Cool Robots, Bad-Ass Monsters and Disappointment in ‘Pacific Rim’

Pacific Rim movie poster.


Written by Leigh Kolb

Spoilers ahead!

The theme at the core of Pacific Rim is that collaboration and trust lead to success. And while the sweeping visuals of human-team-led robots (Jeagers) fighting with ocean monster-aliens (Kaiju) left me surprisingly entertained and satisfied, the dialogue and plot relied heavily on tired tropes. 
Pacific Rim, directed and co-written by Guillermo del Toro, treads lightly around commentary on humans’ environmental abuse of Earth and allowing women in combat roles, but the bulk of the plot relies on trope after trope to support the larger-than-life action sequences between the Jaegers and Kaiju. 
Overall, the film works, and it continues to get great reviews; however, it could have worked so much better had the writers tried a little harder to stay away from clichés. 
The film takes place just a decade in the future, in a world that’s been rocked and partially destroyed by the Kaiju coming from the depths of the Pacific Ocean and attacking cities. The international government is halting the Jaeger program (which puts two pilots–who must share a “neural handshake” mind-meld–in the driver’s seat of an enormous robot), and the crew has one more opportunity to fight the Kaiju. Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) leads a crew that includes his hand-picked choice of Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) and, eventually, Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). 
Stacker Pentecost.
Each of these three characters has an emotional weight–Pentecost feels protective of and responsible for Mori (he rescued and adopted her when her family was killed by the Kaiju), Becket lost his brother to the Kaiju while the two were mentally connected and fighting as co-pilots in a Jaeger, and Mori lost her family to the Kaiju when she was a little girl and has spent her life studying and training to become a pilot–and she’s “one of our brightest,” Pentecost says.
In his leadership position, however, Pentecost is concerned that Mori’s vengeance and difficult memories will impede her abilities to be a pilot, so he limits her career. Becket–who was literally in his brother’s mind when his brother was ripped from their Jaeger and brutally killed–and his memories are of no real concern to Pentecost. 
Mako Mori.
While Pentecost’s fatherly feelings of protection and concern are justifiable, Becket is forceful in his desire to have Mori as a co-pilot. Her test numbers are strong and she fights him as an equal, which none of the male candidates could. With trepidation, Pentecost allows Mori to be Becket’s co-pilot.
The larger idea that women are “too emotional” for combat positions has been pervasive throughout the debate of women serving in combat positions (which the American military officially accepted in January 2013). Mori does get caught in her memories in her first major flight simulation with Becket; however, if she’s had hands all around her wringing about that possibility, certainly her anxiety over it would have helped push her over the edge. When anyone is told, over and over again, that she is fragile and emotional–chances are, some of that will be internalized. 
Pentecost angrily dismisses her after her memory drift almost causes mass destruction (in fact, she asks to be dismissed, as she “respects” Pentecost, which she tells Becket is different than being “obedient”). Becket–after seeing her memories–tells Pentecost, “You rescued her, you raised her… now you’re holding her back.”
Mori is an equal to Becket.
Mori’s respect/obedience is troubling at times, but overall she is a strong female character. She’s excellent at what she does, and she is persistent at succeeding and meeting her goals. In fact, when Becket gets in a fight when another pilot is disrespectful to Mori, it feels odd and out of place–“nonsensical” and “unnecessary,” as Zoe Chevat says at The Mary Sue. Otherwise, Becket is her greatest champion and leads with experience without being condescending. 
And while the plot ebbs and flows in regard to its depiction of women (and I use that term broadly–Mori is really the only female character with lines), the film comes close to satisfying my desire for diversity and empowered female roles, but then it quickly regresses into tired tropes.
Becket is happy to see Mori is his co-pilot.
Becket seems to be the protagonist (and I almost thought at the beginning that there would be some interesting commentary on masculinity and military culture–from the monstrous masculine robots to the fact that Becket has to work in a dangerous menial construction job before being reassigned), but Mori is more fully developed, in terms of her memories and motivations. The two share a clear bond, and whether or not it’s a romantic one depends on the viewer (del Toro wasn’t totally sure, either). 
At the end (after Pentecost has figured out that they need Mori and he asks her to “protect him”), Becket and Mori travel into the depths of the Pacific to Save Humanity. Once they get there to drop the bomb, their oxygen levels plummet and Becket tells Mori to retreat into a protective pod so he can drop the bomb. “I can finish this alone,” he says, giving her his oxygen. 
So he does. His motivations are pure, but it still seems like a letdown to the viewer after all that Mori has accomplished. The final blow that does, indeed, Save Humanity, is dropped by our white male protagonist (the black man has sacrificed himself, and the Asian woman is protected in a little bubble). 

I would have loved to at least see Mori giving Becket CPR to save him in the aftermath (instead of him just waking up), or something to level the heroism. Her role feels diminished at the end.
Becket and Mori are both heroes, but Becket is the default protagonist.
I don’t need a female protagonist in every film. However, when a film like this focuses on and develops the female lead without giving her the satisfaction of being a clear hero, something feels off. Either more needed to be done with Becket’s emotional baggage, or less with Mori’s. As it stands, the film perpetuated the notion that women’s emotions could be a hindrance in combat, and men’s emotions translate to strength in battle. Stuffing Mori into a pod at the climax of the film is symbolic of trying to shoo women back into their protected spaces so they don’t fly too close to the sun. I don’t think Becket as a character would have approved of that idea, nor would del Toro, probably. But that scene certainly left that taste in the viewer’s mouth–let the white guy finish the job!

