Pacific Rim: Not Entirely What It Looks Like On The Metaphorical Box

I know everyone and their sisters have already written about Pacific Rim (alternate title: Impossibly Scaled And Impressively Choreographed Fisticuffs: Robot And Alien Edition), but there’s a few aspects of it that haven’t, to the best of my knowledge, been exhaustively hashed out. So this is part movie review, part meditation on questionable physics in movies, part grousing about archetypes of scientists, and part contemplation on the portrayal of technological culture in Pacific Rim. Spoilers abound, so if you’ve yet to see the movie I’d suggest you come back to this once you’ve seen it; it’ll probably make much more sense if you’ve already seen it.

clunk clunk kssshthunk RAAAWR

Robot hands are surprisingly difficult to draw.

I am a terrible person to go see science fiction movies with, because bad physics in movies irritate me like an unscratchable itch, and it’s abundantly clear from the trailer that the laws of physics were guidelines at best for Pacific Rim. There is a point in some movies where the justification invoked to make the movie hang together is so absurd that the movie veers from science fiction to comedy [1], but that point is quite far out and rarely reached. I fully expected Pacific Rim to cause some eye-rolling, because as enjoyable as the idea of a robot so enormous it can use a tanker ship as a baseball bat is, that’s not a robot that obeys the laws of physics. The centre of mass is way, way too high for it to be stable in a fist fight, let alone considerations of the amount of energy needed to move its limbs or the materials needed for it to not crumple under its own weight. Even if I could suspend disbelief about that, I’d've thought the fact that they can apparently be lifted by about a dozen relatively gnat-sized helicopters would be a mental sticking point for me. And that’s not even touching the whole portal-between-dimensions / rift-in-spacetime thing, which, as any of my friends can tell you, is usually the fastest, surest way to make me twitch in exasperation.

But strangely, all the wildly unjustifiable physics don’t detract from Pacific Rim. Almost nothing about the science was explicitly justified in the movie — and the small bits that were justified (mostly about the Earth’s transformation into a habitable and increasingly heating planet served to transform the planet into kaiju-hospitable place) felt strange, out of place, and entirely unnecessary to the point of being detrimental to the movie. The movie works, then, because it doesn’t try to explain any of the logistics or science. There’s absolutely no discussion of why there’s a rift between dimensions on the bottom of the ocean, how exactly humanity build these machines that are orders of magnitude taller than skyscrapers in a matter of months, how these machines actually function, how any of the neurological syncing works, nothing. And that lack of explanation makes it much, much easier to suspend disbelief start to think about what the movie is trying to actually say. I read a piece on io9 that posits that Pacific Rim is really a modern fairy tale, and I think that’s a very useful framing. From Annalee Newitz’s piece:

Like many fairy tales, it has a simple message about cooperating to fend off danger. But it’s also clearly intended as an allegory for the kinds of problems that humanity is dealing with in the twenty-first century, specifically climate change and natural disasters that transcend national boundaries. There is some hilariously bad jibber-jabber about how environmental destruction brought the monsters, but that simply underscores my point about how Pacific Rim is really about something more allegorical than ocean acidification.

Traditional fairy tales are full of ludicrous beings and phenomena that are never explained, because the structure of a fairy tale is such that most of the critical elements are shorthands or allegories for more general or more abstract ideas, archetypes, or situations. They’re tools for interpretation, images to capture childrens’ fanciful imaginations, and ways to address complicated problems or situations in a roundabout (and often more socially acceptable) manner, and it’s obvious that they’re not meant to be taken at face value. By not trying to explain any of the science of the kaiju or the jaegers, Pacific Rim avoids the potential pitfalls of science fiction and winds up squarely in the realm of fantastical story-telling. (Whether or not it succeeds there is another matter, and I’m not getting in to it here.)

I disagree somewhat with Newitz’s idea that Pacific Rim is primarily a movie about how the growth of humanity’s problems require us to work across national borders if we are to survive. I don’t disagree that that’s a central message, but to me, the way in which humanity solves the kaiju problem (via the jaegers) is a much more illuminating tack than the well-worn “we need to work as a global team” aspect. Humans build unimaginably enormous robots, armed to the teeth with plasma guns, elbow rockets (!), and chest artillery, powered by enormous nuclear reactors, and how do they fight? With fists. All the technological innovation in the world, literally, and it’s the straightforward, relatively untechnological solutions that get the job done: fists, (tanker ship) bats, swords. When the kaiju send out a massive electromagnetic pulse, frying fries the power grid and digital electronics across the whole of Hong Kong, the analog jaeger steps up to the plate. Technology may open doors to possible solutions to global problems, but even the most advanced, massively scaled technology can’t always effectively solve humanity’s scourges. In an age where humans are increasingly turning to needlessly complicated technological solutions to problems both global and local, this a critical message.

The wall the Americans start to build after pulling out of the jaeger program underscores this point, while highlighting how fallacious an idea it is that all we need to defend ourselves against threats both real and perceived is a big enough barrier. The wall in Pacific Rim is a purely technological solution to the kaiju: rather than facing them and engaging on some sort of human level via the jaegers, the inanimate wall is left as the sole solution while humans huddle behind it and hope it holds so they can ignore the problem beyond the wall until it goes away. That the kaiju breaks through the wall so quickly is a clear commentary on how dangerous and shortsighted a worldview that siege mentality is.

