Saturday, February 8, 2014

Brawling In The Deep: Pacific Rim

It’s been a few years since I lost my younger brother to a climbing accident, but that didn’t make the opening of Pacific Rim any easier to watch.

It changed the way I watched the movie.I saw a different story than was on the screen.

Superficially, the movie asks:  Who’s tougher: Giant robots or giant monsters? It then presents its evidence in the form of two hours of chest rocket-firing, acid-spitting  and punching. Lots and lots of punching with great big robot fists. There are so many biological and technological weapons on display that the combatants themselves sometimes fail to keep track of them.
KAIJU: Oh yeah, I forgot. I have wings.
JAEGER: Oh yeah, I forgot. I have a big-ass sword.
And while the punching and clawing and monster-robot arms race is interesting enough (KAIJU: Surprise, motherfucker. I can shoot EMPs from my shoulderblades!) I spent most of the movie sitting there in 3D glasses, thinking about what it means to rebuild intimacy in the face of loss.

The interesting thing about the pilots in Pacific Rim is the way they are connected to one another. They are husbands and wives, parents and children (both natural and adopted), siblings, friends, and potential lovers who are connected  via mind-meld. While the movie touches on it, I wish the movie had spent more time exploring how those relationships are affected by a) the Drift process and b) the emotional weight of going into battle side by side with someone with whom you have an intimate relationship.

The monster/mindmeld dynamic makes for a metaphor between the fears of engulfment (the Drift) and abandonment (death via giant monster) that characterizes family/intimate relationships
How would your relationships change with your family if you could see each other’s innermost thoughts, if you were able to see past events from their perspective, if you were able to see the parts of them that they kept separate from you? How would you feel to know that you no longer have any secrets from someone that close to you?

And what would it feel like to know that if you screwed up, weren’t quick enough, or were just unlucky, that person could be taken away before your eyes?

As Raleigh shows us, loss changes a person, and not always in big ways.  Not necessarily in the “I will never pilot a giant robot again,” but in small decisions. This time instead of risking it all to save a boat, we use the boat to bash the monster’s head in.  Most importantly,  this time, when we defeat a Kaiju, we make damn sure it’s dead.

Loss also gives us a chance to empathize and connect. Our grief experience means we are in a better position to recognize the loss of others.  As Raleigh does when Mako Drifts into a traumatic memory of Onibaba’s attack on Tokyo, we can help others work through their own emotions, simply by being there.  
This healing is not just a one way process. In being there for other’s losses, we come to terms with our own. By helping them, we help ourselves.

In order to give and receive this kind of help though, we have to open ourselves to intimacy. Sometimes, especially after we’ve had someone or something we’ve been intimately connected to ripped away, that’s a hard thing to do.
The “Australian(*)” father and son team of Herc and Chuck Hansen is an example of this. While the source of the tension between them  is never explained on screen (if you’re interested, their backstory can be found here), it’s clear that they have some problems. They alternate between bickering and silence. The only way they can show affection towards each other is through the pet bulldog that serves as their emotional surrogate.
The father admits that he doesn’t “know whether to hug him or kick his ass.”
Later, after being injured, Herc tells his son that when you Drift with someone, you also think nothing has to be said, that words are unnecessary. He wonders awkwardly and aloud to Chuck if maybe there were things he should have said more often.

Is that not true of the way many of us behave in relationships with those closest to us? We experienced shared events with them and we expect them to know what we were thinking or feeling. After all, they were there. How can they not know how we feel about them? It’s written in our faces, on our bodies, threads through every word that comes out of our mouth.
Sometimes we even believe we know what they were thinking or feeling. They’re the people we know best after all. We believe we know them better than they know themselves.
And yet…
And yet for good or ill, it is often the people we think we know the best who surprise us the most. We take them for granted. We make assumptions. We hold them to expectations both spoken and unspoken.
As a wrestling theme goes, we think we know them.
We don’t think—or don’t think we should have to—say certain things to them. 

Often we find out we’re wrong.
And sometimes, sometimes that discovery comes when it’s far, far too late to do anything about it.
Loss strikes at the heart of us. It attacks our past and future as much as it does our present. We feel the pain we’re going through now, but it also reminds us of the past with this person we can’t go back to and a future we will never have with them.
It’s particularly tough when our loss is something that enables others to gain, such as Chuck Hansen’s sacrifice in Pacific Rim.

Action movies often wallpaper over grief-- Luke Skywalker shows no signs of grief over the loss of Biggs, for example. Films  either ignoring the loss completely (there is a spoof of this in the deleted scenes of the original Austin Powers movie), wallpaper over it with a simple “He died a hero” or—most crassly of all--use it as a plot point: “I will avenge you, my brother”. Maybe that’s the nature of the genre. Showing death is okay, but showing bereavement is verboten. 

That’s what makes Herc’s understated but unmistakeable grief during the celebration scenein the control room poignant. While everyone else is celebrating victory, Herc remembers the cost.  
You can make the argument that Chuck died a hero. You can say he was doing what he loved. You can talk about freedom and sacrifice and victory all you want. But is that really comfort to a bereaved father, a grieving widow or an uncomprehending child.

He died doing what he loved. He made the ultimate sacrifice.
Good for him.
But what about me?

 What about those of us left behind? Brothers and children. Parents and lovers. Aren't we important too? How could he just...just leave us?
Was it worth it? 

On paper it makes sense, yes. Intellectually, sure.  But in our heart of hearts…?
Pacific Rim doesn’t try to tell Herc the answers.

Why should it? Sometimes there are no answers to give.
But while it tells us nothing, it shows us a lot. Through Raleigh and Mako we see  grief can change and shape us, the way it can either cut us off from others or bring us closer, and the way we can make peace with it by allowing it be a part of us without being consumed by it.

That, to me, is why Pacific Rim, for all it's scorpion-tail spearing and rotor-blade-arm slicing (and punching, of course. Let us never forget the punching) is ultimately not about giant monsters and giant robots.

It is about normal-sized humans.

And that's plenty big enough for me.
(*) The Accent Police were out in full force for the Australians, presumably the same folks who complained about Kevin Costner in Robin Hood and Connery in The Hunt for Red October. They seemed ok with Mickey Rourke cutting his way out of a giant monster baby after being eaten alive though. I guess we all have our limits for suspension of disbelief.

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