The greatest error made by the creators of Pacific Rim is to allow the spoken word into play. The pivot point of the film is almost without dialogue; it communicates the absolute terror and hysterical desolation that elevates Pacific Rim – giving it a greater weight than most ‘oh, the world is in danger’ films – and with which we are mightily overburdened at the moment. The question ‘what is with all these apocalypse/super-hero films’ has an obvious answer: fear on a level we may never have experience before as a species. Pacific Rim has been attacked as a clichéd work, its plot points rickety with age and echoing a hundred different films. This is partly true, but missing the point. All great myths build on the foundations of older myths. Stories become mythic when the resonance hits that sweet spot and rings through our collective unconscious for generations. Realism and originality are great, but it’s not a positive/negative dichotomy – the opposite is not automatically to be derided and negated. There is an oddly unmentioned film in its DNA, one that allows an intriguing, altered perspective. This article is brief, I’m just tossing ideas around, but these thoughts are what has kept me thinking about the film when the spectacle no longer persists in my vision.
[Warning: potential spoilers ahead]
The Jaegers, giant humanoid machines built to fight Kaiju (monsters from another dimension), are operated by two humans neurally fused. This “neural drift” as it is dubbed, links left and right hemispheres of two brains, forming a unified third brain that is the machine/human hybrid. The drift allows a wordless bond, and the film could easily have played off this to become a visual condor soaring to unfettered heights. The aforementioned pivotal scene has Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), an inexperienced Jaeger pilot, fusing with ex-‘Top Gun’ pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) and losing control. The drift is the psychic equivalent of primordial ooze; a whirlpool of individuality unbound, crowded by history and searching for a linkage inside the artificial construct. When Raleigh’s control slips for a moment, shattering the fragile construct with a sense-memory of his brother’s death in a previous battle, it plunges the inexperienced Mako into a waking nightmare/memory. Here she is young, a tiny human being perhaps not yet reached her first decade, alone in a destroyed city. The only other living creature is a towering Kaiju, hell-bent on annihilating even the smallest of beings in this blasted landscape. It would almost be ridiculous if it didn’t tap so deeply into that ultimate dread, of being totally helpless, of being totally alone. It is a relentless scene, boiling over with pain and rage, and it grounds the entire film. It embodies the fear that the spectacle can often lose: that all of our wonders of civilisation can crumble away and there will be nothing to stop the finger of God[s].
It was at this point that I thought of Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima mon Amour. No one is hesitant to name drop Godzilla as a reference point for Guillermo del Toro’s film due to the obvious nature of the connection. However, there are enough threads of Hiroshima mon Amour here to warrant a mention. Often the most obvious references in our postmodern collective are the ones with the least meaning; simple name/image dropping as an empty in-joke. The web of references in Pacific Rim do not entirely add up to something new, but together they create a kind of amorphous potpourri with a specific intent that is held together by a visual imagination rarely given such technological clout. The Kaiju refer directly to the Asiatic sub-genre of Kaiju Eiga (Monster Films, basically), most fondly and widely known by the Godzilla films. In Pacific Rim they mark a brilliantly realised visual and generic reference point, yet the deeper meanings which some of them contained are transformed here. Godzilla once represented the fears of a post-war Japan, still recovering from the atomic sun that eclipsed their own rising sun. J. Hoberman describes it “as a way to imaginatively portray—and even exorcise—not just the atomic attack but also World War II in general, and to assuage more contemporary nuclear fears”. As such it primarily represents a form of looking backwards. Things have changed since 1954, the year of Godzilla‘s birth. The atom has once again become our friend as it is no longer the most frightful beast on the block. In Pacific Rim, the Kaiju can represent just about any of the possible end-world scenarios we may face, a free-floating anxiety made tangible (and defeatable if we make the right decisions).
But what of Hiroshima mon Amour? Well, it is birthed from the same incidents as Godzilla: a cataclysmic war and a sublime technological terror that erased cities in moments. Del Toro is no newcomer when it comes to imaginative evocations of war, with both The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth being set during the Spanish Civil War. His lineage belongs to the art-house realm as much as it does to the Hollywood blockbuster. It is a fusion which does not always gel; Pacific Rim does suffer from a slight lag between the hemispheres of its heritage. However, it is never sunk by this unusual amalgamation, and I believe it is the hint of Hiroshima mon Amour which gives it a deeper resonance. Amos Vogel, author of Film as a Subversive Art, includes Hiroshima mon Amour as a foundational film in “the shattering of old concepts of time and space as structurally separate, absolute categories”. It represents a world in which the past is ever-present, living beneath and within every gesture, and slippage can occur without warning. Like Godzilla, it is drawn to look back at past trauma. Where Godzilla avoids the personal, preferring widespread faceless destruction, Hiroshima mon Amour holds the personal as close as a lover. Pacific Rim holds the personal even closer. With the drift, two become one. Father and son are purified in a unity that transcends words, and brothers linked in a bond that when broken is a death for both; life and death experienced as one. Male and female transcend romance and sexuality in a bond that has powerful intent (Pacific Rim should be praised for leaving the sexual entirely out of the proceedings, refusing objectification and elevating recognition). It is an erasure of categories, an erasure of individuality as a destructive prison that we still have yet to achieve, and yet, with the technological future passing us at an incredible pace, it is not an impossibility. Hiroshima mon Amour holds the paradigmatic opposition of seeing and not seeing; Pacific Rim has those who died and yet did not die. The burden of death is shared by both partners, yet one goes on living, and is then shared by a third, Mako, who in turn is inescapably thrust into her own visceral memory of death. As I watch, it becomes an uncanny post-human echo of the image of a man’s hand which triggers She’s (Emmanuelle Riva) plunge into the abyss of memory. She who died and yet did not die, who witnessed and yet saw nothing. But to what purpose will we put these memories? Will they destroy us, or can we learn from them, take power from them?
We’ve travelled a long way down the path of deconstruction, pulling apart time and space and undoing our humanity in a myriad of ways. We are stretching desperately towards a post-human point that will eclipse our understanding of the world and each other. Our cinema is already there. Pacific Rim has the traumas of the past as a key emotional point, yet it is a film which is entirely looking forward. It is in this way that it most separates from Hiroshima mon Amour and Godzilla. It is looking back at these films through the prism of a future-present, transforming the personal through technology and the impersonal through re-defined collective fears, and more than anything else it is crying out for a solution, a way to cancel the apocalypse. Resnais envisioned, in Hiroshima mon Amour, “the notion of characters who would not be heroes, who would not participate in the action, but would be witnesses of it”. This is fine for a developmental stage in a cultural form that is attempting to broaden the possibilities of embodiment and representation. Now, we are at a boiling point on a global scale, emotionally, psychologically, politically, environmentally, and it is no longer acceptable to merely be a spectator. While the jumble of themes and ideas may not add up to a unified, linear whole, Pacific Rim is clearly calling out to stop burying our heads in the sand, to stop building walls, and instead connect with our fellow humans and stop the monsters that make our lives a dangerous and terrifying proposition. This is propaganda without nationalism. In isolation we die; as She suffers in isolation, burdened by the weight of her memories and loss, so we will suffer as a species under the burden of the future. Time to take that sucker head-on.
By Ben Buckingham