The other typical characteristic of fairy tales is the frequently bizarre language, especially dialogue, and this is mirrored in Pacific Rim too. I’ve seen a number of people griping about the acting, and the person I saw it with said that “a lot of the acting wasn’t bad so much as it was strange, like, why would you deliver that line that way?” But here again, I think it works, at least to a degree. Pacific Rim is not entirely what it looks like on the metaphorical box: the visual style is very detailed, but not realistic, which works when you’re talking about monsters as big as skyscrapers and not tying yourself in knots to find an explanation for them. The aural style does a similar thing: it’s just jarring enough to pull the viewer back from taking the movie at face value, which would be harder to do if the aural style were played straight (ie, realistically). I’m not saying that the acting was uniformly superb, but I think at least some of the flak it’s getting is from people who’re taking the movie too much at face value and finding it wanting.

But, I, unlike many, have beefs with the scientists. Perhaps it’s because while there are scores of movies featuring blond, broad-shouldered-and-square-jawed hero characters, portrayals of scientists, let alone multiple scientists in a single movie, are relatively rarer. Just as it’s frustrating when a movie gets a prominent female role all wrong, it’s frustrating to see unnuanced and tired stereotypes of scientists trotted out. (For [relative] brevity, I’m not getting in to the other characters’ portrayals; there’s plenty of analysis of them elsewhere.)

I will say that there was a wonderfully subtle opportunity narrowly missed in naming the characters. The two characters are named Newton Geiszler and Hermann Gottlieb, as in Sir Isaac Newton and almost as in Gottfried Leibniz, both of whom laid claim to inventing calculus in the late 1600′s. Newton insisted that he’d written about some parts of it as side bits of minor and not widely published papers before Leibniz published a cohesive tract on it, and had the whole tract in notes but not published, he was the rightful inventor. Leibniz insisted that he’d published a full theory of calculus first, without controversy or knowledge of Newton’s ideas, and then a few years later Newton started being a jerk about the whole thing seemingly for the sake of his ego. Whoever was more right, it caused a big rift in the sorts of circles that people who invent new realms of math run in, and theirs is a classic history-of-math rivalry. It’s a terrifically obscure potential reference in a movie full of much more obvious (and much more widely understood) references, but I think it would’ve hinted at a deeper backstory between the two, and in conjunction with more character development and less slapstick, could’ve made their characters less ridiculous. Plus it was too nerdy for me to not mention.

So, let’s start with Newton. While I appreciate the portrayal of a scientist who’s not a stodgy, social awkward, stick-in-the-mud (ie, Gottlieb), I feel like the image of the scientist as a shaggy-haired, windmilling, idolizer of the subject of his (always his…) study is becoming a modern scientist stereotype. Newton’s breathless reverence of the kaiju, his wildly-rushing-into-an-experiment-in-all-directions, his blithe naïvité, his tattoos, his plastic framed glasses, his wistful “I want to be a rockstar!” — it all fits. And while there’s plenty of scientists who’re deeply and unreservedly passionate about their work, and plenty of scientists with some combination of tattoos, plastic rimmed glasses, and shaggy hair (including yours truly), they typically are not walking stereotypes. While this is certainly an updated version, I’m not convinced that the modern stereotype is miles better than the traditional one.

Which leads us to Gottfried, the epitome of the traditional stereotypical scientist. He’s stodgy, nervous, and relies on dry numbers and theoretical calculations scribbled densely (yet remarkably tidily and with minimal erasing) on chalkboards rather than Newton’s empirical, recklessly gathered evidence. He’s socially awkward and reluctant to take risks in the quote unquote real world. He’s also got the most ridiculous mannerisms of anyone in the movie, which neither fits nor adds to his character. There’s nothing nuanced about him.

And of course they bicker, endlessly, in the sort of schoolyard snideness that experimentalists and theorists throw at each other in moments of petty irritation. And of course they realize towards the end that they’re both right, and maybe the other guy isn’t so weird and wrong-headed, and a little caution, rashness, and teamwork saves the day. Kumbaya.

Now I realize I’ve spent the first three quarters of this piece describing and praising, to a degree, how this is a movie that trades and functions on archetypes, and then wheeled around and criticized the movie for using archetypes for specific characters. The other characters are archetypes too, but in part because their archetypes are more developed and understood by a broader audience, there’s more latitude in the movie for the individual characters to develop their own characteristics and nuances. They’re perhaps more accurately instances of archetypes rather than just straight-up out-of-the-box archetypes, but the scientists don’t get that nuance. Maybe if the scientists had more screen time, their characters would have had more room to develop, but the point where they start to have each other’s back needs some massive reworking for any previously developed complexity to avoid being trampled.

In a movie full to the brim of dualities (jaeger vs. kaiju, human vs. machine, pairs [or trios] of pilots, a pair of scientists, a pair of plans to deal with the kaiju…), the singular Stacker Pentecost makes a formidable stationary point for the movie. At the end, I half expected him to get out of the jaeger and just bellow at the kaiju in no uncertain terms to leave the planet alone, and for the kaiju to rear up in bewilderment and abashedly scuttle back to the portal. The almost surreal gravitas Idris Elba brings to the role is a fantastic foil to the movie’s stylized reality, which allows the more subtle commentary to shine though.

So while on the surface it looks like a straightforward summer blockbuster, there’s a lot more going on in Pacific Rim than robots and monsters beating each other up. It’s a commentary on how humans face seemingly insurmountable problems, how we’re making machinery that is figuratively and literally an extension of ourselves, and how we react and adapt to that level of harmony. It’s not a perfect movie, and there’s lots that I’d like to see done differently, but it’s surprisingly thoughtful for what’s being marketed as a protracted fist fight.

  1. I’ve not actually seen the movie 2012, but if Dara O’Briain’s hilarious bit about it is to be believed, I suspect it would fall into this category. If that link just starts at the beginning of the clip, the relevant bit starts at around an hour and eight minutes in.

2 Responses to Pacific Rim: Not Entirely What It Looks Like On The Metaphorical Box

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