Pacific Rim really screwed up the kaiju.
I don’t mean that the way you think. The CGI in this film was beautiful — the meticulously crafted combat sequences reignited an excitement for computer generated nonsense that I’d not felt since I first watched Jurassic Park. The creatures themselves are majestic, inventive, and captivating, especially when they’re getting punched by gigantic walking nuclear cooling towers. I could’ve watched them wreak havoc for another two hours — easily — and not gotten bored.
But as kaiju, an important archetype in 20th Century Japanese storytelling, they’re borderline offensive. To explain why I need to go back a bit.
Kaiju (“strange creature”) first appeared in Godzilla (1954), directed by Ishirō Honda. Godzilla is a very blatant metaphor for American atomic weaponry. Japan was (and still is, to an extent) recovering from the denotation of two nuclear warheads above the major population centers of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so the images of a city being destroyed immediately evoked those memories the same way contemporary American films can evoke memories of 9/11 just by saying the word “Terrorist” or, in certain contexts, “New York.”
But the references were far more specific than that: the opening depicts a Japanese fishing vessel suddenly, and violently, consumed by an impossibly big, supernatural force — something that would have seemed, to 1950s Japanese filmgoers, to be ripped straight from the headlines. Just months before Godzilla hit theaters, the fishing vessel Lucky Dragon 5 had been caught in the blast of an American nuclear weapons test gone wrong, and set off a media frenzy. Japan was growing more afraid and disgusted with the United States’ nuclear weapons, and when the US Government acted like dicks and refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, those feelings grew only stronger. Godzilla tapped into those feelings, and became a cultural icon so powerful that it eventually made its way over to the United States as a god-awful Matthew Broderick vehicle.
The point is that Godzilla (and other kaiju) have never just been mere monsters — they’re metaphors for America’s reckless use of nuclear power. This metaphor continued throughout the dozens of sequels that followed — but sadly, it’s a metaphor that Pacific Rim doesn’t just miss, but seems to be refuting or even insulting.
Like all American science fiction films, nuclear weapons are the ultimate solution to the protagonists’ problems: just as Captain Steven Hiller flew a nuclear weapon to the mothership in Independence Day, just as Iron Man flew the nuke into the portal at the end of The Avengers, and just as Billy Crystal shoots a nuclear rocket at Meg Ryan at the end of When Harry Met Sally, the plan in Pacific Rim is to drop a nuke into “the throat” and let it explode away their kaiju problem.
Taking that even further, the American jaeger — Gipsy Danger — is explicitly said to be powered by nuclear reactors. Even more egregiously, the fact that they’re nuclear powered is used to explain why they are immune to the kaiju’s attack: when the kaiju Leatherback disables the jaegers with an EMP blast, Gipsy is said to be immune because it’s not digital, it’s “analog. Nuclear.” This is insane (analog holographic displays? It would be more believable to say the damn thing was powered by duck farts), but in the movie universe, it’s the justification we get. Nuclear power, particularly American nuclear power, has an inherent advantage over the destructive power of a kaiju.
Obviously, this is the polar opposite of what this genre of film was originally about.
I want to clarify that I don’t think this film is stupid or lacking in effective analogies — I genuinely, maybe even naively, think it’s a pretty smart movie. The kaiju in it symbolize not nuclear proliferation, but mother nature’s retaliation against pollution. Charlie Day’s scientist character makes an explicit reference to global warming having “practically terraformed” the planet for these invaders. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) talks about fighting hurricanes in his opening monologue. Probably most telling, the kaiju themselves are measured as category 1-5, with 5 being the largest, in a system that mirrors the Saffir-Simpson Wind Scale.
Furthermore, it’s not inherently bad to allow symbols to change over time. When Stan Lee created Iron Man in 1963, the character was an unabashed arms dealer and war-profiteer — but when he was reimagined for the 2008 Jon Favreau movie, we saw him fighting war profiteers. The cinema landscape had changed, what audiences wanted had changed, and the character changed to reflect it. That’s not a betrayal — that’s storytelling that acknowledges and respects its audience.
But with Pacific Rim, we’re not talking about an American re-appropriating an American character. Since the kaiju are a criticism of America, it’s hard not to see this change as disrespectful. Take the opening sequence where Gipsy rescues a fishing vessel from the kaiju Knifehead: the “fishing ship in danger” is only a trope in kaiju films because of the victims of of Lucky Dragon 5, a bunch of real people who suffered and died because of American technological negligence.
By opening your movie with a walking symbol of American technological superiority saving fisherman from a giant monster, you’re not just missing the point — you’re taunting it. If Bay or Emmerich or Spielberg had directed that scene, I would call it jingoistic bullshit, but coming from the del Toro, a Mexican filmmaker, at the beginning of a film that devotes a lot of thematic energy to multiculturalism, teamwork and respect, it seems like a huge, and insulting, oversight.
I mean, I’m still gonna go see it a third time. But I’m just saying — as good as it is, Pacific Rim is kind of a dick.
JF Sargent loved Pacific Rim so much that he renamed his bicycle Cherno Alpha. Apparently he’s twelve years old. Follow him on Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook.