Saturday, October 18, 2014

Nuke ‘Em: Pacific Rim's Problem with Kaiju Heritage

There’s a lot I love about Pacific Rim, but its ending has bothered me since opening weekend. Spoilers, naturally, if you haven’t seen it. In the last year, I haven’t heard a single person mention the oddity of a film rooted in Kaiju lore that resolves its problems by nuking the enemy army.

To start: Pacific Rim owes its existence to Godzilla. It has copious allusions to the 1954 film, and that franchise popularized the Kaiju battles that Pacific Rim is built around. Godzilla was punching giant robots a full decade before Guillermo Del Toro started making movies. It’s easy to envision the Jaeger program building Mechagodzilla in the eventual crossover – and Del Toro publicly said he wanted a crossover even before Pacific Rim screened. The appropriation is deliberate and largely affectionate.

In the fun and camp of giant battles, it’s easy to forget that the 1954 Godzilla is rooted in the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In that film, the beast is both an allegory for nuclear war, and is literally woken up by the usage of nuclear weapons. These themes ebb and flow in the ensuing franchise, but the beloved character was emblematic of a real national terror.

Pacific Rim solves its conflict by dropping a nuclear bomb into the rift. The characters are explicit that the Jaeger’s core is a nuclear reactor – that’s why it works when others can't, and it goes off like a nuclear bomb, not like a reactor in meltdown. The war isn’t resolved when the two Jaegers defeat the final Kaiju. It isn’t solved by Pentecost’s sacrifice. Humanity is only safe once we’ve A-bombed the bad guys.

I reveled in most of the movie. Kikuchi, Perlman, Day and Elba are delights, the soundtrack is pitch-perfect, and the overall film is greatly executed. Is the movie dumb? Yes, but it’s great at its dumbness. Even the bombing, with GLaDOS counting down and the heroes racing to safety, is exciting.

But even in IMAX, it was also troubling. We clearly hit a military installation, with no idea of how many civilians live on site. It’s like the lovably dumb movie suddenly committed another Hiroshima.

It’s one thing to not make the anti-nuclear message your core point, and it’s another to explicitly go against it. Was it intentional? I like to think not. No press I’ve read around the film suggests an enthusiasm for nuclear holocaust. And mistakes happen in art because when you’re juggling a dozen things in your mind, a thirteenth can always hit the floor. What hit the floor here is an incredibly sensitive item, from the genesis of kaiju films and one of the worst evils human beings have ever committed.

And the bombing isn’t indispensible to the plot. The rift could have been blown up rather than the people on the other side. In Newton Geiszler’s mind melds with Kaiju, a solution to closing all rifts could have been revealed. The Category 5 Kaiju could have been the lord and mother of them all, and its defeat the guarantee that no more could be created, or that the remainder would have no motive to continue attacking. Rewriting a few scenes, you could craft several different endings that wouldn’t require nuking the enemy.

It's still a surprisingly haunting moment.
Re-watching the 1954 Godzilla on Friday night brought this all to mind again. If it wasn’t the first, Kaiju film began there, and that film begins with a makeshift hospital laden with bodies, dead parents, irradiated children, and a narrator dazedly waking up in the wreckage. This is the fallout of a radioactive dinosaur, an impossibility that harkened to another impossibility – a mushroom of smoke changing the world.

That’s what any alien survivors of the end of Pacific Rim will wake up to. It feels spiritually wrong.
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