THIS WILL CONTAIN SPOILERS though obviously I’m the last person on earth (well, my husband and I) to see this movie so I don’t know how much that matters.
I should note for starters that the only real reviews I’ve read of Pacific Rim are a couple of scientific critiques and this, which I’ll talk about later in greater detail. It’s my habit when I know I want to write about a movie or book to avoid other mentions of it until I’ve had a chance to get my thoughts down. I welcome links if you have them!
That being said, I have a Tumblr account, and thus I saw a lot of hype for this movie and many, many gif sets of Mako Mori. Again, more on that in a minute.
Also, I missed like half the character names in this movie, so, uh, be on the lookout for other identifying makers.
I enjoyed large parts of this movie, and I thought that cinematically speaking it was well-shot, edited, etc. (except for one cut towards the end with the escape pods). It’s definitely a solid B- movie (that space is there intentionally); it’s too pretty for a C+, but there are too many
INTERNAL LOGIC ISSUES
for to it to be a solid B movie. I know people like to say “it’s a movie about giant robots facing giant aliens you just have too little imagination” or “it’s an homage to anime/Japanese pop culture/mecha/etc.,” but suspension of disbelief has less to do with being able to accept premises (giant robots vs. aliens) and more with how the story treats the fallout from those premises.
So when, in the first twenty minutes of the movie, we learn that a) giant aliens are destroying cities and b) giant robots are the best weapon against them, it emphatically does not follow that c) the governments of the world would decide to build a giant wall? Right next to its remaining major cities on the rim? It seems like it would more follow that they would d) station giant robots right next to the breach to wail on whatever happens to come out of it. Risking eight or ten or twelve human lives (plus those glorious back-up floodlight choppers) versus waiting until the aliens come to destroy tens of thousands plus who knows how much in property damage…I mean, they’re coming through one hole. If you can’t figure out how to plug it up, you can at least hang there.
Also, I totally understand that the first use of the sword was an anime moment (a la Bleach‘s bankai), but there are…so many other ways to introduce it? Because (like the complete and utter non-mention of escape pods) so many of the technical/weaponized aspects of the jaegers made no sense. If you’re fighting organic vs. non-organic, take advantage of the ability to have sharp spiky metal attachments that can easily rip through flesh. This is a no-brainer. On the one hand, I understand genre, but on the other hand, they’re giant robots they can look however you choose and just because they have more sharp spiky things doesn’t mean they’re always going to score hits. You can talk about how there’s a sword installed on the Gipsy (who spelled that word) Danger, but it’s too dangerous to use/no team has ever been compatible enough to wield it without disaster/etc. etc. etc. All it takes is throwaway lines to change things (like the escape pods) from deus ex machinas into Chekhov’s guns. The ancient Greeks might’ve settled for the former, but this is 2014, y’all.
And drift! I am fully willing to throw the little I know about how separate hemispheres of the brain work out the window and believe that people can mind-meld. I’ll accept that drift compatibility is a shortcut to compensate for pilots’ lack of mental discipline (since Idris Elba can relax enough to drift with Angry Australian), but I would like to know what makes Mako and Raleigh compatible, given that every single other example of drift compatible teams are either a) related by blood or b) romantically linked (to compensate for the difference between male and female brains?), and furthermore all of them have brains that were molded by the same culture, and look what I’m saying here is that if drift compatibility is based on all those things then aside from CHEMISTRY and REVENGE? (ish?) how compatible are they really.
Let alone how does it work is the mind-sharing part only the beginning of the drift, and afterwards you’re separate again? It seemed like…they should not have to speak aloud to each other (unless one of them goes down the rabbit hole). Or something. Why do they have to move in tandem/is one of them controlling it sometimes and the other one other times/or are they really working like one brain, in which case, why are they talking out loud to each other/shouldn’t they speak at the same time/SOMETHING. Drift is an awesome idea, but the execution could’ve been much cooler.
And while we’re talking about Raleigh and Mako, internets, we need to have the following conversation:
THIS MOVIE IS NOT ABOUT MAKO MORI
or, How Mako Mori fails The Mako Mori test.
Let me preface this by saying that the fact that Mako Mori exists IS a huge thing. She’s an Asian (not even Asian-American) woman with a major secondary role, a decent amount of lines/screen time, and contributes to the main plot in a (mostly but not solely) non-romantic way. She’s Other, but she’s not fetishized due to her Asianness (which is HUGE); she’s Othered as a woman and also as speaking accented English which, frankly, so were the Australian guys I mean seriously what were half their lines what do you people do down there while the rest of the world is asleep. She gets to wear the exact same uniforms as the men! The only time she bares skin is for the sake of freedom of movement in combat. THESE ARE ALL HUGE THINGS, as again the fact that they gave the role to an Asian woman instead of a white one.
