Wrestling Leviathans: A Review of Pacific Rim & The Responsibility of Global Artists

During a video conference with a delegation of government leaders from across the Pacific, PPOC Marshall Stacker Pentecost is informed that his defense program is being terminated. After the call, Pentecost reaches into his coat pocket. He removes a tin canister of mystery pills and I know, with certainty, he will die. My suspicions are confirmed later when blood starts dripping from his nose. Pentecost must die, but he won’t be killed from the years of radiation poisoning he has endured while piloting giant nuclear robots. He will sacrifice his life to aid a good-looking White guy in saving humanity. I know this, because Stacker Pentecost is Black.

Dismiss the pacing issues, the plot-holes, the mediocre performances and the way the film deconstructs itself in the final thirty minutes. Pacific Rim fails to contribute anything new to Science Fiction, basking in clichés, which would be fine if the movie didn’t aspire to be more than homage. It suffers from a kind of schizophrenia. Does it want to be political or campy? Is the aim to reinvent the genre or reinforce tropes like Anglo-All-American-Male saves the world?

Ranger Raleigh Becket, the fair-haired, blue-eyed, hero, evokes comparisons to Luke Skywalker. In an opening scene Raleigh’s older brother Yancy, in his best Han Solo impression, warns Raleigh, “Don’t get cocky.” Raleigh is brave. He has a problem with authority and possesses an instinctual ability that only scratches the surface of his seemingly limitless potential. With the guidance of Stacker Pentecost, a Black man with the sincerity and gravitas of Morgan Freeman, Raleigh Becket is mankind’s best chance for survival.

However, in the second act the focus shifts to other, less obvious, heroes. The movie invests in Mako Mori, a trainee, who lost her family as a young girl when a leviathan attacked Tokyo. Mako’s engineering expertise, her combat skills, and her desire for vengeance, makes her a perfect partner for Raleigh Becket. They would be equals if it weren’t for the fact that she is a woman. Mako has difficulty controlling her emotions. During her test run as co-pilot for the robot Gipsy Danger, Mako almost destroys the operation base when she is overcome by a flashback of the attack on Tokyo. Though Mako is a more compelling character, it appears she is still a scared little girl waiting to be saved. Mako is one of only two visible women in the film. Lieutenant Aleksis Kadianovsky, the Russian co-pilot of the robot Cherno Alpha, is underused and dies having barely spoken. She is seen but never heard.

The rangers suffer severe losses defending Hong Kong against monsters. Stacker Pentecost is forced to lead the final mission to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean with the last two battle-ready robots, Gipsy Danger and Striker Eureka. Pentecost’s tearful goodbye with Mako—who is revealed to be his adopted daughter—implies this may be a one-way trip. “I’ll always be here for you,” he says. “You can always find me in the drift.” Stacker Pentecost and his Australian co-pilot, Chuck Hansen, plan to close the portal to another universe by detonating a nuclear bomb strapped to Striker Eureka. Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori will provide defense. For a moment it feels as if Pacific Rim may surprise, but in the end the filmmakers choose the path more travelled. The well-established opportunities to deviate from standard are vanished when the rangers are confronted by the largest and quickest monsters they have ever encountered. Stacker decides to sacrifice himself, and Chuck Hansen, and the nuclear package, and a functioning robot, in order to clear a path for Raleigh and Mako. Raleigh and Mako must then close the portal by jumping into it and setting the nuclear powered Gipsy Danger to self-destruct. A predictable mechanical failure cuts the oxygen flowing to Mako’s pilot suit. Raleigh is forced to eject her and conclude the mission on his own. Raleigh will succeed because he was devised to succeed.

