old meta: pacific rim (2013)

backposting a bit today to clear out the cobwebs that have been sitting in my file folders. i just started a post on an older but more recently watched scifi/fantasy film that moved me, which reminded me that i’ve been meaning to post this somewhere in life. might as well be here. this was written in spring of 2014, when i first watched the film, with revisions along the way.

The dynamic of the white hero and his loved ones in the typical Hollywood disaster film usually follows the following trajectory: regular joe rises to the occasion by combining an ability to think outside the box (read: break rules and protocol designed for collective safety) and claim the authority to risk or at least learn from the sacrifices of others’ lives (presented as less significant to narrative, but, also, overwhelmingly, coded as some combination of unattractive, old, poor, criminal, black, disabled, queer, femme, POC) to the benefit of his particular in-group. The pacing and plotting accommodates their at times perilous progress towards salvation, dramatized by sacrifice/loss of aforementioned others and technically embellished acts of what amounts to good fortune and amazing breaks. Without much regard to contextual specificity for anyone (including the white characters), it ultimately affirms the value of white life and the struggles of a good, white family as a stand-in for the universal struggles of humanity. tl;dr: no thanks.

There are doubtless tons of things that can and have been said about Pacific Rim (2013, dir. Guillermo del Totoro Toro) in terms of the way it draws on histories of non-western genres (mecha, kaiju) and plays with them through an international, mostly non-western storytelling sensibility. These are all things I appreciate and that no doubt play a role in why I liked the following three narrative moments and choices:

“that’s my son you got there”

Let’s just start with the gut-wrencher, shall we? Can I just say that I love that parent-child relationships in this movie are not normative, homogeneous nuclear family units nor are they coded as performances of stereotypical third world “authenticity” (i.e. emotionally constipated working class/Asian/trauma-ridden family). Communication is difficult because it requires work and conditions of forced intimacy–whether via state sanctioned normativity, tribal dynamics, cohabitation, or being uncomfortably in each other’s heads in order to pilot mecha robots–do not necessarily make that work easier.

The Hansens are a white family with specificity built into their characterizations and relationship. I like how their story, especially in the scene of this line’s utterance, dispenses with the whole “older generation must sacrifice for the younger generation” thing. Who ends up in that Jaegar in the end is treated as a matter of circumstance; it is not over-romanticized or dramatized. Neither are we encouraged to read it as this redemptive act for the younger Hansen, aka the jerk character (as if the only ways jerk characters can redeem themselves and become likable are through life-sacrificing heroic acts…I mean, no one is obligated to give a toxic personality the time of day, but it would see to me more appropriate–not to mention humane and effective–for one’s redemption be “and then he stopped being a jerk”–as is in this case–instead of “and then he died.” no?). His behavior is never affirmed or actively enabled by the people around him; it’s mostly tolerated, as if they know that there’s a backstory and try to treat him with compassion. His father mediates his relationships with others around him because he must understand this and feels responsible for it. I can only imagine how strange it must be to share what he does with his parent. The way he’s seen right through by Stacker at the end feels like a merciful diffusion of the tension surrounding that relationship.

And that is why this moment damn near killed me. At this point, I’d pretty much forgotten that they were father and son. The daily strain of their relationship did not remind me of a typical way that dynamic plays out: that is, estrangement, abandonment, or abuse fueled by cisheteropatriarchal values. Their dog–a mutual companion to whom they can manifest care in general and for one another–and Stacker are there to help them mediate the things that are still too true for either of them to say or hear, because neither impending death nor apocalyptic warfare can quite undo the fact of how shared head-space has made their relationship unnaturally “equal.” When the older Hansen says, “that’s my son you got there” to Stacker, it’s also for his son’s ears. It’s the only chance he has to re-claim a bit of their relationship as father and son, which has been hijacked by the needs of the resistance. To me, this is, in many ways, a more subtle and poignant acknowledgment of sacrifice.

“do not touch me” and “it’s not obedience; it’s respect”

In other words, shut up, white boy.

So, can we talk about how POC are portrayed in this film? We have a black man in charge, a woman of color as the lead, neither of which allow the main character to patronize them, AND they are in a multi-racial family relationship together.

Aside from rocking the commander look, Stacker proves to be a resourceful and effective leader without being either inhumane or inhuman. When the higher ups try to bullshit him with capitalist demands (we threw money at problem; why problem not solved?), he reminds them that it’s his men who are paying the price of their misapprehensions of the situation. When they withdraw his funding anyway, he brokers with underground organizations to keep the project going. As in the last scene discussed, he evaluates and engages his soldiers as human beings, not pawns. He is not above partnering with one of them if it is what he has to do and can do so without airs, staring death in the eye, and STILL say exactly what everyone needs to hear–which, not surprisingly, is also exactly what is true. Remember “we are cancelling the apocalypse”? Pithy, precise call to concrete action.