That being said, the role is not actually all that different from your average chick-in-an-action-film role. From the way the internets talked about her, I thought Mako was going to be a major star in the film, or at least that the film would follow her story. I was surprised, then, when the opening was narrated by a dude, and then first twenty minutes to half hour were Mako-less, and then the movie continued to be not-about-her, and look, guys, we need to talk.
As this article describes, people were very quick to point out that Pacific Rim fails the Bechdel Test. (The article describes what that is; I also suspect most people reading this blog are well-acquainted with it.) The article then goes on to quote people who believe Mako “gets to carry the film and have character development” and who “who love that her character is neither sexually objectified nor given a narrative arc that revolves around a man,” culminating in the proposal of the Mako Mori Test:
The Mako Mori test is passed if the movie has: a) at least one female character; b) who gets her own narrative arc; c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.
Pacific Rim definitely passes a); b) is a little trickier to defend, and it outright fails c). It is not a movie about Mako Mori. It is a movie about a man that becomes a movie about an ensemble of men and Mako that ends with a man saving the day and Mako.
Or, to put it another way, the “girl fulfills dream of becoming a jaeger pilot and saves the world” plot that so many people identify as Mako’s independent narrative arc would more correctly be read as “girl [seen by male narrator who needs copilot and is instantly attracted to her] fulfills dream of becoming a jaeger pilot [a dream due to complicated savior relationship with Idris Elba as much as if not more than revenge] and saves the world [alongside male narrator who rescues her multiple times, including during the critical saving-the-world-scene, and is implied to possibly get to kiss her later on].”
A few (hahaha) examples to demonstrate these points:
1) Raleigh is the narrator of the film. (I found his voice to be apathetic and his character to be not particularly compelling, but that’s a different problem.) Mako’s initial involvement in the film is to solve the plot problem of Raleigh needing a copilot. While she has her own motivations for doing this it’s a solution to Raleigh’s (and Idris Elba’s) problem. When we see Mako, it is almost entirely through his eyes; even the scene that seems most from her point of view, the destruction of Tokyo, is eventually completed with Raleigh in the scene and Idris Elba rising up like Jesus. That Raleigh appreciates her potential as a pilot and takes her seriously is good, but he also obviously has romantic leanings towards her as well. Again, the film does a good job of not making this an overt focus, or of turning Mako into some prize to be won, but Raleigh’s transformation from former-pilot-who-doesn’t-care to co-savior-of-the-world is due in large part to his feelings for Mako; she excites and animates him. Her plot of becoming a jaeger pilot happily coincides with Raleigh’s need to find a reason to care again. It’s a secondary narrative arc supporting a main male character arc. (It also supports Idris Elba’s sacrificial narrative arc; he has to learn to let go and let her be an adult, and allowing her to do that gives him peace as he faces his own death.) (Just. Saying.)
2) That scene in Tokyo, by the way, is the most character establishment we have from Mako, as she doesn’t talk very much. She states her dream of becoming a jaeger pilot, but she never directly states her motivations (i.e. those things that give her depth). Idris Elba has the line about revenge, and she doesn’t speak at all during the destruction of Tokyo, which visually combines fear with Idris Elba Jesus, so maybe it’s not just revenge maybe it’s also a desire to live up to her father figure? She doesn’t say—gosh, maybe she has a line or two, but I don’t remember her saying anything in the scene where Raleigh processes her experience in the drift for her. Raleigh and Idris Elba argue about her and her motivations while she’s not even in the room. She doesn’t get to speak up when Angry Australian insults her (let alone get to kick his ass; internets, we had a LITERALLY SCENE OF THE NARRATOR DUKING IT OUT FOR HER HONOR, and you want to claim this movie is about her?) and she’s unconscious for the setting off of the nuke, another scene where Raleigh jumps in to save her. She didn’t even get to perform CPR on him to kickstart his breathing; I mean this is probably because they were intentionally avoiding a kiss, but at the same time, all she does is hug him and cry.
