film didn’t look particularly interesting. It wasn’t until I went and saw Idris Elba talk about it at an Apple Store where he began to elaborate on the hero arcs and the character tropes in it that I started getting pumped. I can understand why it didn’t do well here in America– the average consumer had to look really hard to figure out that it wasn’t just about robots fighting monsters for two hours.

In the end though, Pacific Rim was for those of us who were looking for something to stick on the shelf next to Independence Day. It’s gorgeous, wildly enjoyable, actually does have human characters with personalities, and has a great tight script that hits all the right actiony notes. I enjoyed it thoroughly, it just wasn’t the movie the PR claimed it was. I wish they’d re-thought that strategy!

Arturo: The first good sign for me was the moment during the prologue when I realized it was where Del Toro stashed the movie the marketing team was pitching — the coming of the Kaiju, then the rise of the Jaegers — and told that story in less than 10 minutes. That’s a pretty gnarly bit of subversion for a summer movie.

As the film went on, I was struck by how much care Del Toro and co-writer Travis Beacham put into their core ensemble. There’s one narrative trick that helped facilitate this, which I’ll get to later. But the results, even if the dialogue often sounded like something out of bad Kaiju, were as compelling as these films can get. Nearly every character — even the nominally jerky Australian hotshot — gets to show their humanity.

I say “nearly” because the Russian team and the Chinese triplet squad don’t get to do much of anything. But since Del Toro has said he had to lop off an hour’s worth of extra footage, I’m confident that there’s more to each unit than we got to see on screen.

The marketing for this movie — such as it was, as Kendra pointed out — centered around Idris Elba’s speech rallying the troops. What did you think of his performance?

Kendra: Well clearly Idris Elba was perfection. Pacific Rim doesn’t give any of its actors anything too complicated to do, but he was able to make the line “tonight we cancel the apocalypse” sound not ridiculous. That alone is a testament to his skill.

But, for real, I’m waiting for his spot to blow up in America. It’s nice and all to have pieces like this one go up on mainstream sites, but I’m waiting for him to be called the next Brad Pitt or something. When’s Hollywood going to latch onto that?

Arturo: If the trailer for Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom is any indication, his time may be now. But I thought Elba handled what ended up being a layered role very well, indeed, in that he plays the mentor figure to both Raleigh (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) in different ways. In fact, I’d argue that the film allows both of them to undertake their own versions of the Heroic Journey. When Elba’s Marshal Pentecost tells Mako, “It’s your turn to protect me,” that’s the kind of moment that harkens back not only to good sci-fi, but good wartime movies. And even after being featured all over the ads for the movie, his speech to the remnants of the Pan Pacific Defense Force is the most stirring piece of writing in the whole film.

“Knifehead” kaiju from “Pacific Rim.” Image via ComingSoon.net

Let’s talk about how this kaiju flick handled the actual kaiju

Arturo: The quietest, cleverest thing this did was state outright that the monsters coming through were just running a hit on behalf of some unnamed otherdimensional conquerors. While it’s easy to compare that to Independence Day, the trope has its roots in both Kaiju (e.g. films like Godzilla vs. Monster Zero, which featured King Ghidorah) and anime (Voltron, Mazinger Z and Evangelion).

The reason that worked in this case was, it streamlined the story more than a typical kaiju offering; instead of having to build story arcs for both the monsters and the humans, it allowed ample time for Del Toro and company to use on the latter — time they took full advantage of. In a lesser movie, Newton’s (Charlie Day) story doesn’t progress much from “Kaiju Geek who spouts exposition.” Here we see him earn the courage to stand up to Hannibal Chau (Ron Perlman) and hold his own against his colleague Hermann while developing their friendship (Torchwood alum Burn Gorman). Meanwhile, Del Toro’s typically deft hand with monster-making resurfaces here, with the “leveling up” of each creature playing out believably. When the Level 5 Final Boss appears, the moment and the monster are suitably foreboding for our heroes.

