It would be easy to dismiss Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) as a big-budget, science fiction summer blockbuster, but to do that would be to miss everything that has turned this film into an instant cult classic. Sure, the film is a defining moment in kaiju (monster) and mech (giant robot) entertainment. You could watch it for the sheer joy of man-shaped robots punching city-destroying sea monsters and spend a fun two hours and eleven minutes rooting for the home team. Who doesn’t love a good punch ‘em up, shoot ‘em up when the scrappy underdogs win? It’s just that Pacific Rim is so much more than that.
Picture this: It is 2025. For twelve years, the world has been under attack by giant monsters emerging from an interdimensional rift (the Breach) between tectonic plates on the ocean floor. After the first three attacks, the nations banded together to fight the alien kaiju; they built monsters to fight the monsters—the Jaegers, and they started winning. Then the attacks grew more frequent. The kaiju got bigger. A new solution was needed. The Jaeger program was disbanded and they began building a wall. One man, Marshall Stacker Pentecost stands in opposition to decommissioning the Jaegers and gathers them all at the Hong Kong “Shatterdome” for one last, desperate assault on the Breach.

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So far, so trite. Yet, del Toro doesn’t stop there. Literally into the breach, he throws the Marshall and a team of unlikely heroes. Also trite, or at least trope. Exceptional performances by Idris Elba, in the role of Stacker Pentecost, and Rinko Kikuchi as his ward, assistant and successor, Mako Mori elevate it above the rest of its kind, and Charlie Hunnam as Raleigh Becket, the washed-up Jaeger pilot Pentecost recruits for his final assault, endears himself to at least the male-loving viewers in his shirtless moments, and turns in a fine performance besides.

And that, there, is the beginning of what makes this film unique. Instead of a stunning but largely hapless, occasionally topless female romantic lead, del Toro gives the viewer an almost asexual, young Japanese heroine whose demeanor is characterized by respect, above all things. The eye candy is all male. Not only that, but the only naked flesh in the film — besides that of the kanjis — belongs to Hunnam, and is extraordinarily and unequivocally exposed to the female gaze: the audience watches him undress from the perspective of Mako, who quite literally peeps at him through a hole in her door across the hall.

From there, one might expect a romance between the naive Japanese schoolgirl and the American hero. Some viewers certainly find one in Mako and Raleigh’s training battle, his protectiveness, his self-sacrifice, and her cradling his lifeless body, only to be overjoyed when he turns out to be alive. Yet del Toro shows that same relationship—the mind-to-mind connection that allows people to control the Jaegers together, the “drift”—between siblings, father and son, unrelated unattached males, an ambiguously married or related pair, and humans and kaiju. In fact, the film introduces the drift in the connection between Raleigh and his brother, Yancy, and Raleigh’s reaction when Yancy is ripped from the Jaeger and killed, is every bit as intense as Mako’s. Perhaps even more so, in his tragic, bloody moment of tragic wailing as he emerges from his destroyed Jaeger onto a bleak Alaskan coast. That Raleigh and Mako pilot that same Jaeger, restored, reinforces the potential for theirs to be a purely platonic love connection.

That word, connection, is what truly defines Pacific Rim. Over and above the deep world building (e.g., a black market in kaiju parts with bone powder selling at $500 an ounce, some people believing the kaiju have been sent by the gods to punish humankind, the rich moving as far inland as possible, leaving the other 99% as cheap labor for the Anti-Kaiju Wall and cannon fodder) that allows, even compels, the suspension of disbelief, the film’s beauty is in its message that connection is what will save mankind. Not science, not walls to keep out the “enemy at the gates” whether immigrant or alien, but each other.

Moreover, the film explicitly refuses the figure of destiny. Stacker Pentecost might be a “fixed point” for his people, and a heroic savior and father for Mako, but his name subverts that reading. Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit to touch and inspire all believers. He leads and inspires, but as he tells them, “No one here fights alone,” and not I but “we are canceling the apocalypse.” The message is reinforced dozens of times, from the ability to drift with someone being what makes a Jaeger pilot to Raleigh’s training floor reminder to Mako that their exercise is a dialogue, not a fight. The voiceover tells us that the Jaeger program arose out of nations putting aside their differences to band together, and the critical information that permits a victory comes from a feuding biologist and physicist drifting with each other to interface with a kaiju.

As Raleigh’s voiceover narration tells the audience: you can’t fight an act of God, but “when you’re in a Jaeger, you can fight the hurricane and you can win.” That is, when you’re sharing the burden with another inside a metal shell created by hundreds of other people, monitored by still other people, you can kick the crap out of the apocalypse. Not money, not political power, not military might, not the elites but the common people working together will save the world.

So if punching giant monsters in the nose doesn’t do it for you, maybe a populist fable with dissertation-worthy use of color, names, and shoes as symbols from a Mexican director with a coming of age story for a Japanese heroine and a redemption story for a white male will.

  • Pacific Rim. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Perf. Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi. Warner Bros., 2013. DVD.