Both of her emotional scenes are thus about men (Idris Elba’s impending doom, Raleigh’s apparent doom); the rest of her character is a thin thread of martial arts she’s not allowed to use again (aside from the bankai moment, which was as much a team thing/coming in to save Raleigh and help him as anything else) and a desire to pilot and a respect for Idris Elba and a crush on Raleigh. Once she gets to pilot, she doesn’t talk about how she feels about achieving her dream (granted, there’s not much time, but we do get that scene of Raleigh’s rough no-feelings voice talking about the drift, so). Maybe in the director’s cut or deleted scenes she has more development, but as the film stands, we only see her outer transformation, not her inner life.
3) I’m pretty sure the mad scientist got more screentime than she did. (Why did he have to be a white guy?) (His subplot also gets into thorny “yeah, okay, the movie was set in Hong Kong and not America, but all of Hong Kong we really saw was destruction, a black market den, and a pathetic kaiju bunker.) (On the one hand, seriously, it’s been going on for twelve years, surely we learned something from Hurricane Katrina, right?) (On the other hand, communist China.) (But anyway: black market den. Tell me that’s not problematic.) (At least it was run by a white guy?) (It’s hard to argue against Ron Perlman’s presence in the film but it still feels like something is not-quite-right about the whole thing.)
4) Even Angry Australian gets a deeper characterization and narrative arc than Mako. I mean, he’s an angry pompous jerk with daddy issues, but he’s that independent of Idris Elba or Raleigh. And my next point is a bit more subjective, but honestly for me the most moving moment of the film was Angry Australian’s goodbye to Old Man Australian. I phrase it that way because I missed something early on in the movie and so it wasn’t until Idris Elba said “daddy issues” that I understood the relationship between the Australians (which was something my husband missed too, and we spent a fair amount of the movie going “how are they even drift compatible” “why does old man put up with angry jerk” “what are they even saying”). So even though I literally did not know until two seconds before their goodbye that they were father and son, their goodbye was still more emotional than the one between Mako and Idris Elba.
This is partly due to setting, I think; it’s a scene unto itself, in a quiet hallway, with only the participants involved, versus a goodbye in the midst of the jaeger dome with Raleigh looking on. But it’s also due to the fact that both Old Man Australian AND Angry Australian were given time to establish their characters; both had extended conversations with Raleigh; and thus in this moment we have those two established characters coming together and growing in their understanding of each other, and so we see a new side to Angry Australian that allows us to view his death as heroic instead of a good riddance moment. When Mako and Idris Elba say goodbye, we know this is sad because there are tears and because he raised her and he’s going to die, but given how little Mako has been allowed to express herself up to this point it’s hard to feel the same punch. It also doesn’t change much about their relationship; Mako’s already proved herself as a pilot at this point, and so like I said it’s more about Idris Elba being able to rest knowing she can take care of herself. Maybe it’s a bit about Mako having to realize she can live out from under the shadow of his wing, but that’s never really explored past this moment. (Do we even see her reaction to his death? We get the solo shot of Old Man Australian’s reaction; my guess is that even if we got Mako’s, Raleigh was also in the shot.)
So, Mako Mori fails her own test, but I think that just illustrates the test’s importance. And while I think the Mako Mori Test is certainly a very valuable tool, I don’t think it should exist independent of the Bechdel Test at all; if a woman has her own narrative arc, she ought to have the opportunity to talk to another women about it!
Again, the movie did get a lot of things right with regards to Mako’s basic portrayal as an Asian woman, things that most other action films don’t even bother doing with white women. And maybe the rest of the film was Guillermo del Toro’s concession to Hollywood for the sake of getting to cast an Asian woman in the role and let her be treated as a person and not a babe in Daisy Dukes. And honestly, I doubt I would have noticed her lack of a role as much if the internet hadn’t convinced me of the opposite.
We certainly ought to laud the things the film did right, but that doesn’t mean we should blow them out of proportion or see a movie that wasn’t there. We have enough problems with Hollywood’s pandering to nerds (another post) without celebrating things that don’t exist. Remember how Disney told the internets there was a gay couple in the background of Frozen, and everyone’s response was “that’s great, but that’s not good enough?” Mako Mori is in Pacific Rim, but the movie isn’t her story. That’s great, but that’s not good enough.
So definitely vote with your dollars and support media like Pacific Rim, but don’t stop the criticism, either. If all we do is talk about how great the film was based on some non-existent narrative arc, then Hollywood (or individual directors, since Hollywood cares not for criticism, only for dollars) will think it did a good job with Mako when really, it mostly managed simply to be decent to her, to afford her a basic dignity if not a well-rounded characterization.
And frankly, that decent portrayal is something all female characters ought to have as the norm; again, it’s great, but if it’s mind-blowing that’s only a sad reflection of the state of our current media. Stay critical! We’ve still got a long way to go.