Lady Business is excited to present a guest post about Pacific Rim - one of the best films to come out of that whole sticky, summer blockbuster season- from chaila of underline everything. We're fairly confident that this post will leave you groaning about the DVD release date. Whhhy isn't it here yet?
I did not expect to love Pacific Rim, and I certainly did not expect to be bribing Jodie to ask me to do a guest post about feminist themes in Pacific Rim (this is my recollection and I’m sticking to it). I don’t usually like summer blockbusters. I do always like Idris Elba (maybe this is the time to declare my biases; if Idris Elba is in a thing, I will be interested in that thing), but I wasn’t even convinced I would see it. Then I happened to hear the director, Guillermo del Toro, talking about the movie on the radio and he made me want to like it. It seemed like more thought had been put into this movie than is usually put into summer blockbusters and I really liked the idea of original genre film trying to do a little bit better.
This post discusses several ways that I thought Pacific Rim was a little bit better than many of its peer movies, and quite a bit better than I expected when it comes to representation of women, people of color and even ideas of justice (or at least, ideas that are not unjust), and how it mostly managed to avoid reproducing problematic power or militaristic narratives that usually come with blockbuster action movies. I think that much of what the movie was trying to do differently was incompletely executed, but definitely visible, and there are some purposeful swerves around the typical kind of masculine patriarchal patriotism that makes action movies difficult for me to tolerate.
Non-white, non-American heroes
Yes, the main narrative protagonist is Raleigh Becket, a hard-headed, authority-defying white American man. But the other two main characters are Mako Mori, a Japanese woman, and Stacker Pentecost, a black British man. They’re both given time, narrative weight and importance within the movie. More about each of them separately in a minute, because they deserve it. Apart from the main characters, there’s Tendo Choi, a Chinese and Peruvian man who seems to be in charge of mission control and communications, as well as the pilot teams of Cheung, Hu and Jin Wei Tang, Chinese brothers; Sasha and Aleksis Kaidonovsky, a Russian wife-and-husband team; Herc and Chuck Hansen, an Australian father-son team; and Mako and Raleigh’s team. That’s a pretty international delegation.
Unfortunately, apart from Mako and Raleigh, the other pilots that get significant story and lines are the white, male, English-speaking Australians with typical daddy issues, while the Chinese Wei triplets and the Russian Kaidanovskys go down very, very quickly in the first kaiju battle in the movie. The other major characters are the two scientists, who are also white men. The jaeger that gets the most attention, Gipsy Danger, has a racial slur in its name. These are maybe the most disheartening aspects of the movie. Still, compared to most action movies, it at least waved at internationalism. It might be sad that this is enough to make me happy, but it is. (There’s some internet talk that the reason Pacific Rim included more international elements is an attempt at capturing the international box office. If so, yay please do that some more!).
Mako Mori’s hero arc
Mako Mori is fantastic. She gets her own traditional “call to action” hero arc. She’s the rookie pilot who’s skilled but inexperienced, with a thirst to prove herself, to avenge her family, and to make her father figure/mentor proud of her. She faces down and overcomes multiple internal and external obstacles to prevail, prove herself and play an indispensable role in saving the world. This is a quintessential action movie arc, but how often is that role in an American action movie played by a Japanese woman?
Mako is defined by everyone by her competence and intelligence. Stacker introduces her as “one of our brightest” and as the person in charge of restoring the Mark III jaegers. Everyone, (including her!), agrees that she is the best pilot candidate. Raleigh, our main protagonist, is immediately and continually impressed by her, and fights to get to pilot with her. She’s never considered to be weaker or underqualified, only inexperienced. Even her emotionalism, which is rooted in a desire to avenge her family, is not linked to her gender. I actually really appreciated that Mako was shown as both very emotionally invested and also as very strong and generally restrained. While emotion is presented as something that can be dangerous to take into the drift, it’s Raleigh, her male co-pilot, who proves the point first by getting lost in the memories of his brother’s death, thereby throwing Mako off and into her own traumatic memories. The movie even sets up a subtextual proto-romance for her and Raleigh, without making Mako’s journey about winning him or deserving him or being won by him. Mako’s story is about Mako, from beginning to end. It was also refreshing to have the narrative and the other characters be respectful and admiring of her. Mako Mori is not a white girl and I thought having her in this active, respected role, within the context of her own hero arc, and within her father/daughter relationship with Stacker and partnership/budding romance with Raleigh, was really great. Plus, look how cool she is!
