For a summer blockbuster about giant mechs fighting rampaging monsters, Pacific Rim is an extraordinarily unconventional film. One of the areas in which this shows up most clearly is in the depiction of its characters.
Some very serious spoilers, obviously. Don’t read this if you haven’t seen the movie yet.
To begin with, Pacific Rim is a true dual-protagonist film, a rarity in Hollywood and near-unheard of in the realm of summer tentpoles.
Fittingly for a movie about people learning to share their hearts and minds in the Drift, Raleigh and Mako are absolutely equal as protagonists.
They each have an inciting incident; Raleigh’s in the pre-credits sequence, and Mako’s (in keeping with the film’s unconventional treatment of time) revealed in flashback around the middle of the film. They each have a personal antagonist; for Raleigh, jealous, insecure rival Chuck Hansen, and for Mako, Stacker Pentecost, whose desire to protect her makes him as much an antagonist to be overcome as a mentor to be heeded. They each carry an emotional burden they must cast aside; Mako must master her need for revenge, and Raleigh, his guilt for his brother’s death.
But even more interesting that their shared centrality is the question: what kind of heroes are they?
For everyone who has hailed Mako as a feminist hero, someone else has criticised her for being passive, for being weak. For not conforming to the Hollywood hero stereotype: a self-sufficient hero who is stubbornly individual, rejects rules and advice, does their own thing, and often, does something apparently unwise and yet is proved right as conventional wisdom turns out to be wrong.
But Raleigh Beckett isn’t that kind of hero either. Add writer Travis Beacham’s response on Twitter on this subject: “I will concede that [Mako] doesn’t act like a decisive alpha male action hero. I don’t much like that guy.” and it’s clear that this is a very deliberate decision.
Pacific Rim has rejected the individualist hero pattern, and is presenting us with a new type of hero – a hero for who personal surrender is the way to shared strength, and for whom the whole is far more important than the individual.
Consider the scene where Mako proves herself a worthy partner for Raleigh in combat, but Pentecost refuses to pair them up. Was I the only one expecting Raleigh to threaten to walk out of the program if Pentecost doesn’t relent? I doubt it. That’s what the individualist hero does; defies authority and imposes his own will on the world.
It’s not what Raleigh or Mako do here, though. Each passionately argues their case – and then accepts Pentecost’s decision. When Raleigh does privately challenge the notion of obedience, Mako sets him straight: “it’s not obedience, it’s respect.” And even as she closes the door in his face, you get a sense that he understands that.
He certainly should. This is not a world that rewards individualism. It’s the Beckett boys’ decision to disobey orders that leads to Yancy’s death, and later in Hong Kong, rushing to assist their colleagues in defiance of Pentecost’s strategy almost does for the Hansens. Even Newt’s solo attempt to Drift with the kaiju brain risks his life and obtains only snatches of useful intelligence. Only when Gottlieb joins him, sharing the neutral load – because “That’s what the jaeger pilots do” – can the Drift be entirely successful and the vital information obtained.
Going back to Raleigh: later, with his perfect Drift partner grounded, he does slip into the individualist hero paradigm and challenge Pentecost – only to be cut down as the senior officer asserts not so much his authority as his responsibility. He is the “fixed point” in the crumbling world of the Shatterdome, and Raleigh needs that stability as much as anyone. Pentecost has sacrificed endlessly for others; he’s asking Raleigh to make similar sacrifices. To surrender ego for the greater good. And that’s what Raleigh does.
It’s hard to imagine this complex emotional exchange happening in any movie with an individualist protagonist, isn’t it?
Mako, of course, knows a lot about sacrifice. She’s been waiting her whole life for her chance to pilot a jaeger. I read her obedience to Pentecost as both respect and confidence. She knows that her day will come, when the time is right.
When machismo does rear it’s ugly head, it’s subverted. With Chuck right in their face, trying to provoke a fight, they fail to defend their own egos: Mako responds only when Raleigh is insulted, and he’s finally provoked to violence by an insult to her. Personal ego has no place in their increasingly anti-individual world.
Even as the double event wipes out jaeger teams, Raleigh and Mako don’t muscle in to save the day. The John McClaines and Jack Bauers of this world would have marched down to the hangar and set off into the fray, without orders or in defiance of them. But rather than putting themselves forward as heroes, Raleigh and Mako wait until they’re sure they have something to offer the situation. As it turns out, that’s not even them – it’s Gipsy Danger herself, the one jaeger immune to the new weapon.
Even in the final assault on the Drift, it’s hard to pick out the kind of individual hero moment you would expect from a typical Hollywood narrative. The sealing of the breach is a group effort, and, with the possible exception of Raleigh sacrificing his oxygen supply, no single act achieves victory. Even the sacrifice of Chuck and Pentecost is – of necessity – a joint decision between two Drift partners.
For a Hollywood movie, this is a whole new world of characterization – and I love it. It’s long past time for new explorations of what it means to be a hero.
But I suppose we must proceed with caution. Although Pacific Rim isn’t the ‘flop’ headline writers would have you believe, it has underperformed in English-speaking territories. If I had to venture one explanation for that, I’d probably guess it’s the unconventional character choices being misread as weakness by an audience with a narrow sense of what’s “heroic”. It’s tough to be the first person to break the rules…