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Monday, July 22, 2013

The Visual Intelligence of Pacific Rim

I want to talk about Pacific Rim, and why it is not, as I've seen a frustrating number of commentators claim, a "dumb" movie, or a movie that "knows that it's dumb," or anything like that, but first I want to talk about my girlfriend, and you're going to let me because you've already clicked through and given me the pageview, so you may as well stick around. Besides, I think it will help provide a reference point for some of the ideas I'm talking about.


Let's talk about my girlfriend.

My girlfriend Sara (who has given me the okay to talk about her case, in the name of supporting this movie that she's fallen head over heels in love with) has a learning disability. I'm honestly not sure what the clinical name for it is (if it has one), but one of the things she has trouble with is processing language on a non-literal level. In other words, metaphors, figures of speech, and some humor that depends on incongruities, sort of doesn't interface quite right with her brain.

However, there's no "metaphor" sector of the brain. There's nothing that interprets figurative information across media. There's brainmatter that deals with language... and brainmatter that deals with visuals.

So, while my girlfriend struggles with linguistic metaphor, she takes to visual metaphor like a fish takes to water. I have to admit, sometimes she gets comics or movies, for example, in ways that I don't, despite my training in media. She can look at a weird background motif in a Manga panel and immediately list off for me its significance, or pick out recurring color schemes used to signify something about a particular character, or decipher wordless sequences that I find confusing or disorienting and (embarrassingly) explain them back to me like it's no big thing and I'm kinda silly for not getting it.

This is obviously fascinating to me as a student of media and how it interfaces with the human mind. We have very different ways of reacting to media, sometimes, because I tend to struggle when it comes to remembering faces, whereas she struggles with following complex, fast-paced dialogue (or, to put it another way, I excel at analyzing spoken/written language and she excels at analyzing visual language). To some extent, then, it's tempting to look at this as a cool quirk and study it in the abstract as two equally viable ways of exploring media.

However, we do not exist within a culture that views the two ways of analyzing things as equal, and that's why I'm writing this article.

See, critical theory, from what I've observed, is highly linguistic in focus and scope. In fact, even casual critics on Tumblr tend to fall into a linguistic mode of criticism when discussing movies--they talk, in short, about the dialogue of a film or show primarily, and talk actions and plot secondarily. This is encouraged by an education system that has students read the plays of Shakespeare and Ibsen and Miller and so on, with the movie version as the reward once they're done reading. We consistently devalue the depth of visual communication in our culture--I mean, this isn't anything revolutionary to say, it's just the big dumb elephant in the room of media studies, that we have an overwhelmingly visual society that has no clue how to read images.

When confronted with a text that primarily relies on images, therefore, our response is to write that text off as dumb or lacking depth, because we're interpreting the text on a linguistic level rather than on the level that it's working. I mean, for goodness sake, look at the kind of language I'm using to describe this phenomenon! "Text." "Write off." Our mode of criticism, a century old, is wedded to the idea of communication through the typed or spoken word.

That's where Pacific Rim comes in. It's very easy, if you are confronting the movie with a linguistic bias, to see the film as "dumb," or, maybe even worse, a movie that's good because it "knows it's dumb" and doesn't aspire to be more. And yes, the dialogue isn't brilliant. Granted! You can totally watch the film and say "There's not a lot going on here as far as witty reparte is concerned, and the plot is pretty simple, so on that level, it's kind of a simplistic movie." You can take that away with you after watching Pacific Rim.

But that's not what my girlfriend took away from it.

She took away this:

"I thought it was really cool how Mako dyed her hair to match her jacket that she wore in the flashback scene. It was like she was still thinking about that day and carrying it with her."

I'm paraphrasing, of course, but that was one of the first things she said to me when the credits were rolling and we were freaking out together over how cool the movie was. She followed that up by talking about how expressive and cool the Kaidanovskys--the pilots of Cherno Alpha--were. These are, remember, two characters with effectively zero dialogue, beyond a few shouted commands during their fight scene, and yet they stood out dramatically within her mind as well rounded characters. And the conversation pretty much proceeded like that--sometimes with me echoing her thoughts, but often with her picking out details that I had missed completely.

She was responding to the film as a visual learner. She was reacting not as a traditionally trained--and traditionally, we might say, constrained--theorist, but as someone that interprets media according to images, body language, design symbolism, and color cues.

She was doing it right.

The rest of us are doing it wrong.

Pacific Rim is not a dumb movie at all. It is a visually intelligent movie.

Let's talk about some specific elements of the film, though, and why they operate quite differently when you view them as primarily things to be, you know, viewed.

Mako Mori is Not A Shallow, Timid, or Weak Character

One of the arguments I've seen repeatedly from multiple feminist critics can be summed up thus:

Mako Mori is not a strong, well developed female character, because she only has a few lines.

In a way, I feel the whole basic problem with our current discourse can be boiled down to just that one phrase. The character's relative depth is entirely contingent on how many lines of dialogue she gets. That, right there, is the devaluation of nonverbal, visual communication in favor of a... well, I'm not even sure what to call this. It's certainly no critical method that I've ever seen. Counting the number of lines a character gets is... well, kind of a bizarre standard, because it utterly divorces the actual content of those lines from their quantity.

The thing about Mako Mori, though, is that while her lines may be few, they pack a punch. In fact, they have strength in part due to how quiet she typically is--when she does speak, she is direct and forceful, and you know she's not speaking trivially.

But that's not exactly what I'm here to talk about. I want to talk about the visual cues surrounding this character. Mako's character development is actually almost entirely visual in nature--no one talks through her memories or explains her motivations aloud. What's more, her personality and character arc is defined strongly by color symbolism. So, while she doesn't have a huge number of lines, that doesn't make her shallow.

Let's talk about that color symbolism my girlfriend picked up on. Mako's colors in the film are blue and dark grey. The blue is, actually, the brightest spot of color that we see on her initially, and we are drawn to the blue highlight in her hair because it contrasts in saturation with the rest of her character design.

It's a small splash of blue, but look how bold it is. It screams "Pay Attention To Me."
Now, this is a good example of how a text trains or creates its ideal reader. The film is giving us a striking cue that both makes her highly identifiable as an individual, and sets us up to recall that cue later. It's telling us that we should be thinking about Mako's colors and her character design.

This pays off once we finally see into her memories and recognize that the blue which in later life occupies her hair is the blue of the coat she wore on the day she was orphaned by Onibaba's attack on Tokyo. So, while this is never articulated, it is clear that she carries the memory of that day with her--deliberately, in fact, unless someone is actively dying her hair without her knowing, which seems improbable. This lends a certain air of truth to Stacker's claim that she is highly focused on vengeance.

Grey and blue.
One of the other interesting aspects of the flashback is the way Stacker Pentecost appears idealized. He ascends from Coyote Tango backlit, like some mythic hero or demigod. And this actually makes perfect sense when you recall that we are seeing the scene through child!Mako's eyes--Stacker is quite literally colored (colored a heroic gold) by her emotions on that day. This vision provides the context for all of her interactions with Stacker throughout the film, and, again, augments her brief speech to Raleigh about "respect." The moments where she opposes Stacker's judgment involve her standing up not only to the man who raised her, but to a man that she views as a larger than life idol.

And yet, she still is adamant in her desire to pilot, and is not shy or demur about demanding her chance to seek her revenge against the alien invaders. This is a woman who knows exactly what she wants, know exactly how to get it, and is willing even to butt heads with the person she loves more than anyone on Earth for that chance.


There's more to Mako than just this scene and its impact on the rest of the film, of course, but I think the flashback and its visual language serves to demonstrate two things: first, Mako is a complex, wholly admirable female protagonist that probably has more depth than the male protagonist (which actually isn't all that new--holla at my fellow Hermione and Eowyn fans), and second, the film is capable of saying complex things, but it says those things through visual symbolism. (CONSCIENCE EDIT: And just in case it's not clear, I don't want to sound like I'm bashing feminist criticism--I'm a feminist critic myself--I'm just suggesting that if we're evaluating female characters, number of lines in this context is kind of a myopic way of going about it. There are other feminist criticisms of the film--like the overall number of women in the ground crew, for example--that are totally on point, I think. I just think Mako isn't given nearly the credit she really deserves as a female protagonist.)

Oh, and while talking intention is always risky for a theorist (death of the author and all that) I think it's worth noting that reading the film this way does go along with del Toro's designs for the audience experience. Now, keep in mind that Sara picked out Mako's hair color and its symbolic significance on a first viewing, without assistance from any sort of word of god interpreting the film for her... and check out this quote from del Toro:

It’s impossible to condense because every single decision counts. And as I often say, I don’t do eye candy, I do eye protein because all of these design choices are telling the story.
I’ll give you one example. Mako is defined by the grey colour and the blue colour. As we go through the movie we find out that she’s defined by those colours because in her childhood we have a blue memory, a memory that’s all just in blue with splashes of red. I show her holding her heart, or a symbolic object that represents her heart. The memory has left a stain on her hair that is blue, and she’s carrying that memory with her. The introductory sequence of Mako is very significant.
Yeah. There it is, ladies and gentlemen, in black and white for all to see. Sara picked out the symbolism and together we sussed out its meaning without the aid of del Toro. This says to me that if you accept the film's language and read the film the way it quite openly prompts you to read it, you get results that are far more nuanced, valuable, and functional than if you read in opposition to the text. If you read with the film, you uncover the film's--and the character's--secrets.

Speaking of which:

The Kaidanovskys

Meet the Kaidanovskys:

Look at Sasha creepin' there oh my god
The Kaidanovskys are basically the best.

I already kind of loved them for the fact that they pilot Cherno Alpha, a Jaeger that literally has its head transposed with a god damn cooling tower. But they're actually pretty fabulous even beyond having the hottest ride of them all.

For one thing, there's the fact that Sasha Kaidanovsky is, you know, another female pilot, which is pretty notable and cool. What's more, she's the member of her team that is constantly shouting information and orders. She seems to take the dominant role as far as interacting with the outside world, analogous to the dominant roles Raleigh and Stacker take when they pilot (although it's worth noting the complexity of that dynamic in Pacific Rim--the pilots are two parts of a whole, after all). In a way, her relationship with her husband is the mirror of Raleigh's with Mako: she is the expressive, somewhat more dynamic figure to her far more restrained husband who, like Mako, is less vocal and has an air about him of the coiled spring--force held carefully in balance.

Again, my reaction here is kind of colored by my shared experience of the movie with Sara, who is a huge Cherno Alpha fangirl. (Sidenote: this is why I always try, if possible, to watch movies with someone else. A shared experience, I find, is so much more meaningful. I love theaters for this reason.) One of the things we both noticed while watching was the way the two characters are given depth and personality through their body language. Look at the above images: Sasha's movements are lithe and determined... and more than a little lusty. She loves her husband and is quite open about expressing it. A simple gesture meant to beckon him to the place she's found in the mess hall thus becomes a sultry gesture. This is pretty cool, actually, as an affirmation, once more, of a female character's desire.

What's more, she puts an arm around her man protectively, baring her teeth at Raleigh to warn him away! I love this so, so much, because this kind of attitude is sort of stereotypically masculine, but here we've got the lithe, sexy female positioning herself as the protector of the big burly man. It's a funny moment, but it's also cool, because it writes, if not a novel, then certainly a god damn short story about these two characters and their relationship and their love and their connection as pilots, all through the power of body language.

No, Sasha does not get any lines of consequence.

But when the Kaidanovsky's finally decide to get out of the way of the plasma canon that threatens to blow up half the shatterdome, she's the second to start moving along the catwalk, and her body language oozes derision for the bullshit she's being subjected to, like she's doing the plasma fist a fucking favor by not just staring it down until it breaks down and cries.

And when Leatherback crushes the cockpit of Cherno Alpha, it's her scream--a scream not of pain or fear but of hate, pure hate, and boundless fury--that we hear.

Sasha Kaidanovsky is a badass, and she doesn't need to speak for us to know it. Every movement she makes speaks volumes. The Kaidanovskys have a voice in this film. Their voices are their bodies, their movements their words, their gestures their punctuation. If Mako speaks through color--if she speaks through pigment like a painter--the Kaidanovsky's speak through the dance they do together, a beautiful, loving, protective, forceful dance that continues even to the moment of their deaths.

