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The giant monster movie is one of cinema’s most enduring genres, made famous in the post-nuclear age of the late 1940s, though its most notable influence is certainly 1933’s King Kong, about a giant gorilla who falls under the spell of a beautiful woman. That ‘monster’ actually earned our sympathies and has become an iconic figure for its deeply “human” characteristics.
Pacific Rim is not interested in doing such things with their creatures. These monsters, known as Kaiju (the Japanese word for ‘strange beast’, though more technically daikaiju, for ‘giant beast’), are for all intents and purposes, merely targets for attack, devoid of any real personality beyond their capacity for destruction. And destruction they cause. Massive, citywide apocalyptic devastation along the coastal areas of, well, the Pacific Rim.
To defend against these inter-dimensional beasts, who have emerged from a strange portal at the bottom of the ocean, humanity has untied. Constructing giant warrior robots, the mechanical goliaths, called Jaegers, are operated by two or more specially-trained pilots who are mentally linked in order to work in sync. They have managed to stave off the monsters though recently, the Kaiju have increased the frequency of attacks and worse, their strength. Jaegers are falling faster than they can be manufactured. Global leaders are turning away from the cost of the robots to instead, building massive walls along the coasts to keep the monsters out. You can guess how well that works. Down to a last stand, the Jaegers assemble at a base in Hong Kong under the command of veteran Jaeger pilot Marshal Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). It’s do or die.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim is a gleefully silly sci-fi film that has an old movie charm with a modern sensibility. While audiences were far more accepting of the monster premise in the early days, we are a more cynical bunch now and, while loving the monsters, have trouble with some of the plots. That said, there’s no denying the baser joy in watching robots do battle with Kaiju. In a film such as this, there are plenty of exciting moments where these things go head-to-head, but let’s discuss something non-fight related and look closer at an unexpected moment that is surprisingly emotional and relevant.
Gipsy Danger is a Jaeger operated by Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), a new team that has no battle experience fighting together. Raleigh has been in a fight with Kaiju before, and has come back to the Jaeger program after an incident I will not spoil here, but his time in Gipsy Danger is now vitally important, and with Mori, who won her place at his side, it is a test far beyond the skills for combat. It’s a trial to overcome a past that haunts her every waking moment.
She is, as we come to learn after her tryout, Pentecost’s adopted daughter, and for this reason, and for how she came to be his daughter, he is reluctant to put her in a Jaeger, but relents and partners her with Raleigh. They board the massive robot and take their stations at the head, linking up in the harness that will mentally bind them. This process is called “drifting” and it is here where that drift will be tested for compatibility.
It’s not an easy process and to connect to each other’s minds take concentration and timing. Mako starts fine, but is then caught in a memory, which in this situation is extremely dangerous. As one of the system’s operators claims in a panic, she is starting to chase the rabbit, a reference to Alice in Wonderland. Raleigh attempts to ease her back as warning signals and alarms fire, but the linking process has snared her and she sinks further into the memory.
She seems separated from the unit now as blackness surrounds here. The air fills with what looks like falling snow. In her hands is a sinlge red shoe and slowly getting louder is the cries of a little girl calling to her mother. The scene shifts, and we pan up a debris-littered street to a young girl in a blue waistcoat. The ‘snow’ is actually ash and dust, and she grips the shoe in white-knuckled fear, one foot bare.
The road in front of her a wasteland of ash-covered cars and damaged buildings, abandoned bikes and cityscape shrouded in smoke. An air-raid horn echoes in the distance.
From the smoke emerges a squad of jet fighters who fly straight over her and begin a volley of machine gun fire at a thick cloud of darkness behind her. Out from that smoke roars a fearsome kaiju, towering above the skyscrapers, its hands like the claws of a sea crustacean, its armor easily resistant to the attack.
The girl, whom we are sure is Mako, runs away down the only paths she has, the narrow street in front of her. The kaiju sees her and follows, its deafening howls echoing over the avenue while everything in its path falls to obliteration.
She finds an alley and quickly ducks inside as the street fills with shattered cars, tossed aside as the kaiju gains. She shambles up behind a dumpster and takes cover, weeping in fear. But now we also Raleigh, who is in the Jaeger suit, and linked to her memory. He recognizes what is happening and attempts to ease the little girl out of the past.
Meanwhile, the kaiju edges closer and in thunderous arrival, tears into the alley buildings. This prompts the little girl to leap up from her hollow and face the beast. But here, the memory and reality begin to bleed together and the young Mako’s actions now echo her older self. Inside the cockpit of Gipsy Danger, Mako lifts an arm in defense, but in this reality, that arm controls the robot’s massive plasma cannon.
What happens next, I’ll leave for you to discover. Let’s talk about the significance of the scene. That starts and ends with the little girl. Like many films that feature destruction on such a large scale, two things typically happen: a) we marvel at the spectacle of it, a natural, deeply-embedded attraction to carnage and chaos and b) we have no scope of its toll. Unseen death in the thousands is always easier to handle (in movies) than the death (or threat of death) of a single person. There is something highly personal, connective, identifiable, to it. Good storytellers understand this, and Guillermo del Toro uses it to great effect. More importantly, the use of a child doubles that impact, as we have an evolutionary pre-inclination to protect the young.
What’s works so well in this beautifully crafted, photographed, and especially well-acted moment, is how it finally makes this story of giant monsters from another world a human story. Raleigh’s journey has been one of sacrifice but here, at the start of the kaiji invasion, we are for the first time, frightened. We worry for the life of another, and begin to share in the effects of how devastating this would surely be. One better, it gives weight to the adult Mako’s character, the early pangs of an arc that, in a film like this, is often overlooked, abandoned for more special effects. With little Mako, and a performance that is the heart of the film, we see true inspiration in the film. This, is a great moment.
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Writers: Travis Beacham (screenplay), Guillermo del Toro (screenplay)
Stars: Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi