Thoughts on Pacific Rim

November 28, 2013

I watched Pacific Rim last night, which caused me to Think Thoughts, which I decided to type up while the turkey cooks.

1. So Pacific Rim is pretty interesting in the way it conceptualizes globalization, not as global, but as regional, or rather, hemispherical. In fact, when I first heard the name, I thought of the way the U.S. organized World War II: the Pacific Theater. It also calls to mind the way Paul Gilroy insists on highlighting oceans, the space of flows (capital/bodies/culture), rather than the static spaces of continents, nations, populations. As is typical of cinema of our era, it’s a mixture of avant-garde postmodernism with a very retro

2. On that note, Pacific Rim‘s genre of the “giant destructive monsters” is incredibly overcoded as WWII-era. The original Godzilla was far from the kitschy Saturday afternoon adventures I remember, but rather a horrific and tragic metaphor for the nuking of Japan during World War II, released less than 10 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Monsters serve to make social and political issues, such as nuclear trauma and the fear of mutually-assured destruction, tangible. 

So Pacific Rim is overdetermined generically by this nuclear war parable — as is so clear, Hollywood, like the Pentagon, has trouble thinking outside Cold War allegories, and nukes/weapons of mass destruction overshadow a lot of the film’s imagery of destruction. But as a film made in 2013, Pacific Rim is also overdetermined by its historical moment. The monsters are classified like hurricanes — Category 3, 4, 5 — and a brief but pointed remark is made that pollution has made Earth habitable to the monstrous invaders. The lead character remarks that inside his mech, he feels like he can fight hurricanes. So these monsters also carry a charge of disastrous climate change: the destruction of coastal cities by immense forces of (unnatural) nature, which we must struggle against. (Interestingly and refreshingly, September 11 is kept at bay — nothing NYC, no destruction of iconic structures, last-minute decisions of the doomed, etc.) 

2a. I think the hipster biologist implied the dinosaurs were an earlier, failed kaiju invasion. Very odd for a man of science to hold such creationist views!

3. The disasters of the kaiju necessitate a coordinated international response. The world powers have to “put aside their differences” to fight the common threat. Here is a utopian promise of climate change often put forth by optimistic wings of the environmental movement: that looming catastrophe will facilitate global collaboration and coordination (which of course is not the case, actually the powers of the world are content to do next to nothing). What is the framework for this coordination? We’re never told, but it appears to be an immense (supra-)state/military project, that retains some level of national autonomy. Notably, nations are referred to by their global megacities: the Chinese mech is the protector of Hong Kong, for example. Mike Davis would approve.

What’s interesting is how we don’t see international collaboration and integration occur: via the circuits of global capitalism, driven by the competitive laws of markets. There’s a reason for this, of course: Americans hate this about the Pacific, with the common image of jobs and investment traveling to China (and before that, Japan), but also to places mentioned in the film, like Manila. Rather, this fantasy rewriting of globalization occurs via global militarized governance funding massive public works projects in the name of emergency. Which is to say, it’s the fantasy of what fascist, rather than market capitalist globalization would (or, heh heh, does) look like. This is in some sense another pomo retro mashup, which even colors the “precarity” angle at the beginning. Raleigh is rendered technologically obsolete as a skilled worker (due to state funding priorities rather than “exigencies of the market”) and instead must scrabble for contingent construction work on the massive public works project of the anti-kaiju wall (which looks a lot like the Hoover Dam to my eyes). 

3a. So with the fascist governance structure controlling production, we should ask ourselves: is straight-up capitalism represented in the film? It is, as Ron Perlman’s steampunk-pimp trafficking in black market organs. Capitalism is understood as criminal, and even orientalized (his operation is in Hong Kong, people in rice paddy hats harvest the fallen beasts, and the operation specializes in male potency treatments a la rhino horn). Pure capitalism is reduced to a rump of the economy, but still essential: the markets are the only way to procure the necessary kaiju specimens. Capital here is illicit, underground, dishonorable yet possessing an outsider charisma (Perlman is some of the only humor in the film), and performing certain essential functions for the fascist government, which tolerates its presence.

3b. As a fantasy of globalization, the “area studies” orientation of Pacific Rim leaves out those troublesome folks of Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. The “Special Relationship” with Great Britain is snuck in through the backdoor of Australia (most Americans can’t tell the difference) and Idris Elba’s character.

4. Pacific Rim theorizes a kind of biological unity required to pilot the jaegers. At the beginning, every team is related, most frequently siblings: they have an enhanced ability to occupy each others’ memories during “the drift,” the mind-meld required to pilot the mechs. The Aussies are a father-son duo, and the Russians and Chinese are sibling teams. The trauma of Raleigh’s brother’s death in battle drives his “wounded outsider” characterization of individuality so endemic to American cinema. (It must be said, the film wears this rather lightly — all the major characters are of that bland determined self-sacrificing mode rife in contemporary fascist cinema, and Raleigh is a suitably boring white Anglo for a movie where the special effects are the stars.) 