Mako’s story wasn’t perfect. She was still somewhat out of the action unnecessarily at various points, especially at the very end, and I wasn’t the biggest fan of her being the spark for Raleigh and Chuck Hansen’s fight. And of course, women are still seriously underrepresented. Sasha Kaidanovsky and Mako are the only women who are more than background characters, and Sasha gets very few lines and very little to do. But I did love basically everything about Mako.
Stacker Pentecost, big damn hero
Then there’s Stacker Pentecost. He’s playing another archetypal role: the gruff authority figure and the leader with the weight of the world on his shoulders, shepherding and inspiring the soldiers who will soon replace him. Yet Stacker got a lot more nuance, action and agency than I expected and was much more of a major character than I feared. He wasn’t just the distant, stoic authority figure. He got a lot of little moments of humanity or vulnerability and was actually the driving force for much of the overall progression of the plot. He kept the jaeger program alive as a resistance force even after the political leaders defunded it and removed their support; he marshaled all the resources left for one final assault; he brought Raleigh back; he trained Mako; he sent Newt after the kaiju brain; he made the strategic decisions, big and small; and in general he was the person who led them all to this point in the war.
I really liked that the movie aligned Stacker, a black man, as the leader of the resistance and insisted that he was worthy of respect, rather than positioning him as an outsider bureaucratic commander and someone to be defied in the interests of getting the job done. He is the leader of the rebellion, not someone who needs to be rebelled against.
Stacker does die—has been dying throughout the movie—which is in some ways a disappointing addition to the trend of black men dying in science fiction narratives. He does at least die in the role of the sacrificing hero, the mentor who’s taken them as far as he can and then dies so his daughter/student has to finish the job and complete her own hero quest. His death is about him and his entire heroic arc, and a little about Mako, and it carries a huge emotional weight within the story. It would be nice if a black character survived a sci-fi story more often, but he’s far from a red shirt who dies as cannon fodder.
Centralizing a positive relationship between people of color
Parent/child themes and themes of family permeated the movie, and one of the relationships that resonated throughout the movie was Stacker and Mako, who were somewhat slowly revealed to have a complex father-daughter relationship. The movie didn’t pass the Bechdel test, but it did pass the version of the Bechdel test modified for race: two characters of color talk about something other than a white character. This is still a pretty rare thing anywhere in mainstream media. It's not a technical pass where the two characters talk about jaeger cores or something inconsequential; Mako and Stacker have multiple meaningful scenes that are of great weight to both characters and to the overall narrative of the movie where they are talking about themselves, their shared history, Mako’s aspirations to be a pilot, and significant plot happenings that they are in control of.
Stacker and Mako’s relationship, and particularly Stacker’s role as her adoptive father, was very respectful of Mako’s Japanese culture and language. He is shown to bow at her door and ask permission to come in, and they speak to each other in Japanese, indicating that he’s learned at least some of her cultural traditions rather than forcing her into his. How often is a foreign language used to code otherness or fear in a movie? But here we have multilingualism in a summer blockbuster, requiring English subtitles for important parts of the heroes’ conversations, not the villains’ machinations. This movie actually incorporates language to illuminate subtle points about Mako and Stacker and their relationship. For example, Mako and Stacker discuss official PPDC business in English, as a commander and a subordinate, but repeatedly switch to Japanese when the conversation gets more personal, which implies a certain level of family intimacy, like Japanese is what they speak to each other in family settings.