Mako shows Raleigh her fighting spirit. Image by Kerry Hayes via LAtimes.com

Our friend T.F. Charlton pointed us in the direction of this analysis of the sparring scene where Raleigh and Mako, which reads in part:

Honestly, my favorite thing about the fight tryouts is despite it on the surfacing being about Raleigh Beckett. It’s actually just all about MAKO MORI and the people who adore her. Even though I seriously enjoy when she gets her turn against Raleigh, my favorite part is actually the beginning of the scene.

Not only did Mako handpick the candidates Raleigh fights, she is positioned next to Stacker, the authority figure. Not next to all the other spectators just there to see who wins.

No. She is there to grade Raleigh and she is completely unimpressed by him. Which seems to be superf*cking important to Raleigh because throughout the scene he is constantly seeking her approval.

Your thoughts on both that, and the love story in general?

Arturo: It did rework my understanding of that scene. But what was interesting to me was how relatively progressive this was. While Mako was obviously attracted to Raleigh, they didn’t have a real Meet-Cute (the test wasn’t quite played for laughs); there wasn’t a trumped-up misunderstanding between them to recover from — just this quiet realization that they had come to care for one another. Again, a lesser movie would have hammered home the fact that it was a cis-hetero romantic bond that proved to win the day. (And without any character development for the Russian team, Mako & Raleigh are the first implicitly stated example of this.)

Kendra: If you take the tiny fandom’s word for it, Newton/Gottlieb was the real romance of this piece.

Open Mic!

Arturo: So, one question — Kendra, I think you brought this up at Comic-Con — that came up was, what if you were a nation that wasn’t on the actual Pacific Rim? Like, did anybody really think Britain or Germany wouldn’t come up with their own Jagers? And so I’m happy to introduce Racializens to 4th String Jaegers, a collection of the mecha we didn’t get to see, with some of the best names I think I’ve ever read aloud.

In the interest of solidarity, here are my own contributions. First, here’s how this film would have gone if Robert Rodríguez had directed it instead of Del Toro:

And then, if you don’t mind a little bit of a lucha libre twist:

Pretty cool, right?

… Right?

Kendra: I’m all about speculation towards other countries mechas, and the international ramifications of the kaiju attacks. Pacific Rim was the only smash and crash blockbuster this summer that completely leveled cities and attempted to show the consequences of what happened after that destruction. I kind of appreciated that after Star Trek and Man of Steel.

Beyond that it struck me as odd that, even with the jaegers, there were still so many people populating Pacific coastal cities. I also found myself wondering about what other countries were doing during the whole thing.

Where were the South American countries? I figure if the kaiju were making it down to Australia they were making it to Peru or Chile. Did the Chinese jaeger willingly show up in defense of Taiwan if necessary? Who was taking care of the Philippines? Was there an influx of refugees into any African countries at any point? The kaiju didn’t seem particularly equipped to make it that far, or survive somewhere with such a varied climate. How many failed attempts at jaegers from North Korea and Iran did the world have to suffer through? And I can only assume that if Iran, or any MENA country had one, Israel would have started building too. This was the only blockbuster this summer that encouraged any sense of global thought, and it wasn’t just the casting.

And speaking of global issues, I loved the “let’s build a wall around Alaska” solution that turned out to be a dumb idea. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume that was a slight nod out to America’s “let’s build a wall the Texan border” immigration approach.

Arturo: Speaking of South America — or at least, of Mexico again — another friend of the site, Jaymee Goh, pointed out that there actually is a Mexican mecha: Matador Fury, which may or may not have been one of Anthony Weiner’s nom-de-sexts, too.

But to close this out, I want to say a few words in defense of Rinko Kikuchi’s portrayal of Mako Mori. There’s apparently a school of thought going around that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is a “more feminist” character than Ms. Mori. This is, to put it bluntly, hogwash.

I don’t have a problem with Johansson’s work in either The Avengers or Iron Man 2, mind you, but to say she is a “stronger” female character because she engages in more physical violence is the kind of mindset Kate Beaton has been making fun of for awhile now.

And neither does this take give Kikuchi enough credit for bringing to light Mako’s journey. As the highlighted piece above argues, not only is she evaluating Raleigh’s performance, but she’s also fighting to become a pilot in her own right. She’s both proving herself to Pentecost while respecting him as a parental figure.

And while it’s Raleigh who lands the final blow in the movie — a concession, perhaps, to “American” sensibilities — the two characters’ relationship is warm, yet not unseemly. It’s the first love arc in a summer blockbuster that I can remember that begins from a place of mutual respect and deepens from there. And Mako is treated as an equal part of that. (Also, it’s quite telling that the first and last acts by Raleigh in the movie involve him saving someone’s life — he’s a kinder Superman than the guy in the blue suit.) Given time and the benefit of Pacific Rim being discovered by more people on more platforms, this role will, hopefully, be seen as a game-changer in how women of color can deliver in an action movie if they are allowed the opportunity to do so.

  • Tony

    If he was cast as an East Asian his character wouldn’t have been nearly as cool badass. He would have been the typical triad gang lord who betrays Newton and becomes fodder for a destructive fight scene.

  • happyappa

    Interesting analysis of the movie. But I thought there were a lot more problems.

    Hannibal Chau – Played by a White actor who got part of his name from a Chinese restaurant.

    Tendo Choi – Played by a White/Mexican actor.
    …So they found Chinese triplets who don’t do/talk much, but can’t bother to find any East Asians for the above roles that actually had speaking parts?

    The Jaeger named “G*psy Danger.

    Typical White Male/Asian Female pairing (an annoyance, not the characters relationship in the movie per se, but the pairing itself).

    Mako being the only WOC in the movie (out of 2 women and the Russian one doesn’t do a lot)

    This movie takes place in Hong Kong correct? and with the majority White cast gave me the feeling of Firefly or something equally weird that uses “Oriental Mystique” as a background for White people.

    Kaijuu, anime robots, is all Japan. The best they could do was one (East) Asian person? No I’m not counting Choi who was played by a non-Asian, nor am I counting “Asian boy”, “refugees”, or “thugs” listed in the cast.

    This movie is a huge disappointment and the only good things are Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba (thank goodness they did not cast Tom Cruise), and the CGI.

    Forget about being the next Brad Pitt, Elba should transcend Brad Pitt.

    • aboynamedart

      The thing about Chau, though — not only does he mention his cultural exploitation up-front, but he’s presented as a villainous figure with appropriations of cool, as opposed to a “cool badass.” That he would do that is framed as another reason not to care for the character, compared to Newton, who’s sincerely trying to do the right thing.

      You are right that the geography of the movie is hinky, to say the least. That’s part of the reason I’d like to see the franchise brand out – an animated series would be a more cost-effective way of seeing more nations represented while keeping Hunnam and Kikuchi around to anchor the movie versions.

    • Kraas

      “This movie takes place in Hong Kong correct? and with the majority White
      cast gave me the feeling of Firefly or something equally weird that
      uses “Oriental Mystique” as a background for White people.” This trope has always annoyed me. It was one of the things that bugged me a lot about Firefly. Couldn’t they have gotten at least one Chinese person in the main cast?

      “Forget about being the next Brad Pitt, Elba should transcend Brad Pitt.”

      Idris Elba has already transcended Brad Pitt just by the simple fact that he’s Idris Elba.

    • Keith Creech

      Guillermo del Toro, Ryuhei Kitamura, and M. Night Shyamalan have all
      made great movies that in my opinion, showed their prowess as great
      directors, but I feel at some point they should have just stuck to
      directing. Pacific Rim was too much like del Toro’s other films for me to really get into it. I also agree with happyappa point about them making Asian characters only background figures instead of human beings.

  • Just_A_Thought1218

    I read this really interesting blog post that says most of the storytelling is done visually in Pacific Rim, and that you won’t be able to pick up the character development, particularly of Mako Mori, without digesting the story visually. Link included here: http://goo.gl/1xILO9