However, the second half violates this precept. We are told Raleigh demonstrates his skill by piloting the jaeger to safety solo, after his brother was ripped from the cockpit. He has to audition a new partner, via martial arts battles, and for some odd reason the best bond is with a Japanese woman, Mako. You would think a common linguistic bond might be a bare minimum for deep collaboration, but in Pacific Rim‘s defense, it does seem to envision memories as largely impressionistic and pre-verbal.

The Russians and the Chinese, are depicted in a deindividuated way. The Russians are tough, silent authoritarians, and the Chinese are complete hive-mind types. Needless to say, both are dispatched rather quickly by the monsters. Here is where Pacific Rim posits an alternative theory to its organicist paradigm. The surviving (and ultimately successful) combinations are not related at all. Instead of organic bonds, they combine as individuals, willing to voluntarily work towards shared ends, but as individuals, not as units of a larger entity. They retain a Western Enlightenment conception of the individual, where the Russians and Chinese were too reliant on their non-Western subjectivities, all centralization and accidents of birth and the Asiatic mode of production, completely subsumed by their hierarchical cultures. Instead, a multiracial and multinational crew wins the day, completely overturning the previous paradigm of biological affinity, and proving the inherent value of the Enlightenment individual and collaboration based on voluntarist association for mutual benefit, not unlike the way it is assumed employment contracts work.

4a. This would simply be a racist-nationalist fable, where the Anglos prevail due to the superiority of their values and culture (Iris Elba, while Black, is British — African Americans are completely erased from the film). Except Mako, the Japanese woman, is a part of the team. What does this mean? Here we see how Japan is able to prove its fitness to be a part of the victorious coalition to the extent that it’s able to adopt Western individualism, embrace a certain level of emotion, and adapt creatively to difficult situations. Pacific Rim is, in the end, about Japan becoming Western.

4b. This is immediately obvious in the scene when Raleigh and Mako first attempt to drift together. Mako’s memories of a kaiju attack overwhelm her; her past trauma, in which her family was killed, threatens to derail the entire plan. Once again we are thrust into that generic overcoding of nuclear war — Mako’s trauma is extremely evocative of a devastating attack on a civilian center that characterized the Allied war against Japan. Poised to set the mech about destroying the base, Mako is shaken out of her trauma by the words of Raleigh: “You have to let go of the memories, just be in the ‘now’.” To work with Raleigh and pilot the jaeger, Mako has to abandon the trauma of the past and the compulsion to repeat. To restate it on an allegorical way: Japan can only work with the U.S. coalition if it can give up and move beyond the past: the past in which the United States used atomic weapons against it. Only by this historical forgetting can Japan prove its fitness for being judged part of the West, else it could up like those failed assimilations the Russians and Chinese. This is essentially how U.S. culture insists everyone relate to history: remember it if you must, but get the fuck over it. The past will only drag you down — you need to exist in the now.

5. So what in the end is the governing metaphor for Pacific Rim? I’ve suggested the film is not about global capitalism, but draws on much earlier, even New-Deal-era, tropes. Yet these films always have a way of sneaking contemporary problems back in in new (or vintage) clothes. What major devastation could Russia, China, the U.S., Japan, and Australia all have to contend with? What problem provokes a massive political and economic restructuring, with its anxieties of job losses? The crisis of global capitalism (and it must be said, weather metaphors are no stranger to this topic) here returns. 

We have an interesting outcome here. Not only do the “centralized” economies of Russia and China fail to weather the catastrophe, but the massive wall proves a failure. It’s actually an incredibly potent image — a massive New Deal-style public works project, but also a wall erected against the unpredictable tumult of the global economy that echoes the walls being built in the U.S. today to prevent immigration. Pacific Rim argues against nativist, isolationist approaches to crisis — like the kaijus, global capitalism batters down all walls, as Marx puts it in the manifesto. Instead, certain competitive inclinations must be put aside — see how destructive Chuck Hansen’s competitive streak is portrayed. 

Here’s where it begins to make sense why the jaeger project is portrayed as a scrappy bootstrapping start up (complete with a scruffy hipster-nerd R&D team). We can’t survive the kaijus by resurrecting the New Deal, but by trying something more appropriately neoliberal (but not libertarian), where government support is subcontracted out to relatively autonomous economic units, who can operate as they see fit, without excessive central oversight. This is in some sense the fantasy of how Japanese capitalism works, but here projected on to a select group of international actors. But also, Pacific Rim throws back the curtain on neoliberal economics tout court, which relies on massive state subsidization of everything from IT infrastructure to research funding to the coordination of global trade and security, far more than the “free markets” or “invisible hands” its ideology traffics in. And in this way, it is the perfect parable for the evolution of neoliberalism after the 2008 crisis. It puts forth a fantasy of a path forward, which preserves the best aspects of Western individualism, techno-capitalism, and authoritarian military structures, while tempering the excesses. Cinema is nothing if not a way to resolve ideologically irreconciliable antimonies, however unstably, and so we see this very interesting, very timely hypothesis of a neoliberal Keynesian with a relatively open racialization as the only solution to the crisis: what a new fascism might resemble. 

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