Pacific Rim as a celebration of nerds

Let's take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness of those robot and Mako Mori.

Let’s take a moment to appreciate the awesomeness of those robots and our darling Mako Mori.

Movie Info
Title: Pacific Rim
Author/Creator: Guillermo del Toro (director, screenplay co-writer)
Media Type: Movie
Genre: Sci-fi, action

Warning: Potential spoiler. Proceed at own risk.

I got a chance to watch Pacific Rim in cinema recently, mostly to celebrate part of my childhood but partly out of curiosity of what del Toro might have done to one of my once favorite past time — by which I mean the genre not that I owned any robot, fought any monster, or owned their figurine… Okay, I might have had a Godzilla toy, satisfied?

In general, Pacific Rim did okay. The storyline isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. Our protagonist, Raleigh Becket, is psychologically wounded by the lost of his brother on one of their missions to stop the monsters, the Kaijus (nice nod right there, Mr. del Toro). He lives many years as a construction worker in Alaska until he is recruited back to be a part of the last stand against the Kaijus. There he pairs up with a young recruit, Mako Mori, to pilot a giant robot, or Jaeger, and tries one last time to ‘cancel the apocalypse’.

The story of Pacific Rim is dense, too dense for a two-hours film in fact, but very rich and vibrant. I would love to see this story as a series rather than a movie so to make justice to all the characters and intricate detail del Toro has created for this universe. Unfortunately, the complexity is the movie’s biggest problem. If its purpose is to intrigue, then it has done its job superbly. I am properly intrigued by every being in the film be it the Kaijus, the Jaegers — okay, especially the Jaegers — the pilots, and just how this world comes to be what it is in the movie. But Pacific Rim doesn’t quite satisfy that intrigue. The script for Raleigh is pretty sloppy. I get that he is an uncomplicated character, which is good for this already complicated world, but the script just doesn’t convey his internal life as well as it did other characters like Stacker Pentecost or Herc Hansen, his commanding officers. But because of the attention given to complexity of the story, I don’t feel offended by the sloppy parts of the scripts as much as I usually do with blockbuster movies. The writers just bit off more than they can chew not that they are particularly sloppy. I just feel… sad, mostly, because it has so much potential that isn’t fully explored.

That is not to say I don’t like Raleigh. He is a good guy. He might be insubordinate, nosy, and a bit annoying at times, but he isn’t a jerk like Herc’s son Chuck. A part of him is almost like a regency gentleman, upholding other people’s honor and such, which is not something we celebrate in the media quite enough in my opinion. I also like Mako who isn’t either femme fatale or damsel-in-distress. She is just a young Asian woman on a mission. I stress the word Asian not to emphasize her ethnic background but for the fact that she behaves according to the Asian values which she was raised in. This is a commendable attempt at true multiculturalism that I don’t think a lot of films that try to be multicultural do very often or very well. I like how del Toro intentionally clashes her value with Raleigh’s in one scene, although, unfortunately, it isn’t as satisfying as I would have liked.

But is Pacific Rim all unsatisfying executions of very awesome concepts? Not really. There is a very good part in the film that stands out even with the grand spectacles of the Jaegers and Kaijus going at each other.

It is the nerds: Kaiju biologist Newton “Newt” Geiszler, and theoretical physicist (at least I think he is) Hermann Gottlieb.

Newton Geiszler, the hipster nerd. Let's spend a moment to appreciate that tattoo.

Newton Geiszler, the hipster nerd. Let’s spend a moment to appreciate that tattoo.

Hermann Gottlieb, stereotypical nerd who talks a mile a second.

Hermann Gottlieb, stereotypical nerd who talks a mile a second.

… Okay, it’s mostly Newt and to a lesser extend Hermann. Sorry, Hermann.

Some people say they are too cartoony, too over the top for being scientists. But as a scientist, I think I can safely say those opinions comes from people’s expectation of what being a scientist is like: dry and uninteresting. And let’s be honest, most people don’t get science. They are intrigue by it and its products, A.K.A. technologies, but they are equally intimidated by it which I think is the doing of science education in the system rather than anything else. There is glass wall between the scientific community and the general public which, as usual, leads to stereotyping based on people’s perception of the subject. Scientists are perceived as dry because they deal mostly with dry stuffs like facts, theories, calculation, and experiments which require a lot of time to study and are not generally consider as fun. It is unavoidable that people would picture scientists as nerds with huge glasses who are socially awkward (in other words, not in their social group), talk funny (not behaving according to their social group), and just no fun (because science isn’t for them).

I will say now that while there are people like that doing science, that stereotype is just not true no matter what The Big Bang Theory makes you believe.

A scientist is just someone who absolutely geeks out about science so much that they want to spend their lives just geek out about it. If they don’t party as much, let’s just say that they have something more interesting to attend to.

And I think nerds in general are like that. There is just something they love so much they are okay spending time doing it than watching reality TV, or partying with so much people they don’t even know, or keeping up with the Kardashians, or whatever people who think they are not nerds or geeks do. It is called prioritizing and not necessary anti-social behaviour. Although, if they start to not make sense when they talk, you might want to make them sleep or watch international news for a while just to get their perspective straight.

I like Newt and Hermann in Pacific Rim because of their unhinged, unconcealed enthusiasm. They are both eccentric because they just don’t care what other people think about them personally. They are both extremely passionate about their work not because it might prevent world’s end but because they simply enjoy doing it. And only about their work would they care about criticism especially from each other. That is why they collide spectacularly on screen but at the same time they are destined to be best friends. Hermann is all hard math, simulations, fast talk, and cutting remarks. He likes things neat and safe and is a bit aloof like what people think stereotypical nerds are. Newt is all specimens, experiments, hand-on data, and witty comments. Newt can deal with risky and complicated stuffs like mind-melding with Kaiju’s brain and dealing with Hong Kong mafia. He is a hipster nerd, but he is still socially awkward at times because he tends to forget that his love, the Kaijus, that he couldn’t quite stop babbling about have killed people, lots of them.

Those would probably be just character’s quirk in other movies because, at the end of it, the action hero is the one who runs the show and nerds are generally in a supporting role away from limelight. But that is not exactly true in Pacific Rim. While Raleigh and Mako struggles to get their Jaeger going, Newt has been sent to secure more Kaiju brain for his experiment. That part of the movie turns into an arc of its own. Newt is tested all around. First, he is shaken by the mind-meld experiment that nearly kills him. Then, he is intimidated by the mafia, frightened into shock by an encounter with a Kaiju, frightened again by another short but terrifying encounter with another Kaiju, but Newt is relentless. He is terribly afraid, sure, but he is there for something, and he will get it no matter what.

His crazy dedication to his work earns him the respect and friendship from Hermann who, up to that point, never openly admit the sentiment. Together they manage to obtain necessary information for the mission and effectively help save the world without having to get on a Jaeger themselves. Oh, beautiful, nerdy friendship.

To me, they have stolen the show from Raleigh before Stacker and Mako steal it again in the later part which is sort of unfair to Raleigh since he is supposed to be the hero of the film. And Raleigh is a secret nerd, too. He basically drools over his Jeager inside and out and is totally a Mako fanboy (yes, the fans’ Raleigh the golden-retriever meme is 100% accurate where Mako is concerned). I find it pretty cool that del Toro creates a leading man who is super enthusiastic about the thing he does and not just consistently being cool for the girl he has his eyes on, but he falls flat in front of Newton’s much better story arc. There are times when I wonder why don’t they just make Newt the leading man when he is so obviously better written than Raleigh, funnier as a character, and his story arc much more inspiring, intense, and personal. Pacific Rim could have been about two nerdy scientists having to find a way to work together despite their differences and defeat the unbeatable, and I don’t think it is going to be too different from the Pacific Rim we’ve seen, just a bit more focused and a lot nerdier.

Considering that del Toro is pretty nerdy himself, I don’t think he would mind going in that direction so much.

But ultimately Pacific Rim is about giant robots, so the climax has to be about the pilots of the giant robots going on one last mission to defeat the Kaijuu for good. I think this is where the many vaguely connected pieces come together. The success of this mission is not solely because of Newt’s experiment, or Hermann’s calculations, or the Jaegers’ pilots awesome fighting skills, or Raleigh and Mako being great partners, it’s all of that put together. It is about coming together, respecting each other, doing their respective parts, and making something spectacular happen. I think that is the beauty of this movie. I don’t think we have seen an emphasize on collaboration quite enough on screen, and I am going to blame it mostly on the format. Movies have very limited time, three hours the longest, so only one story can ever be effectively told. Pacific Rim with its amazing vision and complex storyline could have done so much better using another format that allows us to explore, expand, and connect to those pieces. It can be a franchise that rivals other sci-fi franchises if someone gives it a try.

Now to the last big question, did del Toro do justice to the Kaiju movies of old? Well, classic Kaijus are allegories for something that is too big for human, an impending doom that is too much for any single one of us to counter alone. The original Godzilla (not the American one) is the metaphor for nuclear power, mostly for its misuse after the Second World War, but Godzilla is not the villain. On occasions, Godzilla has fought alongside human in order to protect Earth from doom-bearing space Kaijus. The stories in Kaiju movies are about fighting that impending doom by working together with our fellow human and sometimes with something that we are afraid of. I think Pacific Rim has the spirit of collaboration in it, so I’ll have to say that del Toro did fine with this movie. I may not like the execution and I won’t label it as a good movie, but I love its heart. I have no reservation in revisiting this universe again if a sequel happens.

And better yet, make the next one about the nerds.

  1. Wasn’t perfect, but a good blockbuster that was at least fun and entertaining to watch. Nice review.

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