Lagging the Popgeist: Pacific Rim (2013)

As a general but far from inviolate rule PG-13 films, often action genre blockbusters, are written with 12 year boys in mind. Pacific Rim tends to follow this convention, featuring stock characters, awesome visuals, and a formulaic plot that predictably offers the barest gesture at psychological interiority in its undeveloped themes of intimacy and loss. Rather than recapitulate that narrative structure, it might be more interesting to focus on a handful of related signs that should be interpreted as speaking to the desires and anxieties of Pacific Rim‘s intended audience. For example, the character of Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), an attractive and damaged orphan raised by the film’s dominant (though not sole) father figure, Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba). In semiotic terms, Mori’s hair style speaks volumes about the nature of early adolescent male heterosexuality– a fraught topic to be sure, but one mobilized in the most innocent, perhaps even prudish, fashion. The touch of blue coloring Mori sports indicates a personality that is not entirely bound by the traditional sense of modesty western audiences have been led to believe via a charged orientalist discourse that women of Asian descent share.

Even raising the issue of Asian women on screen is a potentially touchy issue. One of the most charismatic Asian American film stars of early Hollywood, Anna May Wong, tended to play characters embodying the (white, male) fantasy-projection of Asian women as exotic, seductive, and passive (or, in an even more reductive typology, as dragon ladies or butterflies). To be sure, Mako is virtually none of these things. Her appeal stems from the promise that she is a young woman whose unconventionality operates within safe parameters. The audience sees her as a terrified child rescued and protected by her surrogate father, Pentecost, even as it admires her a-line, chin-length bob brushed by electric blue. That cut indicates a modern sensibility in the way that it has since the Flapper era, but the added color evokes anime heroines and even, I would argue, the possibility that she possesses sexual autonomy. On the other hand, this affectation of blue-tipped hair might be one a 12 year old girl would adopt to assert her independence and individuality at the level of style. There is a longer argument to be made here concerning Mako’s nascent sensuality, one that would note the way she actively, if surreptitiously, gazes at a shirtless Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam), matches him move for move in combat, and, in the film’s final scene, hugs him tightly while straddling his escape pod.

The sexual subtext of Pacific Rim transcends character and figure movement to include art direction and set design. Falling into the Breach at the ocean floor, Raleigh and Mako pass through the “throat” linking Earth to the alternate dimension where the Kaiju originate. Weakened by lack of oxygen, Mako is ejected from the jaeger by Raleigh, who continues his descent into an organic environment resembling the inside of a living body. He enters a series of apertures that pulse open like epiglottises to receive him until, with only seconds to spare, he ejects from the jaeger and detonates its nuclear core. The resulting explosion lifts him back up to the Breach as the “throat” collapses behind him.

There is a plenitude of visual signs that could be culled from Pacific Rim and read symptomatically (i.e. “against the grain” or as indicating unacknowledged ideological commitments). Consider the use of rain and the way it references not only a key Pacific Rim intertext– Blade Runner— but film noir itself. Or ponder the motif of lost shoes: Mako’s little red Mary Janes or Hannibal Chow’s (Ron Perlman) gold-encased loafers. There is meaning to be made here– signification to undertake.