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Why Pacific Rim Kicks Ass

Pacific Rim (2013) is one of the best movies ever made. If you don’t believe me, go watch it, have one of the world’s greatest opening themes imprinted into the fabric of your brain, and come back. You’ll probably agree. But why does Pacific Rim manage to work so well?

The movie poster for Pacific Rim (2013). Two small pilots stand on the ledge of a platform in front of a massive robot. They are maybe one fourth the size of the giant robot's massive face, which stares expressionless at the camera. A giant fan is visible in the robot's chest as the bottom of the poster, which hides the nuclear reactor that powers the machine. Sparks from welding metal and wires take over the background. The tagline reads "To fight monsters, we created monsters."

It’s usually pretty easy to explain why movies are bad. Bad writing, bad acting, bad editing, and their compatriots are all pretty obvious. It’s much harder to explain why movies are good! Some films are technically excellent - stuff that’s made by masters of the craft, using framing and pacing to tell complex narratives about the human experience. But some films are good because they find the emotion button in our brains and mash the shit out of it.

That second category is why Pacific Rim (2013) is one of the best movies ever made. Pacific Rim rejects complexity to embrace hope and joy. It boldly declares that, despite everything, humanity is good and capable of incredible things. Pacific Rim saves the world with the power of love and giant robots and the sickest main theme ever recorded. Ramin Djawadi somehow managed to exactly channel the sound of giant robots saving the world, and I will never understand exactly how he did that. I once listened to the Pacific Rim main theme for 45 minutes straight. It’s so good it makes me feel like I can flip cars.

In the ten years since Pacific Rim was released (happy anniversary, king!), the media landscape has changed dramatically. It can be tempting to say “they don’t make them like this anymore,” but the truth is they rarely if ever made them like this back in the day, either. Even before IP started to haunt our media landscape, big-budget sci-fi epics were a risky gig. Pacific Rim is a modern miracle – 132 minutes dedicated to giant robots punching the shit out of giant aliens, all powered by the indomitable will of humanity working together to survive.

The premise of Pacific Rim is inherently silly: the world comes together to face an existential threat (that can be easily read as an analog for climate change, much like the White Walkers in Game of Thrones), and confronts that threat by building giant robots called Jaegers. The Jaegers are piloted by two people working in tandem using a mental link, where the level of trust between the pilots dictates their fighting prowess. And that's just the baseline world of the movie. It’s ridiculous on its face! It sometimes seems like Pacific Rim moves from scene to scene motivated solely by asking “wouldn’t it be badass if this happened next?” A Jaeger suddenly needs a new weapon? Check it out, it has a sword! Our heroes need a new challenge? Uh oh, Kaiju can shoot EMP waves now. All is lost? Idris Elba will deliver an absolute banger in his “we are canceling the apocalypse” speech, which changes hearts and minds.

All of that is extremely epic and very fun. But it's not actually why Pacific Rim endures as a good movie, at least to me.

Pacific Rim is about how humanity saves the world, but it’s also about overcoming trauma, loss, and pain. As the opening prologue explains, “to fight monsters, we created monsters of our own.” As decades of mecha anime have shown, giant robots are often giant metaphors, used to represent the juncture between the monstrous and the human. Pacific Rim uses that inspiration to show us fundamentally broken people that nonetheless choose to pilot the massive machinery of hope. The movie draws a direct line between the necessity of killing the monsters that threaten our world and the monsters that live in our heads – the ones holding us back from living full lives. It is only when the two main Jaeger pilots, Raleigh and Mako, overcome their pain and learn to trust again that they become capable of doing the impossible.

Pacific Rim maintains a specific kind of optimism. It reminds us that as bad as things seem, and as bad as we might personally feel, we can still turn the world around. That optimism is intentional! The team behind Pacific Rim has noted repeatedly that the movie is about hope, faith, and love. As director Guillermo del Toro noted on Twitter, “We are all Jaegers inside of which scared children live.” To him, that’s not a bad thing. The thesis of Pacific Rim is less “isn’t it so cool that this giant robot can beat the shit out of a giant alien using a cargo ship like a baseball bat” and more “isn’t it so cool that humans can experience massive trauma, overcome it with the help of others, and come out the other side ready to accomplish anything?”

That’s why Pacific Rim works so well for me – it centers the fantastical in the deeply personal in ways that elevate the whole thing to high art. It asks you to buy all the way in, and I did. I will never, personally, get to pilot a giant robot with a cool sword (extremely sad for me!). But I do have to deal with my own trauma and loss, and Pacific Rim reminds me to approach it with love and understanding rather than fear and withdrawal. And if I have to imagine myself piloting a giant robot with a cool sword in order to develop healthy coping mechanisms and form bonds with other people, well, that’s my business.

Pacific Rim’s dedication to joy and hope got me through some pretty tough times. But that same dedication can be why it reads as "just silly" to a lot of people. After all we’ve seen in the last few years, isn’t it unrealistic to believe that humanity can set aside our differences to band together and save ourselves? Isn’t Pacific Rim a fluffy fantasy, not just in terms of the giant robots but in terms of humanity itself? I reject this framing, and the movie does too. Pacific Rim is very much aware of humanity’s negative impulses, and declares (quite literally) that it is better to fail together than to isolate ourselves with the illusion of safety. Sometimes realism and negativity can be what holds us back from imagining something different. Pacific Rim is a reminder that bravery can be the act of dreaming of a better world, because that’s the first step to making one. To me, there’s nothing fluffy about that.

So. Go watch Pacific Rim. It’s one of the few movies that will have you say “hell yeah, giant robots kick ass,” but also “hey, maybe hope isn’t silly, but really cool and brave.” It’s absolutely worth your time.

Oh yeah, and the two scientists definitely have an incredibly gay vibe going on. It rules.

A heavily edited version of Maslow's Hierarchy of needs. The bottommost row reads "Sexy bass line" followed by "giant robots fighting giant monsters." These comprise the basic needs. Moving into psychological needs, these two read "Gay scientists" and "Gay scientists, but blue this time." At the top of the pyramid, the self-fulfillment needs read" "The robots are powered by love and trust and communication, holy shit can you imagine."
Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs for Pacific Rim, as identified by tumblr user tiefling-queer

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