Saturday, July 13, 2013

Pacific WIN

This post is a part of my summer blockbuster series. I'll be tagging the whole thing as 2013 blockbusters.

Ahhh! I really liked Pacific Rim! I just thought it was fun, and action packed, and original! I'm kind of on a fangirl high! I could go on and on about how much fun I had on this cinematic adventure, but instead, I'll focus on gender side of things, which I was actually really pleased with.

As a warning, I don't really think I can cover all of this without getting spoilery, so there's that. In fact, I know I'll get spoilery.

Ok, the only way I can wrap my mind around writing about this film is just to touch on the three main things that I loved about the depiction of gender in this film.

Women are in this fight too!
The main story is that for the last 15 years the earth has been dealing with random attacks from kaiju that have killed thousands and destroyed cities. They are coming from an interdimensional portal in the Pacific. The world's nations have combined to build huge robots, which they call jaegers, to fight the kaiju. The jaegers are co-piloted by two people, typically people with a very close connection, like brothers. At first when I was watching the film's exposition I thought, "where the women?!" In a general way, women are underrepresented, because a majority of the characters are men, but unlike most militaristic films, there are women who are fighting right alongside the men.

For example the top Russian jaeger team is led by a woman. She doesn't have a huge role, but she is certainly an important jaeger pilot. And then we also have...

The main female character, Mako Mori, (Rinko Kikuchi) is dealt with incredibly well. In short, she's smart, strong (both emotionally and physically) and is never sexualized in the film. But I can't leave it at the short version, so here's the full deal:

When the kaiju attacks reach a fever pitch, the kaiju program leader, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) recruits one of the all time best jaegers, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) to come back to help with his old jager, Gipsy Danger. Raleigh has lost his original co-pilot (his brother, Yancy) so they need to find someone who is "drift compatible" to work with him. This is when we are introduced to Mako Mori. At first, Mako appears to be some kind of assistant to Pentecost, but we quickly learn that she wants to be a jaeger pilot. (Side note, I love that Raleigh asks her off the bat if she is training to be a pilot, asks her scores, etc. It becomes pretty clear that it is both totally acceptable and expected that a woman involved in the jaeger program would also be training to be a pilot.)

It also becomes quickly clear that Mako is the best co-pilot for Gipsy Danger. While Raleigh is easily able to beat all the male candidates in hand to hand combat, Mako bests him during the tryouts to identify his new partner. Initially, Pentecost is hesitant to let her take the job (more on that later) but does anyway and fights along side Raleigh.

Through Mako's experience training to run Gipsy Danger with Raleigh, we learn a lot about her past. The film's science behind the co-piloting is that the two people form a "neural bridge" between themselves and the machine so that they can control it with their body movements. One of the side effects is that each pilot is inside the head of their partner. Because Mako is learning and hasn't formed the neural bridge with a jager before, her memories flood her. Raleigh tries to explain to her that she should resist paying attention to them and stay in the present moment, but she is pulled into a horrifying incident from her past. During this scene, we see Mako as a little girl, walking a decimated city, as a kaiju has killed her family and she is nearly killed herself. Then, Pentocost finds her and saves her. Now, it could be tempting to write this scene off as Mako being weak or too emotional. But I would argue it instead humanizes her. Up to this point, she is nothing but a serious, rule following professional. We get a chance to see more about her past and her personal motivation in wanting to be the best jaeger pilot. Besides, it was the first time she had formed a neural bridge, so it's only natural that she make a mistake...but she learns and goes on to very successfully co-pilot with Raleigh.

At the end, when Raleigh and Mako are sent to collapse the interdimensional portal with the nuclear power of Gipsy Danger. Raleigh ensures that Mako is safe and makes the choice to possibly sacrifice himself to get the job done. This is another moment where you could make the case that Mako isn't as strong as Raleigh, but I would again disagree. Firstly, Raleigh's character is given the opportunity to be the ultimate hero here, but that doesn't diminish the fact that he couldn't have gotten there without Mako. Secondly, there is actually a long tradition of women being self sacrificial in action movies. Often the underlying implication is that they cannot handle their own power (think The Phoenix in X3 or Trinity in the Matrix Trilogy.) So it was in this way that I was relieved to see that Mako was not going to sacrifice herself. That fact, in no way negates any of the hard work and heroism she had displayed to that point.

This isn't about hypermasculinity.
The last thing I would highlight that I truly enjoyed is how the film resisted the urge for its male characters to be mindlessly violent, hypermasculine beasts. From the very start, we are pulled into Raleigh's story and see his emotional side, as we experience the death of his brother. But even before that we see Raleigh and Yancy defying orders to try to save a small boat with a few people on it during a fight with a kaiju. They have hearts...they're kind. We also see Raleigh's kindness as he talks Mako through the traumatic memory experience when she first runs Gipsy Danger.

We also learn that Pentecost has a heart too, despite a very tough exterior. He isn't just trying to initially keep Mako from being a jager pilot because he doesn't think she can do it--it's because he loves her like a daughter and is scared of losing her. Both of these men, who are undeniably strong and powerful are also humanized and have, for lack of a better word, softer sides. It's never about a blood lust or mindlessly killing all the kaiju for's about preserving humanity and defending earth.

Raleigh and Pentecost stand in interesting contrast to one of the Australian jaeger pilots, Chuck Hansen, who is depicted as a ruthless hot head. Hansen is narrowly focused on killing kaiju and insults Raleigh's work several times, antagonizing him and pushing him. But it isn't until Hansen insults Mako that Raleigh lashes out at him and they fight. The presence of Hansen in the film is particularly interesting to me in this way because he really is a foil to Raleigh. Through the contrasting of the two, we can see how level headed kind Raleigh is.  

Before I end this, I should mention that no, Pacific Rim does not pass the Brechdel Test. (People always expect this series to talk that, but while the Brechdel Test is important, it's not everything.) There is only one named female character (that I can remember anyway...) and Mako never has an interaction with another woman. So again, women are underrepresented and that sucks. But when they are present, they are at least kick ass.

But regardless, in case it's not already abundantly clear, I did really love this film and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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  1. Great post! As a robotics engineering student, there were some really funny science and engineering moments but overall I loved the movie. I honestly think the best part was that all the final jaegers (except Mako and Raleigh) were related as family and not through romantic relationships. It was good to see an action movie where a romantic sub-plot was not nicely tied up and packaged. Mako and Raleigh's copilot relationship was just starting and it was refreshing that the film did not automatically label it as a romance.

  2. re: the Bechdel test - I thought it was interesting that it seemed like the majority of the conversations when Mako wasn't in the room were about her.

    I also liked that she was in the "left brain" position without her being like a vulcan AND that the emotional reaction to the link is pre-empted with the info that the reaction is common to first time pilots. So it becomes a normal reaction instead of a gender weakness.

  3. I really loved this movie. I LOVED that Raleigh not only accepted that Mako could be a pilot but also was totally adament about her being HIS co-pilot. There was none of the usual 'A lady pilot? Whaaaa..?' My only complaint would be that I felt like Mako was sometimes too soft spoken, to the point of appearing meek. But this was counteracted by the scenes of her fighting and co-piloting the jaeger.
    The scene that stuck out the most to me was Mako's flashback. I've had several people tell me that it was really heart-wrenching and even hard to watch. You feel her pain and terror. She becomes a complete and complex person who is still dealing with this traumatic event.


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