Monday, July 22, 2013

Pacific Rim: The Monsters At Our Door

I like me some monsters. When I was but a lad, I couldn't get enough of 'em: the besitary of Ray Harryhausen, Mercer Mayer's One Monster After Another, assorted incarnations of Swamp Thing, giant insects, you name it.

In the intervening years that special place in my heart has expanded to make room not only for the aforementioned but also for Grendel, Frankenstein's creation, the xenomorph of the "Alien" movies (as long as the Predator isn't involved), the undead, the encyclopedias of Carol Rose, Courtney Crumrin graphic novels... you get the picture. I've long wondered why monsters have kept such a hold on me, and I think I've at least started to understand (more on this later).

And so, while I've admittedly never been a genuine kaiju afficionado, I could be forgiven for being really damn excited about "Pacific Rim". If nothing else, I can confirm that this movie is a true visual marvel. The sense of color in particular I found particularly inspiring; the film eschews today's blockbuster vogue of blanched, monochromatic palettes and is not, as they say on HGTV, afraid of color.

I think it's pretty cool that the monsters in the movie turn out to be genetically engineered bio-weapons from another dimension, not so far removed from the Jaegers (giant robots) we humans develop to fight them. And it's a nice touch that global warming circa 2020 has created the prefect atmosphere for the monsters' overlords to survive on our planet after they conquer it. Just a hint that we have, in a sense, created these monsters...

Another route to the interiority of this film's antagonists is the "neural handshake" required to operate the Jaegers; since the task is too much for just one pilot, two humans must mind-meld to drive a giant robot (one for each hemisphere of its mecha-brain). In doing so, each pilot must sail back though his/ her individual memories and allow the imagery to bounce off without affecting them (again, more on this later); there's a clear link with meditation/ mindfulness practice here, punctuated by the "mudra" position the robot's hands achieve once the hemispheres are aligned.

But before I get to what I imagine is my more valuable contribution to "Pacific Rim" discourse, I'll mention that I do think the human element of the story could have innovated a little more. Despite the fact that two of the leads are of African and Asian descent, this Pacific Rim seems overly represented by Caucasians, especially if demographic and political realities continue on their current trajectories into the near future we're supposedly witnessing. Wouldn't the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans be more involved? Wouldn't there be at least a few more women in command positions by then, except for this one Russian lady who dies after a few minutes of mostly silent screen time? Wouldn't the guys who are actually from Hong Kong, where about half the movie takes place, get some actual lines? And why is this British guy talking so much during the teleconference? The UK isn't anywhere near the kaiju danger zone.

To be sure, Rinko Kikuchi's performance as Mako Mori is one of the film's highlights. But despite her character's agency as an eventual Jaeger pilot, Kikuchi's role is eroticized to the point where her attraction to Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) overshadows her ambitions to copilot his machine. This movie fails the Bechdel test with flying colors, mostly because the only other female character of note dies long before the two can converse.

To some degree, I'm happy to set all that aside in light of the fact that "Pacific Rim" is, after all, a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters, and that this is, in fact, why I'm on board. But the prospect of accepting that lowered expectation is mitigated by what I'd call the film's insightful engagement of monstrosity. Returning to my earlier musings, I was struck by the scene where we witness Mako Mori's childhood trauma as a kaiju rampages through Tokyo years ago, when she was a little girl. She weeps and wails as the monster comes closer and closer. It's heartbreaking.

This connected with some recent thinking I've done about why monsters resonate with us so much. Anxieties manifest as mental constructs rather than as plausible models of situations we're likely to encounter. So it stands to reason that they'd take shape as fantastical beings-- and yet they influence the reality of our emotional lives. It's fitting that this scene emerges as a dream sequence while Mori is attempting the neural handshake with Becket, and that a dream-Becket eventually steps into the scene to right her course: "It's only a memory. It isn't real."

As far as I'm concerned, this scene imbues the film with the resonance it needs to tap into a profound mythic and psychological realm. Later on, when we get Idris Elba's much-trailered "We are canceling the apocalypse" monologue, I'm able to connect in a very personal way. As the anthropomorphic robots battle the kaiju, I feel a surge of fist-pump energy at the prospect of conquering my own monsters, whenever and wherever they appear. Take that, beastie! Idris Elba said so.

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