Defence, Disarmament and Global Wars in the age of mecha

(Also read this here)

jaeger kaiju

The high point, quite literally, of Guillermo Del Toro’s latest, Pacific Rim, is the moment when our hero Jaeger (outdated but strong yet, thanks to its drivers) slashes off the evolved, ever more dangerous Kaiju’s wing in mid-flight. The Kaiju, a futuristic dinosaur, is now flying as it zooms in on the Jaeger for its final kill, but like the proverbial trump card, out comes a sword (please note the irony) from the Jaeger’s right hand, just in time to pierce through the monster. Dismembered, the Kaiju returns to the ocean with a resounding splash; and the narrative is back to being a rather humdrum, predictable one.

Released worldwide on the July 12-13 weekend, Pacific Rim has, on an average, garnered lukewarm critical response. This lumbering spectacle of an apocalyptic war against aliens is a delight to watch for its expertly crafted action scenes. After all, what’s not to like about humungous robots and monsters fighting each other to death?

Disappointment is inevitable — lead characters Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) and Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) are all given back-stories that are rushed through; and the plot, like the Jaegers of seven years later, needs a severe upgrade. But then, this movie isn’t as much a psychodrama as it is the latest offering in the mecha genre of Hollywood cinema — with a history of movies like Star Wars, the Godzilla series,Transformers, and Sucker Punch — and revives the giant robots vs. monster trope, possibly the oldest idea in Japanese anime.

Pacific Rim does inspire some thoughts on the evolving nature of weaponry and the state of warfare. The Jaegers (German for hunter) are run by two fighters, located in the head of the machine. They must meld their brains, hearts and memories with each other as well as the machine, in the process becoming a ‘maschinemensch’ or machine-human — a trope explored often enough, and first seen in Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic Metropolis.

Although this ploy isn’t quite the same thing as drone warfare (since the fighters are very much a part of the action, ‘remote’ only in the sense that there is minimal bloodshed), which in itself is more in vogue today, it does endorse the idea of ‘sanitised’ battles. In the aftermath of a fight, you as a viewer don’t see maimed and tainted bodies, blood or gore — which one can easily presume to be part of the scene — but, instead, witness broken machines, shattered buildings and, poignantly, Mori’s lost red shoe. Whatever ‘blood’ you can see on screen is glowing blue acid dripping from mutilated Kaijus, which is not nearly as disgusting or dread-inspiring. In that sense, Del Toro panders to a notion that is by now the staple of sci-fi and even action cinema — war doesn’t have to end in visible human casualty.

Man and machine have come together on various instances in cinema previously. In The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), Lock Martin played the alien robot Gort, controlled by Klaatu, with a message for earthlings; Star Wars had Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker play ‘droids’; Bladerunner and Robocop simply assimilated man and machine to form human-like androids; and most recently, Avatar dwelled on the notion of man controlling a morphed, mechanised version of himself. Through them all runs common theme of bettering the human condition, perfecting his survival skill and instinct through ‘mechanical enhancements’.

In our real, brutal world, however, man does not inhabit the machine (yet); he is far, far away, working on his surveillance or targeted bombing from safe, often undisclosed, locations. The ‘enemy’, for the last decade, has been hiding among his ‘own’, and has had to be ferreted out and hunted down like pesky rats. In this clash of civilisations, identity marked the ‘other’ and ‘ours’, and has been the crucial factor in deciding what is worth fighting for. Pacific Rim, like other sci-fi movies in its league, locates its enemy in the predator whose roots are alien, outside the realm of this planet in this space and time. These may be like all the other unknown threats from ‘out there’ threatening our world, but the movie departs from tradition in pulling upon all of humanity’s strength to fight this war.

Unlike his predecessors, Del Toro is more inclusive — his concern is not the US Pacific coastline alone, nor are his rangers strictly American. His heroine is Japanese; Beckett’s comrades are Russian, Chinese, British and Australian. Of course, in the end, it is Beckett, the American who saves the day. But in an industry where directors are used to casting at least one race/religion/nationality in the underdog/villain/sidekick role, this movie does give the idea of a global war a different twist.

Will Pacific Rim live long in pop-culture memory? Most probably not, thanks to its forgettable, repetitive story. But as a moment in the history of mecha, overwhelming sci-fi cinema, it could still make a lasting mark, for its representation of a world in flux.

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