Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim (2013)

Warner Bros.

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Main Cast: Charlie Hunnam, Rinko Kikuchi, Idris Elba, Charlie Day


First, a brief summary of the plot of Pacific Rim.  Aliens have genetically engineered kaiju (Godzilla-like monsters) that they send to Earth through an intergalactic portal (the “Breach”) that opens at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, in order to destroy human civilization and eventually conquer the planet.  Humanoid robots called jaegers are built to fight the kaiju.  The kaiju become larger and appear more frequently over time.  Eventually, humans realize the aliens’ plans and figure out a way to detonate a nuclear bomb in the portal in order to collapse it, saving humans from the aliens.  Most of the film revolves around amazing special effects used to create action-packed fight scenes between robots and monsters.  But what is most interesting — to me at least — is the backdrop against which the robots and monsters fights take place.

Impotence of government – The film’s plot is heavily dependent on a view of the impotence of government.  The first kaiju attack is described (but barely shown on screen) as having taken convention military forces six days to win, leaving extensive devastation.  The idea that the government is unable to act to stop the kaiju is a theme carried throughout the film.  The jaegers are created as an official (multi-)government program, but after one jaeger is severely damaged in a battle with a kaiju, world governments disband the program and instead build protective walls (the jaeger program is then carried on by some sort of independent [private] organization whose funding and organizational structure is never explained).  The walls turn out to be easily breached.  In response, world governments take no action whatsoever.  In other words, governments throw up their hands and apparently decide that the kaiju should win!

Individualism – Most of the film dwells on individual action, and valorizes the motif of “great individuals”.  The jaeger pilots are all hot-shot “cowboys”, just like, say, Tom Cruise‘s “Maverick” pilot character in the film Top Gun (1986).  As governmental impotence provides no response to the kaiju threat, the fate of humanity is left in the hands of these “cowboys”.  Although there are many individuals that take part in the jaeger program, the film presents them less as a team than as an ad hoc assemblage of individuals.  This stands in marked contrast to Shin Godzilla (2016), which responds to a similar program of governmental impotence with an explicitly team-based response.  And, of course, the film pays almost no attention to collateral damage to civilians.  In a way, all this reflects filmmaker David Lynch‘s comments about how President Donald Trump — even if Trump fails to do a good job himself — creates an aura of disruptive greatness that reveals the ineffectual nature of opposition politicians who can’t get anything done.

Destructive industrial growth – The film never entertains any notion of peaceful negotiations with the aliens sending the kaiju through the Breach, some kind of barricade right at the outlet of the Breach, or even permanent depopulation/dispersion of large urban coastal cities.  Humanity focuses instead on building giant robots — their humanoid configuration serving no clear purpose — and a coastal wall — which is so obviously inadequate to the task and so burdensome to normal human activities.  There is a casual acceptance of industrial growth, and not any palpable concern about its consequences or any alternatives.

The film as a whole is strangely entertaining.  That is partly due to the special effects and extensive use of action scenes, but also due to the preposterously comical interactions between the characters, not a single one of which is realistic.

Shin Godzilla

Shin Godzilla

シン・ゴジラ [Shin Godzilla] (2016)

Toho Pictures

Directors: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi

Main Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Satomi Ishihara, Yutaka Takenouchi


A reboot of the Gojira/Godzilla franchise, this is really an excellent monster film.  The best parts are about political symbolism. Having watched a number of dumb big-budget Hollywood superhero films recently, I was troubled by how many relied on a frame of a “post-political” society, where all important political decisions are just handed out (down) by unseen technocrats. I thought it would be more interesting to show the deliberations of politicians. Well, Shin Godzilla does exactly that!

The Gojira/Godzilla franchise has shown many different sides of the monster, from an uncontrollable force of destruction, to a helper of humanity, to an object of scientific study. Aspects of this film draw upon some of the ways scientific inquiry was vaunted in the 1990s films. But there is a much more political and serious tone to this film.  Here, the monster is finally defeated by a mostly self-organized team of nerds that works together in parallel with the military to defeat the monster, following much destruction.

The political commentary in the film ranges from traditional franchise concerns about nuclear energy and weapons (Gojira/Godzilla in this film is a sea creature that self-mutates after eating nuclear waste, and is powered by nuclear fission), including the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi reactor meltdown, to post WWII pacifism (including Shinzō Abe‘s plan to re-write the Japanese constitution to step away from pacifism), the (real or perceived) subordinate relationship of Japan to U.S. political interests, corporatization and putting profits over people, and more. While the film is sometimes a bit ridiculous — often in a good, campy way, like the wonderfully unrealistic depiction of the monster with bulging eyes and a bulk that still resembles an actor in a rubber monster suit — mostly, this film is expertly delivered. Central to the story is the way it presents existing political institutions as being unable or unwilling to confront current circumstances.  The monster is a symbol of the internal contradictions of Japanese society (and capitalism). It would not be too much to say that this is one of the most Leninist films of its day!