I can’t stress enough how entertaining and well-done the visuals of this film are–and again, that’s coming from someone who did not expect to feel exhilarated while watching monsters fight robots. The lightly developed characters and don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it female empowerment, however, left much to be desired. And while the optimistic ending and refreshing lack of American exceptionalism reinforce the idea that everyone–different ethnicities, genders, and races–needs to work together to succeed, the lackluster writing and reliance on tropes still sends the message that women’s emotions can be a hindrance and that they need to be protected.

Mori is instrumental in helping save the world–but she doesn’t get to set off the bomb. She’s not fully treated as a damsel in distress, but she comes too close for comfort. Maybe, just maybe, next time Becket can retreat to the pod while Mori fries the enemy.

In addition to having an almost-not-really female protagonist, Pacific Rim really only caters to the female gaze, in terms of mild sexual objectification. I guess I am simply perpetuating this.


Leigh Kolb is a composition, literature and journalism instructor at a community college in rural Missouri.
  • I absolutely agree. I just saw this last night, and was often disappointed with the way Mori was handled. First we don’t even have a female character at all until about 20 or so minutes in. And then the whole memories overpowering Mori after she had been such a strong candidate, felt like it was proof that women are too emotional. Or Raleigh making the decision for her that she needs to leave in the escape pod at the end. And the only other woman character with any speaking lines (Kaidanovsky, who has maybe less than 5 lines), is fairly quickly dispatched.

  • I actually think Pacific Rim was pretty damn feminist for an action movie. After all, they’re ALL haunted by their pasts, including Raleigh. He leaves piloting and becomes a wall-builder. For her part, though, Mako is at least in her chosen field, where she continues to make a positive difference and is respected for her intelligence and later her physical abilities when she fights Raleigh. They all have emotional crosses to bear, and that’s what’s so great: both the men and the women are emotional AND strong in this film. Yes, her emotions are more of a focus, but there are still flashbacks for all of the main characters.

    In addition, I think it’s important to note that the film supports difference along gender and racial lines. Men and women are both emotional and physically strong, and race lines are never discussed. Difference just IS in this world, without comment.

    I happened to love the ending, especially because it lacked any eroticism. He saves her not b/c she’s a woman but b/c she’s his partner (“you fight for the guy standing next to you” is I think the line he uses earlier in the film). There’s no kiss so his affection for her isn’t sexual, it’s a real bond between fighters and friends. It’s a war bond.

    Ultimately, most contemporary films could be MORE feminist (and yes, that’d be great), but I see more positives than negatives here. I thought Mori kicked ass, that was enough for me.

  • I definitely agree that in terms of a sliding scale of feminism, this film was much more feminist than most.

    I think what’s dangerous in focusing on Mako’s emotions (and showing that her emotions came close to obliterating their entire base) is that people make those arguments about women in combat pretty frequently. Raleigh can fairly easily escape the drift. Stacker says at the end, “I carry nothing into the drift.” We are supposed to be nervous at the end, not only because of the monsters, but also because of Mako’s emotional capabilities in the field, which hadn’t really been proven.

    I also think the ending was heartwarming in terms of their partnership–and like I mentioned in the review, I don’t think Raleigh was being sexist in the least–it just felt a little too close for comfort, in terms of how it could be read by audiences.

    In essence, I see much of what you saw in the film (I love your review: http://reelfeminist.wordpress.com/2013/07/13/a-thank-you-letter-to-guillermo-del-toro-for-pacific-rim/#comments), there were simply some moments that didn’t feel as good as they could have been.

  • I see your point, that by focusing on her emotions the narrative does become part of a negative stereotype that filters into the real world. My analysis is, I can see, more rooted in the film’s world as a divorced entity from contemporary real life experience. Thanks for the discourse!

  • I think what added to my annoyance about Mori getting lost in her
    emotions/unable to handle it, is that the whole reason Pentecost holds
    her back is because he thinks she’s too emotional about what happened to
    her family; so it just seems to prove him right. And never mind the
    fact that the kaiju also killed Raleigh’s brother when they were
    mind-melded and he has his own major trauma and anger issues with that
    to deal with. Somehow the thought of keeping Raleigh out of commission
    because of what happened to him never enters Pentecost’s mind. It also
    doesn’t really make sense to keep Mori out solely because of that reason
    because presumably every pilot, along with every single person on the
    Pacific coast, at this point in the story’s timeline, has had family or
    friends killed by the kaiju. Why is Mori so much more emotionally
    vulnerable than the other pilots or recruits?