(Gifs by thoughthewaybearduousandstrange on Tumblr)
Stacker and Mako both push back against some pretty big negative stereotypes within this relationship. Against the backdrop of negatively portrayed or absent black fathers in media, Stacker’s protectiveness—which is about Mako putting herself in harm’s way to fight kaiju, not about her romantic relationships, which seems worthy of note—is almost refreshing to me. He’s shown to generally be supportive and to care deeply about Mako, and he does recognize her skill as a pilot and that she’s earned her chance. As for Mako, when Raleigh says they don’t just have to obey Stacker, she pushes back against his (very American-coded) tendency to flout authority, telling him “It’s not obedience, it’s respect,” refusing to defy her father figure and commander, who has earned their respect, to go and fulfill some super special destiny alone. When Stacker’s about to go on a mission that they both know will kill him, Stacker—the big, stalwart father figure—tells Mako that “I need you to protect me.” He says this to his daughter! Not his son, not a male soldier he’s mentored to fill his shoes, his daughter! (That may have been the point at which I accidentally lost my heart to Pacific Rim. The gruff, tired father figure told his daughter that he needed her to protect him!)
Again, there’s some incomplete execution. How much I would have loved it if Stacker or Mako’s story had been the framing device and the main point of view for the whole movie? On the other hand, what if there’s a sequel and it stars Marshall Mako Mori?! *heart flutters*
Lack of male gaze/Mako’s female gaze
This is technically part of the movie’s treatment of Mako, but I like this so much that I’m giving it its own section. Mako is a female character who is not sexualized or objectified by the camera or by other characters at all. Ever. I’m never over the introductory shot of her in combat boots under an umbrella in the rain. Her uniform isn’t inexplicably more revealing than the male characters’ uniforms. The camera doesn’t catch her in her underwear for no reason. She doesn’t use sex appeal to achieve her goals as a way for the movie to show us her sex appeal. Not even once does the movie make me feel like Mako is there to look decorative to the audience or to be the prize for any other character’s job well done. Against the backdrop of a whole lot of media exoticization of Asian culture, and fetishization of Asian women in particular, this narrative/camera treatment of Mako is especially refreshing, particularly since the movie manages to have an implied Mako/Raleigh romance subplot without these failings. (And they don’t kiss at the end! Because that’s not the point and not what’s important at the end of this story).
Actually, to the extent there’s any “gazing” in this movie, it’s Mako’s gaze. She’s the one who rather adorably admires Raleigh when he takes his shirt off, literally peering at him through a peephole in her door. Another thing that I thought was neat was her flashback to Tokyo, where we are completely in her point of view as a child as the kaiju rampages and are in her gaze as she looks up at Stacker on the jaeger, backlit by the sun for-ev-er in this glorious hero shot that goes on for ages. This is Mako’s view of him, the white knight who slayed the monster, while she’s the princess who’s lost one red shoe that he will later give back to her as she grows up to slay the monsters herself.
Internationalism and lack of nationalism
Unlike many, many action movies that are premised on one super special chosen hero to save the world, the basic structure of Pacific Rim’s fight against the kaiju is the world coming together to save the world. Though the jaegers seem to be associated with the particular countries or shatterdomes where they’re stationed, each country isn’t on its own. Rather, the Pan Pacific Defense Corps controls the jaegers and deploys them around the world where they’re needed. Consequently, there’s very little nationalism in the movie, subtextual or otherwise. Instead, the world reacts to the kaiju by pooling its resources and uniting against a common enemy. Our heroes are the leaders and primary actors, of course, but it’s clear that the threat affects everyone, and everyone contributes to fighting it.
Even more significantly, the kaiju aren’t a thinly veiled, racialized metaphor for international terrorism or nuclear war or some other geopolitical issue. If anything, the kaiju seem like a metaphor for global warming, a global problem that requires innovation, imagination and global collective action. It’s really interesting how the movie sort of conceptualizes global warming—“we terraformed the Earth for the monsters!”—as these massive city-destroying events we can contain and kill with gigantic robots, if we just work together. It’s a comforting if fantastical way to embody the uncertain threat of nature attacking us, and a beautifully absurd, impractical vehicle to evoke real themes of human innovation, determination and triumph.
Cooperation saves the world
Themes of cooperation run very heavily throughout Pacific Rim. In contrast to a whole slew of movies that are about a destined hero who’s smarter or stronger or more determined or just chosen, this movie is about the people who are left standing as the world ends, and the choices they make to play their own roles in the world-saving. The jaegers are always piloted by at least two people who share the load and have to understand each other to fight in tandem. Both Raleigh and Mako have to overcome their past kaiju trauma and the loss of people they love to work together to complete the last mission, which is made possible by Stacker’s and Chuck’s sacrifice. The scientists, Newt and Hermann, are shown to be ever at odds and in competition with one another, but both of their theories prove correct and are useful, and when they work together they play an integral role in saving the world. (I halfway expected them to kiss at the end). This movie is absolutely not about a single hero, not even Raleigh or Mako or Stacker, but about a whole bunch of people rising to the occasion and acting heroically when it’s called for.