This is not a new concept. The White Savior Complex has been around for a long time and seen many manifestations. It has crossed all genres of film. Dances with Wolves, Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, Avatar, three very different movies that share a common plot structure—White outsider goes native, cultural mentor dies allowing White outsider to assume his place as leader. 2013’s Oblivion provides a more recent example of this theme in Science Fiction. Again, a Black man, Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), leads a resistance. This time it is against an alien artificial intelligence, the Tet. Beech must enlist the help of a White hero, Jack Harper (Tom Cruise), in order to save humanity. Jack and Beech succeed, sacrificing their lives, dying together as equals. However, it is revealed that Jack’s consciousness will live on in one of his clones. The movie ends with a shot of Tom Cruise leading dozens of human survivors to a beautiful valley that appears to have survived the nuclear fallout during Earth’s war with the Tet.

Science Fiction has always mirrored contemporary culture. Miles Dyson’s death in Terminator 2, and Morpheus’ search for Neo in The Matrix, and Jack’s reincarnation in Oblivion, and Stacker Pentecost’s recruitment of Raleigh Becket in Pacific Rim, convey shared perceptions of race and gender. According to Sci-fi filmmakers, saving the world is a job for White men, or Will Smith. No one else is better suited for the challenge. No one else is more likely to survive.

Will Smith was originally considered for the part of Neo in The Matrix. Tom Cruise was considered to play Stacker Pentecost in Pacific Rim. What if these movies were cast differently? Would that change things? I don’t know. We cannot debate the merit of the films that were not made. I am not prepared to make assertions about motive. I am not calling any of these writers, directors, actors, or producers, racist. The inclination for some Whites to make movies in which White men save the world might stem from a desire for redemption, not hatred. Some might view this as a means of exercising guilt. I am not White but I think I understand the allure of creating a hero to aid the populations colonized or displaced by one’s ancestors. I understand the appeal of casting a person of color as a type of spiritual guide and then placing characters under a threat so large there is no time to think about race or centuries of degradation. However, the ascension of one group of people should not result in the subjugation of another. Pacific Rim sends a message to women and people of color that they aren’t good enough, that they are capable of heroics but they are not Heroes.

The global artist must always consider the messages being sent and received through their medium. They need to be conscious of how they tell stories and how these narratives will be interpreted. They must consider the consequences of their craft because media is a powerful tool in shaping culture and identity.

Giant fighting robots and mega monsters were popularized by Japanese manga and anime franchises like Mobile Suit Gundam, Gundam Wing, and Neon Genesis Evangelion. The style of illustration in these series is representative of the influence of Western media on Japan during its occupation by the United States and the Allied Powers. American films, comics and cartoons, were introduced to a country rebuilding its infrastructure and its identity in the shadow of World War II. Many Japanese illustrators turned to these foreign images for inspiration, giving their characters Whiter features, modeling the new heroes of their nation after those celebrated by the American soldiers. Now, modern manga and anime are filled with guys who look more like Raleigh Becket than the majority of people consuming these stories throughout Asia.

Despite director Guillermo del Toro’s vision, his earnestness, his sense of obligation towards “picking up a tradition,” he doesn’t seem to have considered that some of the themes he hopes to introduce to an new generation are oppressive. Pacific Rim fails because instead of taking an opportunity to subvert stereotypes it promotes them. It propagates a dangerous complex that discourages large segments of people by subtly implying that their race or gender makes them less capable of saving themselves.

References:

McIntyre, Gina. “Guillermo del Toro edges toward greater success with ‘Pacific Rim.’”

Los Angeles Times Jun. 2013. 13 Jul. 2013.

Oblivion. Dir. Joseph Kosinski. Perf. Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko. Universal Pictures, 2013. Film.

Pacific Rim. Dir. Guillermo del Toro. Perf. Charlie Hunnam, Idris Elba, Rinko Kikuchi. Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures, 2013. Film.

Turek, Ryan. “Shock Interview: Guillermo del Toro on the Development, Destruction and Family-Friendly Pacific Rim.” Shock Till You Drop Jul. 2013. 13 Jul. 2013.

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Special thanks to guest contributer and good friend – Donald Quist – for this review.

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