As a black character miraculously not stripped of his humanity, he is not impartial or unfeeling, a point that becomes obvious in his relationship with Maki. This, however, is also not treated demonstratively or in a showy way and, as part of his private life, is not something he feels he needs to make public or explain. The scene where he tells Becket to back the hell off when Becket tries to get into his head and run his show is one of the most powerfully staged confrontations between a black man and a white man I have seen on screen. He says in no uncertain terms that Becket does not get to know him, that he should stop stepping on his boundaries, and that he should watch his own shit instead of walking around telling a superior officer, the head of this whole damn operation, how to do his job.

Later, when Becket and Maki are given a second chance, it isn’t set up to happen after everyone’s been wiped out (an “i told you so” trope often used to legitimize the “rule-breaking” tendencies of the main-characters) and they’re our last hope are whatever (although the Russians and Chinese are conveniently made long & terrible example of–go democracy!); it is because the energy their older model suit uses is best matched to hold up against the enemy’s destructive capacities (the whole nuclear power thing and how it is situated in this mess is a whole other aspect of this movie I am not expert enough to comment on).

Boundary-drawing and non-complicity with white nonsense is also emphasized in Becket’s interactions with Maki. Although Becket does make some moves that create opportunities for her to be selected as his co-pilot, she never jumps on his boat of enthusiasm or overstates her thanks. She doesn’t give him any more access to Stacker’s secrets than what drifting with him reveals of it in her own past, nor does she betray her relationship with Stacker on his behalf. There is one moment, one of the first times he tries to confront her about what’s up with Stacker, that he kind of gets into her space and oversteps with his words. This makes me kind of uncomfortable because it clearly makes her uncomfortable. The next time he tries to corner her this way, she looks him dead in the eye and says, “it’s not obedience; it’s respect.” In other words: don’t shoot your mouth off about shit you don’t understand, especially by assuming that I follow the orders of my commanding officer and father-figure because I’m timid and am trapped by a system of order you assume does not apply to you.

The amazing thing is, in this movie, Becket learns. For me, this is probably the most moving part of his journey and transformation, the most convincing basis of his developing relationship with Maki. At the end of the movie, he no longer reacts to Stacker’s orders with bravado. This time, instead, he pulls Maki back when she loses sight of the mission and reminds her that they need to respect Stacker’s decisions. When he gives her his oxygen, it is also not portrayed as a dramatic gesture. He downplays the act, assuring the unconscious heroine, “all i have to do is fall…anyone can fall.”

And their relationship brings me to the wonderful fact of…

NO UST!!!!! NO PDA!!!!!

Oh my god, thank you, thank you, an action movie that resists every opportunity to sex things up for the male gaze. This is something that so many mecha series can’t even resist, especially with all the pitfalls of “syncing” or “joining parts” or, in this case, “drifting” that comes with the territory. (I mean, come on. Post-apocalyptic worlds don’t exactly strike me as offering a buffet of opportunities for sexy, sexy fun times, right?)

I mean, it’s fine for two characters on screen to have sexual attraction for one another, but it’s not overdetermined here. The Maki-Becket fight is about compatibility of something else…brainwaves. or something…ok, so I don’t know really about the science of drifting, but it seems to be about some kind of instinctive connection and trust, not necessarily about attraction or one-upmanship (which is often the basis of UST). It’s about letting the other face your entire exposed self and to trust they will not judge, not fixate, but just let it pass over them and be (this is also why Becket using what he sees in the drift to confront Stacker is kind of a dick move). It becomes something that sits in the space between you. It’s intimate, but it does not necessarily mean understanding and it most definitely does not mean ownership.

And then there is the whole survival aftermath, when Maki busts Becket out of the pod and, for a moment, thinks he’s dead. When he comes back, when they realize neither of them have been lost, they don’t engage in some long, tongue-y make-out session (which #a. the film doesn’t set up and #b. ugh–boring). They rest their foreheads against the other’s. They hold each other.

scene: You’re here. I’m here. I’m so glad.

me: How. Incredibly. Refreshing.

Maybe they’re bracing each other. I mean, mentally, they’re probably as shocked as they are relieved and the losses that got them to this place are about to hit them like a ton of bricks. Physically, they’ve just gone to hell and back and lost tons of oxygen in the process. The adrenalin’s gotta wear off soon and I’m sure that there will be intense fatigue, if not pain, involved.

Also, maybe they are not romantically involved–certainly not at this point, but maybe not ever. Maybe they’ll learn to be friends that support one another in the aftermath of survival, as former partners who shared a whole lot in ways that they may never be able to share with anyone else. Maybe they’ll drift apart and have their own lives and sometimes meet up with their old resistance friends. Maybe they’ll both help lead relief and recovery efforts and fall in love and raise a bunch of multi-racial babies, some with blue-streaked hair. Or, they’ll adopt kids and old people who were left alone in the crisis and care for them, platonically and/or with other life partners (and/or their gay neighbors Newton and Gottlieb). Who knows?

The point is, outside of Hollywood, there is more than one possibility and it’s in a future that this movie’s proceedings has not only ensured, but also left open.