Optimism: A Parting Thought

There's more to say, but I'm realizing first that this article is reaching Kaijulike proportions already, and second that I really need to watch the film once more before digging into some of the ideas more easily. This is by no means a comprehensive catalog of the various visual language/metaphor components of Pacific Rim. It barely even scratches the surface, in fact. Like, we could talk about:

  • The way costuming is used to portray character
  • The fact that the Australians are the only pilots to mark their kills on their armor
  • The crazy closing sequence in the rift
  • The red shoe and the symbolism there
  • Moving beyond images, the fact that Mako's freakout in the first test run happened because she was forced to experience Raleigh's brother's death both from Raleigh's perspective and his own perspective and how she would have been fine if she wasn't hit by a double dose of Raleigh's bad memories
  • The images we see of Herman and Newt's memories when they drift together
And a whole lot of other stuff besides. Some of this stuff, it's worth noting, didn't come out of my own head--it's stuff I came across on Tumblr that people picked out, or, predictably, more stuff that Sara caught and I missed. There's this whole conversation going on right now, basically, about the visual language of the movie and how we can pull out the film's messages and the character arcs from sometimes very subtle cues or momentary flashes of information.


Think about that for a moment.

If this film really, truly was "dumb," or knew enough to just be dumb and not aspire to anything greater...

...Would that conversation really, earnestly be possible?


You could have a complex conversation, sure--fans do all the time. But that conversation would be built largely around the exercise of speculation and fanfiction/fan art production, not the exercise of interpretation and the evaluation of symbols within the text. It would not be the conversation we are having right now.

And really, that's what I want you to come away from this article understanding. We CAN and SHOULD delve into this work. We can do more than simply lazily write it off. For god's sake, isn't it obvious that a work that hints at character arcs is more intellectually engaging than one that spells those arcs out directly through dialogue? This film offers us an opportunity to engage a text that challenges us critically because it goes against our cultural and academic training. The proper response is to allow that text to change us, to recognize the challenge for what it is.

And really, if the film has taught us anything, this is a challenge we can overcome, in part by coming together as a community of viewers and thinkers and theorists and lovers of giant robots. There's an attitude present in a lot of "professional" reviews--usually not stated directly, but certainly present--that this sort of film, with its message of coming together as a whole planet to defeat a seemingly unstoppable opponent, and with its appeal to the flashy, the visually indulgent, and the almost aggressively upbeat, makes this film a lesser summer movie.




Look, I've not exactly been shy about my disaffection towards the modern grimdarkness of media. As a choice, though, I can at least understand and accept it. What bothers me more is the critical attitude that reads a film like Dark Knight Rises as nuanced or complex due to its moral ambiguity... rather than, you know, a film that contradicts itself on literally every conceivable thematic level, to the point where the film is a giant grimdark mess of growling and posturing, sound and fury saying nothing. The flip side of that, of course, is that a film like Pacific Rim is treated as somehow naive or insignificant because it dares, gasp!, to have not just a unified message, but a quite positive, affirmative message, spoken not in the language of Lifetime movies or this year's crop of Oscar-bait, but in the language of Metal, the language of force and bombast and people in giant fucking robots punching Godzilla in the face.

We have reached a point, and really let this one sink in because it gets more flooring the more you think about it, where it's more radical and unacceptable to say, "Humans can accomplish amazing things when we set aside our differences and disagreements and work together to make the world a better place," than to say something sour and bitter and cynical.

Cynicism used to be the radical thing. 

Now it's as mainstream as Greenday.

So, what I'm asking is that you give the film a second look, if you're not already one of us fanatics who loved it the first time through. Give it a chance to speak to you in its own language. Be the Raleigh in this situation--just as he surprised Mako by knowing and speaking Japanese to her, undermining her skepticism, enter a dialogue with the film that speaks in images. Open yourself to alternate ways of thinking and understanding.

There's a place by the fire here, and we've kept your second favorite chair warm for you.

Won't you join the conversation?

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