All of these themes of cooperation made the whole movie feel very much like it was about a collective scrappy resistance rather than celebrating any kind of chauvinistic patriotism or riding on the shoulders of one special rebel or lone wolf. The entire jaeger program exists as a counterpoint to the “wall of life,” which is what the politicians have chosen to fund as a defense against the kaiju, pulling funding from the jaegers and diverting it to the wall. The wall is explicitly described in the movie as an illusory solution that will only protect the rich and powerful (or will at least make them feel better for awhile), who have the means to move inland to safe zones. There are protests by those who won’t be protected by the wall, and the PPDC rejects it as a workable solution and runs on a shoestring and black market funds to keep itself going long enough to make a last push to protect everyone. Our heroes don’t prevail because they made a bigger gun or bomb or had more firepower than the enemy or even because of one special person, but because they rejected a short-sighted option and through collective effort and courage they manage to land their old, worn, failing weapons in precisely the right place.
This movie also managed to care more about civilian life than most other action movies combined. PPDC operating protocols call for confronting the kaiju in the ocean, before they reach cities, and everyone is concerned about evacuation in the event the kaiju do reach cities. When one kaiju does get to Hong Kong for a showdown, it’s because the first line of defense has failed. Because of the international elements of the film and because the kaiju aren’t magically confined to just attacking New York or Los Angeles landmarks, the movie equally respects the civilian life of all the countries. The big showdown is in Hong Kong, where we see the civilians entering and waiting in kaiju shelters, and when the fight between the robots and the monsters does start destroying cars and buildings, we believe that every effort has been made to make sure there are no people in those buildings.
Another consequence of these themes of cooperation and uniting against a common external enemy is that the movie doesn’t ask me to feel sympathy for people causing harm in the world. Of course, there are failings and flaws in all of the characters, who hurt each other in human ways and the movie evokes sympathy for those human failings. But there is no moral ambiguity and no anti-hero grimdarkness masquerading as complexity. (Don’t get me wrong; I love some good moral ambiguity! But summer blockbusters are not venues that explore these themes with much nuance.) There is no attempt to make me feel sorry for the villain or to parallel the pain of the villain with that of the hero. Nor does the movie ask me to deeply ponder and then get over the fact that real heroes have to kill people too, throwing other people under the bus of the hero’s manpain. Even Raleigh doesn’t have his personal pain privileged over anyone else’s, though the movie starts out with his brother’s death. The Pacific Rim characters feel every death they are unable to prevent. In short, they are heroes that I don’t have to feel ambivalent about rooting for.
In conclusion, it’s probably all relative. I don’t think this movie was perfect by any measure, or that it did any of the above themes completely or perfectly. (Nor do I think that action movies that approach these issues differently can’t be feminist/smart/fun/what have you!) In some ways, what I think of as relatively feminist about Pacific Rim is that it simply avoided most of the pitfalls that most machismo-fueled big action blockbusters fall right into and exploit. It didn’t disrespect women, it didn’t overtly or subtextually racialize a threat to white people, it didn’t make the fate of the world ride on the back of one super special white man who knows more or better than everyone else, it didn’t read like an army recruiting video or a celebration of ever-growing national firepower aimed at some vague geopolitical threat. Plus, it was a ton of fun! And since it mainly avoided the usual things that make me cringe, I could for the most part just sit back and have feelings about Mako and Stacker and enjoy the gigantic robots punching the sea monsters. Pacific Rim did, I think, try a bit harder than most similar blockbusters try and made some visible effort to avoid many problematic action movie tropes, and I’m happy to see that and to support that.
Other reviews I liked
Pacific Rim: And why this may be the most important film you see this summer (at Gray-Eyed Filmdom on Tumblr)
Mako Mori and the Hero’s Journey (at Hello, tailor.)
The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim (at Storming the Ivory Tower)