Jul 12 2013 4:00pm

The Geek Grammar of Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

Some audiences have found the trailers to Pacific Rim confusing. Giant monsters and giant robots, what? I’ve been pumped from the first trailer featuring a giant robot rocket-punching a giant monster. Pacific Rim relies on some tips of its spectacularly large hat to various precursors from monster movies and science fiction cinema. It presents a particular case of the more general problem that creators of genre fiction face—how much do I lean on a shared knowledge of popular (geek) culture?


1. The obvious precursor for Pacific Rim is the Kaiju tradition. The monster aliens in Pacific Rim would be daikaiju, which are the massive city-destroying versions. See this list of ‘primer films’ that Variety has assembled. Number one is Godzilla (1954) the most well-known daikaiju. Daimajin (1966) features a giant samurai statue that comes to life to combat an Iago-like usurper, see also the Ultraman (1966) TV series. Most of the audiences going to see Pacific Rim would’ve seen the recent Hollywood giant monster efforts, including the 1998 remake of Godzilla and the 2008 Cloverfield. The way an audience is shaped relies on much more that a single obvious genre so as to be receptive to a new film, however.


2. Most critics will compare Pacific Rim to Michael Bay’s live action translation of the Transformers franchise. (Search for Transformers vs Godzilla mash-up.) Transformers itself is a massive swirling franchise of multiple animated series, comics, videogames and now films. Transformers did have some massive city-sized representatives, such as Metroplex. The critics will be comparing Pacific Rim to Transformers because of the use of giant robot suits and the particular kind of spectacular violence, but there really are not any tangible connections beyond a superficial similarity.


3. Japanese popular culture provides us with a closer approximation of the giant robot suits from Pacific Rim in the form of the ‘mecha’ genre. Audiences need some awareness of mecha to appreciate why having two pilots is something different. Event the nomenclature of ‘pilot’ is derived from the mecha genre. A curious example here is one of my favourite popular culture texts of all time, Robotech. I was fascinated with Robotech as a child and then when Madman in Australia released the DVD box sets several years ago I purchased them as they were released. Now I am fascinated by Robotech because of the relatively unique way the production company Harmony Gold translated three separate Japanese anime series into a single American cartoon series.

Star Trek, Vulcan Mind Meld, Evil Spock, Bones

4. The way the two pilots comes together in the “Drift” has precedence from Star Trek’s mind meld, famously used in the relation between Spock and Kirk, because of the required intimacy. Henry Jenkins has argued that the most illustrative example of slashfic is imagining the scene in Wrath of Khan where Spock is dying and he is separated from Kirk by a plane of glass what would happen without the glass. The “Drift” of the Jaeger pilots is similar but with a technological twist. It is closer to the intimacy achieved in the climatic scene of Ghost in the Shell. The cyborg Major Kusanagi ‘dives’ into the mind of the sentient program dubbed The Puppet Master. The result is an exchange and melding of their two ‘ghosts’. The dramatic tension of Pacific Rim, Del Toro has argued, comes from the intimate exchange of personal details of the two Jaeger pilots.

Pacific Rim, pilots

5. Most contemporary audiences will be comfortable with cross-cultural adaptations of particular texts. Pacific Rim is different in that it is a cross-cultural text that translates elements of the generic conventions into a new kind of adaptation. Early Kaiju films were created in the shadow of World War II and the use of atomic weapons, hence nearly all the monsters were mutations as a result of radiation. Does Pacific Rim also have this allegorical dimension? In the film, most of humanity wants to disband the collective effort that witnessed each major nation create a Jaeger. Indeed the US is creating a massive wall along its west coast to keep the Kaiju out. The Kaiju in Pacific Rim are ‘alien’ forces of nature and it is not hard to see the allegorical dimension of Kaiju also being adapted and translated in this context. The difficulties of international cooperation in combating the Kaiju of ecological disaster articulated through the difficulty in syncing ‘pilots’ of massive industrial machines.

