Everybody judges a book by its cover – we can’t help it. It’s programmed into our brain to digest superficial information, especially imagery, way before we actually begin to uncover what lies behind the fold. When Pacific Rim posters began pummeling the internet back in 2013, nobody could help but take the imagery for exactly what they were; immense, destructive, colorful, and gleefully childlike.
Promotional material focused not on the cast of characters within the neon soaked world of Guillermo Del Toro’s monster obsession, but the super robots and creatures towering over the city streets. Names such as Gipsy Danger, Striker Eureka and Cherno Alpha emblazoned theatrical posters in all their glory, telling viewers that these names aren’t just pertinent to the film, but also badass. Others featured individual Kaiju’s – monstrous beings that stem from the Japanese genre originated from Ishiro Honda’s Godzilla – with such names as Leatherback and Otachi that told us to buckle up; there will be showdowns of seismic proportions!
Yet still, underneath the rubble and between the one two punch of giant bodies, a story of grief and trauma, love and victory waged its own battle through the human characters that powered the celebratory robots, suggesting that this is not just a Kaiju film.
The story itself is simple: a doorway to another dimension called the Breach opens at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, unleashing giant sea monsters that wreak havoc along the western coast. In response, the world begins constructing towering weapons called Jaegers – think Sentinel 2099 on steroids, which allow two pilots to form a mental link using the left and right hemispheres of their brain, referred to as drifting.
These Jaegers, German for hunter, soon become the pinnacle of modernized weaponry as well as pop culture, lining toy stores and kids shelves around the world before losing funding to the construction of a massive wall. When the Breach begins sending out more evolved and destructive Kaiju, stemming from the Chinese text Classic of Mountains and Seas, Raleigh (played by Charlie Hunnam), a former traumatized Jaeger pilot and Rinko (Mako Mori) the director of the newly restored Jaeger program must confront their grief in order to fight back, offering the world one last chance at hope.
While that all sounds like an idea a fifteen year old might clunk around and sketch on their notebook during class, there’s more than meets the eye with this mechanized assault on our senses. Even before the title card blazes across the screen – though to be fair, that doesn’t happen well until the 17 minute mark – we’re introduced to the grief and trauma that fuels Guillermo Del Toro’s colossal film.
Robot jockey Raleigh not only witnesses the death of his brother Yancy (Diego Klattenhoff), but experiences it through their mental link. Able to bear the brunt of the assault from a Kaiju called Knifehead – aptly named for the sharp point on its head, Raleigh reaches shore and collapses. However, he’s unable to bear the brunt of grief, and resigns himself to years of construction, resistant to the idea of letting anyone get close.
When General Pentecost (Idris Elba) discovers Raleigh working as part of the crew building the wall, he asks him to return as a pilot. And despite five years passing, Raleigh tells him that he can’t have anyone else in his head, and that he can’t go through that again, which sounds like most everyone after a hard breakup. And amidst the twisted metal and loss of life, it kind of is. We instinctively build our own barrier after losing someone we feel tethered to; the only difference is Raleigh’s spans the entire western seaboard.
It’s these emotions that mirror the larger than life robots, standing above their grievers with the weight of the world. Because as much as Guillermo Del Toro is interested in the nostalgic playthings that litter the neo-Hong Kong of Pacific Rim, he’s much more concerned with passion and the response that comes from that.
Speaking with a crowd at the Youtube Space LA after the release of Crimson Peak, Del Toro discussed love and fear, stating that “if you believe in fear, you are anchored by your past.” While this may bring forth flashbacks of Donnie Darko and Patrick Swayze’s “Love!”, it reveals the beating truth about the characters of Pacific Rim, who despite being cut from their mental link, find themselves tethered to the past through fear.
And really, what better way to demonstrate man’s vulnerability than to literally strip them of their protective armor? Raleigh goes from a deep seeded relationship with his brother that exists a hundred feet above the world, one that’s so strong he’s inside his head, to feeling lost and grounded, running from an incident that has now come to define him. It isn’t until Raleigh’s given the choice of dying on the ground, or fighting in a Jaeger that he finds himself pulled up from a grave of his own grief, because even love has the power of rebirth.
This is where our star pilot meets Rinko, another fighter who’s running from a traumatic event after almost becoming Kaiju food. Their connection acts like love at first site, surging through them well before they bridge the gap between each other. It’s here where we see Raleigh come to terms with his aged grief, traversing the link to Rinko, who gives him a shoulder to lean on, and something to believe in. Though unlike Raleigh, she has already been saved, picked up and told that everything’s going to be alright.
In a flashback orchestrated by a drift between the two, we see a young Rinko as she runs for her life amidst the ruined streets of Tokyo, only to be saved by General Pentecost, who takes her under his wing and raises her. Except despite running into battle that day, Pentecost too runs from fear. Because deep behind the intensity and penetrating gaze – and lets not mince words, Idris Elba chisels that look out of granite, rests a man whose own connection lies tethered to the Jaeger program, as well as the fear of losing Rinko, the only remaining connection he has to humanity.
Later, as the world is seemingly collapsing under the weight of Kaiju sized trauma, Pentecost opens up to Raleigh about the cancer he’s been carrying with him due to the nuclear reactor that fueled the first phase of Jaegers, telling him that the cost of manning one solo was just too much on his body. Now if that isn’t a beautiful metaphor for needing someone, then I don’t know what is. Cue the Bill Withers!
But in between the scrapping metal and gelatinous blue blood of the Kaiju are two scientists, Dr. Geiszler and Dr. Gottlieb (played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman respectively) who, despite confronting the same threat, run on polarizing philosophies. One believes that in order to discover the true essence of the Breach, you must drift with a Kaiju brain which would unlock information about their origins. The other staunchly believes that successfully launching a nuclear missile will sever their passage to our dimension.
Each exhaustingly provides comic relief as Geiszler and Gottlieb riff each other, a modern day Basil and Sybil Fawlty (or Luke and Lorelai if you’re from Connecticut like me) who both run from the science they view archaic or radical. Despite their quibbles, it’s these scientifically warring differences that demonstrate and accentuate their innate ability to hoist each other up, never quite letting each other go it alone.
These dueling sentiments provide a backdrop to almost every labor of love Del Toro brings to life, often working as a plot device that propels his characters further into their own world in an attempt to regain what’s lost.
In Pan’s Labyrinth, its Fiona’s tainted youth that drives her further into the fantastical, in which a moss covered Faun guides her based on fear and love. When she ventures into the bowels of a dead tree to unearth a key, she pushes forward because of the intrinsic connection she has with her pregnant mother. This can be seen in each of her tasks, in which the Faun ultimately uses her love – made the more abstract due to the nature of her war torn reality, in ways that ultimately defeats her tyrannical stepfather. We observe Fiona countlessly running from her reality into a fantasy realm that may or may not be constructed from her love of fairy tales, in the end approaching the world she left behind out of this connection with her newborn brother.
These real connections to the living are what grounds fantasy to reality, whether they involve oppressive wars (The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth), ghoulish families set against a tale of gothic romance (Crimson Peak), or warring robots that unite two individuals in combat; the central theme of love is revealed through expressive and triumphant storytelling.
Except it’s here, deep within the director’s love letter to that Kaiju kid within where his most nostalgically heartfelt message lies, where the connection between us – whether within the confines of the Jaeger, the drift, or out there amidst the monsters is what tethers us to life. And while there’s plenty of destruction to satiate our predilection for Kaiju violence, it’s Guillermo Del Toro’s affectionate embrace of the human spirit that may very well make Pacific Rim the director’s most sentimental love story.