I saw Pacific Rim again over the weekend. The movie was even better the second time around, because I wasn’t so focused on OH MY GOD SHINY SWORD BUTTON and paying more attention to the characters and what they were saying and doing.
Spoiler warnings for this whole thing since I am wibbling about the characters.
Guillermo del Toro is a genius. He pulls a fantastic switch, setting up the movie to where you think Raleigh will be the main character (he does get the opening introduction, after all) and then pulls the switch the moment Mako Mori shows up on screen. He gave us a scifi action movie with a female main character. Let me explain.
The character who covers the most emotional distance in the entire film is Mako. We see her from where she began as a little girl chased by a kaiju, and follow her through to the achievement of both her dream of being a Jaeger pilot and her ultimate vengeance. And while for a moment the movie teases us with the teeth-gnashing girl coming of age story trope, setting it up like Mako will have to choose between Stacker (the father figure) and Raleigh (the boyfriend stand-in), that trope gets turned on its ear by Mako refusing to choose. She continues to love and respect Stacker. And her struggle with him is never about some desire to be with Raleigh, but rather her wish to become a pilot, with Raleigh just being part of that because hey, he’s her right hemisphere. And Stacker allowing her to become a pilot is in no way equivalent of a dad handing his daughter off to her husband; it’s a father acknowledging that his child has grown, and that it’s now her turn to protect him.
This is not to say Raleigh doesn’t have any arc at all. But if the movie had truly been about him, the entire plot would have centered around him gyrating over if he still wanted to be a pilot, if he wanted to bond with someone else to that extent again, and so on. It would have read more like the standard “hero isn’t sure he wants to be a hero only we totally know he does it just takes him a fucking hour and a half to get his shit together” plot. But instead, his decision is quite literally made the moment Stacker asks him, “Do you want to die here, or in a Jaeger?” And that’s it. Boom. Raleigh is committed from there on out. And after that, it turns to him finding a new stable point in his life (a new family) since he’s been completely alone since Yancy’s death. That’s actually what makes Raleigh strong as a person, I think… the fact that after facing that much pain, he takes a look at the choice between remaining alone but safe and facing that kind of agony again and decides to go for it with such puppyish enthusiasm that it makes me tear up to think about it.
But more about Mako and what a indescribable badass she is.
I think there’s a sad chance on people missing the point that Mako is amazing, because she is in fact very quiet. She does respect Stacker and doesn’t argue with him. But I think it’s a powerful reminder that strong and loud are most definitely not the same thing. I mentioned before that I wasn’t so happy about the scene where Chuck and Raleigh were fighting because Mako kind of stood there. This time around, I did my best to watch her, and yeah. If Raleigh had run into any trouble, I have no doubt she would have waded right in; just look at her face. Hell, she looks Raleigh in the eye soon after they first meet and unflinchingly tells him she’s not convinced he’s the right man for the job. When he’s fighting the other pilot candidates, she actually gives him the subtle stink eye hard enough that it makes him challenge her. Mako isn’t afraid to disagree with people or stand up for her own opinions.
Yet she’s also human enough to be upset, to worry openly (if quietly) about her adopted father, to be scared. She’s a good character. She has depths. And I love that every time she has a very emotional line, she speaks in Japanese. Her telling Stacker that she loves him kills me.
I want to see more characters like Mako.
I am also, by the way, incredibly glad that Stacker was Mako’s adopted dad. Just that move gave him such an emotional center and more depth than just the last man standing image–an image that he even says in the movie he’s trying to project. Seeing him interact privately with Mako versus dealing with every other shit storm in the movie I think really highlights that part of it is a shell he’s erected around himself in order to keep everyone else moving in the right direction and not doubting. Just by making it clear that that he is more than the Marshall, it implies what other massive sacrifices he has made and continues to make for his cause. Though of course as the Marshall he is right up there with Nick Fury in his manipulative people handling skills. (See: his conversation with Chuck.)
I just really, really wish he hadn’t died. I suppose it shows his willingness to give up everything, yes, but at the same time I keep wondering if it was really necessary. (And, as I’ve seen several people on Twitter ask, wouldn’t it have been great if the black guy didn’t have to die to save humanity?) Imagine for example if Stacker and Chuck hadn’t blown themselves up, if they were perhaps holding off the kaiju so Mako and Raleigh could get into the rift. Would have have made Mako’s declaration of her love for her adopted father any less powerful? I’d argue not. (And why doubly kill him, when supposedly he already was going to die because he got back in to pilot the Jaeger with Chuck?)
But beyond the characters, what I love most about Pacific Rim is that it’s a film about humanity triumphing over the monsters at our door. And not in the sense of, say, Independence Day (which I’ve Pacific Rim get compared to several times and it just never ceases to piss me off) where it’s basically one protracted “America, fuck yeah!” This is not just a dumb popcorn flick. If it were, I couldn’t have managed to write three blog posts about it and still feel like I’m barely scratching the surface.
The entire point of Pacific Rim is not that one lone hero will save us, or one country will take the lead and protect the world. It’s that we humans, working together, will save ourselves. Everything in this movie is about the triumph of teamwork, of believing in each other under the threat of the greatest dangers humanity has faced. It’s everywhere in the movie. “Let’s do this together!” is a line that appears with many variations. And even in Stacker Pentecost’s “let’s go kick some ass” speech, his entire point is that why they will win is because they are standing together, because they trust each other.
I can’t remember the last time a movie was that goddamn hopeful about humanity. And I think we deserve more movies like that, more splashy cinematic reminders that yes, when we stand together, we can move the world. So many people feel hopeless about the problems that we face because there’s this horrible feeling of, I’m just one person, what can I do. Well, Pacific Rim tries to answer that question: every team is made of a multitude of just one persons. And when we stand together, we will move mountains.