Note: Mild and rather vague spoilers abound.
Pacific Rim is important. It’s a post-apocalyptic narrative. A science-fiction film. A summer blockbuster. It’s also important, because in all its kaiju pummeling, jaeger piloting glory, this film is evidence of what the industry can give us and proof that we still have so very far to go.
I went into the theatre with enormously high expectations. With Guillermo del Toro at the helm and glorious shots of Idris Elba and Rinko Kikuchi taking names in the trailer, I hoped this would be the film that would help knock some sense into Hollywood. I prayed that this movie would finally make it clear that Characters of Color can hold a story. They can be compelling, heartbreaking, and complex. They can be heroes.
The audience cheered. They cheered for Mako Mori, Rinko Kikuchi’s rookie pilot when she pulled out the ace card during a Jaeger-Kaiju battle. They chuckled when she checked out Charles Hunnam’s Raleigh Becket and his extremely cut figure. They gushed over her when she was embarrassed. They rooted for her when she was given the chance to prove herself. They loved her. They. Loved. Her. An Asian female character, who was not fetishized, nor infantilized, and not a victim of Orientalization. When was the last time we saw that? When was the last time we saw the female gaze? When was the last time a non-white non-male character was given the opportunity to Jump At The Call? When was the last time a young Asian woman had a Hero’s Journey of her own?
In the same vein, when was the last time we had a heroic Black male character who was competent, dapper as high heaven, and portrayed as a complicated, over-protective father figure? Can we talk about that? Can we talk about how in love I am with Stacker Pentacost? Can we talk about how I would look into Idris Elba’s intensely concerned eyes all day if I could?
Pacific Rim gave us two non-white characters. Heroic characters. Characters with backstories and internal struggles and angst and cheesy lines. And it makes me want to cry.
But. I can’t pretend this film is groundbreaking. It still belongs to a scruffy, white, hyper-masculine protagonist. It still used the word “g*psy”, despite it being a racial slur. It still set itself in Hong Kong while giving no Asian actor besides Rinko Kikuchi any lines. It didn’t whitewash the background extras, which is a feat in and of itself, but it did inexplicably decide to cast a white man as a character called Hannibal Chau, just for laughs. And you know, it still didn’t pass the Bechdel Test.
But you know what it did pass? The other Bechdel test. The one where two Characters of Color have names, they talk to each other, and about something other than a white character. And I’ll take it.
That’s why this film is incredibly important. It’s a taste of what can be done, and yet it is absolute proof that we are not there yet. Not even close. The strengths of Pacific Rim show us that heartwarming, rock-music jamming, successful, mainstream science fiction can perch on the shoulders of characters a racist industry doesn’t usually let us see, and it’s shortcomings prove that the war isn’t over yet.
Today is tomorrow, and we are still fighting.