Audiences are not cohesive or homogeneous totalities any more, if they ever were. Being an audience is as much a cultural performance—in the sense of being able to attentively listen or watch a given cultural text in a relatively sophisticated manner—as the text itself is. Audiences need to be trained so as to have the cultural ‘know how’ or ‘literacies’ so as to be able to appreciate complex assemblages of translation and adaptation of cross-cultural texts, such as Pacific Rim. Above is a map of some of the cultural ‘know how’ I am bringing to bear in my experience of Pacific Rim, but the map will be different for every single person in the audience.

Originally published July 11 on Momentum Books’ Blog.

Glen Fuller is an assistant professor of Journalism and Communication at the University of Canberra. He can be found on twitter at @Eventmechanics.

Mordicai Knode
2. mordicai
I get annoyed when people talk about "Macekres." Carl Macek pulled off a weird form of surgery, not a translation but a fringe adaptation. & the three series became something altogether stranger.
Christopher Bennett
3. ChristopherLBennett
I'm surprised I see so few comparisons being drawn to Power Rangers. I'd think that'd be the current American generation's primary referent for fiction about giant piloted robots battling giant monsters. It's been on the air in the US nearly continuously for the past two decades, and while it's a lot less popular and prominent now than it was in its heyday, a lot of today's genre fans grew up watching it.
Tunod D. Denrub
4. Tunod D. Denrub
Pretty good article for the most part, but I disagree on one point. A two-pilot system isn't the most common setup, but by no means is it 'something different'. Godannar (with which Pacific Rim shares a lot of similarities), Gurren-Lagann, Gunbuster,
Getter Robo (boy that's a lot of G's) had 3... it's a pretty old concept.
Christopher Bennett
5. ChristopherLBennett
@4: The Heisei-era (1990s) Mechagodzilla had three operators in the cockpit. I believe the Millennium-era Mechagodzilla, which was remotely piloted from an overhead aircraft, needed a pilot and copilot/gunner in normal operation, though it could be operated by one person from an emergency control room onboard. Super Sentai/Power Rangers Megazords, of course, typically have five pilots (though some have three or only one), as does their animated counterpart GoLion/Voltron.
Tunod D. Denrub
6. Erik Dercf
I just finished seeing this movie IMAX and I will go see again. If you are looking for some summer fun then this is a good choice for three good reasons.
1. The plot, characters, and actors bring their A game and you will want to cheer them all.
2. The attention to detail is well worth seeing.
3. This film single handedly brings you front and center to what a summer action adventure should be which is something cool and unexpected.

Cheers all happy viewing,
Nick S
7. kukkurovaca
This post is conspicuously missing one of the biggest references of the movie: Independence Day.
Tunod D. Denrub
8. JRE
Yeah, the climax is such a direct recreation of the ID4 finale that it's more or less the same exact scene.
Sarah Hale
9. rocketshale
Just saw this in 3D (not IMAX, but I could easily be talked into seeing it again). It was AWESOME. The animation/design on the mechs was extremely well done.
Yes to all the comments/discussion on the references, but that just made the whole thing more fun, IMO. Also could have been the popcorn, twizzlers, and sour patch kids that I ate during.....
My only real complaints were the references to dinosaur biology and the makeup of the Mesozoic atmosphere.
The dedications at the end of the credits earned a collective "awwww" from my group.
Current favorite movie of the year.
Alan Brown
10. AlanBrown
I also was struck by how much the ending felt like Independence Day, too much so for my taste. Other than that, I thought it was great. I appreciated that the two surviving pilots didn't kiss at the end. Not that I don't like romance, but I liked the bonding just the way it was.
John Massey
11. subwoofer
Saw the movie, it was fun.

As far as the piloting goes, the whole "drift" thing was very cerebral IMHO. I dunno, for me, back in the day I played "Mech Warrior" and we were piloting 100 ton Atlases with only 1 person." Any way you slice it, what they did in this movie worked.

Park your brain at the door folks, this is the kind of movie that makes summer time fun.

Susan Taylor
12. mirth513
I saw nods to Gundams, Godzilla, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Darker than Black and more just in my first viewing! Can't wait to see it again!

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