  • I can see how the focus on Mako’s emotions being the thing that holds her back as troubling. I interpreted her inability to reign in her emotions as a rookie mistake, the reason Raleigh was likely to recover as quickly as he did was because he is an experienced Jaeger pilot. I felt most of her mistakes or flaws came more so out of inexperience, then OH! it’s a female thing. It is complicated though, ’cause it’s a larger societal issue and it makes it hard to judge it as an individual film. As for Idris Elba’s character concern over her, it makes sense that he would be more protective of Mako and hesitant about her going into a jaegar, since he’s seen so many pilots die. It might be more then him thinking her emotionally incapable. While it wasn’t perfect, I feel for the most part Mako wasn’t incapable of handling her emotions, she did pretty well after the drift. Again, I think it was due to her lack of experience and her father figure trying to protect her. But, I don’t disagree that it follows a lot of tropes about women in the military. Which is why this is even more frustrating, because if it wasn’t for the fact that women are often times depicted as too emotional, I feel Mako’s story was fine. And i’ll say it again, I think it came out of inexperience. Because they all have heavy emotional baggae, the difference. Everyone else has piloted a jaegar before.

  • Raleigh can more easily escape the drift because he’s drifted before. On the other hand, the calibration of Gipsy Danger was Mako’s first drift ever (and as Raleigh says later, the first one is always rough). I think the concern for Mako is supposed to be because she’s a rookie with baggage, less than because she’s a woman with baggage.

  • The reason she has no experience, though, is because Stacker hasn’t let her. I agree with you, that the concern is supposed to be because she’s a rookie, but the reason she’s a rookie could be tied to the fact that she’s being protected/feared as a woman with baggage.

  • Mako is only 22 at the time of the film. We’re not told how long the training program is for pilots, nor the age
    at which the Jaeger pilots are accepted to the academy for training. If we assume that academy accepts students/pilots at age 18 and the training program is 2-4 years long, it’s not implausible that she has only completed training in the last 0-2 years. In addition, at that point it seems the Jaeger program has been in decline for some time and most of the Jaegers have been destroyed. So, it’s not like many of the recruits have ever seen the inside of a Jaeger at all.

  • My assumption was that she had been training and studying the Jaeger program since she was a child, basically. Stacker made it very clear that he did not want her piloting, ever–not because of her age, but because of her emotions and his feelings of protection over her. Did you get the sense that Stacker was ever going to let her pilot (until Raleigh convinced him to)?

  • She’s wanted to pilot a Jaeger since she was a child, that doesn’t mean she was in the program since she was a child. Military enlistment doesn’t work like that. Mako is a military brat-meaning she grew up on shatterdomes, and may have had access to additional training ie martial arts, but wouldn’t be able to formally enlist until 17 or 18.

    As for Stacker, it’s not unusual for parents to want to keep their children safe. Or to not want to let them grow up. Parental fears are not equivalent to sexism.

    Also regarding Mako’s ’emotions’ being a problem: essentially, she has PTSD, which is different from being ’emotional’. Part of piloting a Jaeger (drift) is being able to not fixate on a particular memory. This is extremely difficult to do during a flashback, hence the concern about her piloting.

  • Stacker doesn’t seem incredibly concerned about Raleigh’s abilities to not be affected by PTSD (and he was literally in his brother’s mind). I know he’s not a parent, but there is still a double standard there.
    I would also argue on a larger scale that parental fears *are* typically aligned with sexism in our culture. Girls are usually parented much differently than boys–more sheltered, more “protected,” and expected to be emotional first and rational second.

  • I’ve seen plenty of parents who don’t want their children (usually sons) joining the military or the police or becoming firefighters, which is probably the most relevant comparison here.

    Also, when Stacker recruits Raleigh, it’s stated that he’s the only person left with experience piloting Mark-3 Jaeger. There is literally no one else alive that has previously piloted a Jaeger. And the situation at that point is pretty damned desperate, so Stacker NEEDS that experience.

  • Not my writing, but I ran into this browsing about the internet and it states pretty well why I disagree with your assessments of Mako: http://roboluvsunicorn.tumblr.com/post/55728078544/was-going-to-do-a-lengthy-write-up-about-pacific

  • That’s a good analysis–but my assessment of Mako is not that she is meek and shy. My focus was/is on audience perception and what some of the plot points could reinforce, in regard to beliefs about women in combat.

  • On “Or Raleigh making the decision for her that she needs to leave in the escape pod at the end,” one could argue that that assessment is being made out of context. At that point, Mako has single-handedly piloted Gipsy Danger to the portal. I say single-handedly, because Gipsy was missing both a right arm AND a right leg. And who was piloting on the right side? Not Mako, but Becket. In other words, Mako pulled the majority of the weight (literally, as well as figuratively) and used her side to propel Gipsy to the Breach. Now, at that point, only two people had previously done something similar: Becket in the beginning, and Pentecost in the flashback. For her to bear the load by herselfmust have been extremely physically taxing if Becket’s example in the beginning was any indication, and the same could be expected from Mori at the end (with depleting oxygen and apocalypse-level stress, no less).

    Granted, I’m probably thinking too deeply into this, but that was actually what ran through my head when I saw the scene; “Oh sh*t, if the right arm and leg are destroyed, it’s Mako doing the real work!” I could be completely wrong, but, then again, all of our comments (the blog post, too) are merely interpretations.

    As for Becket being the lone ranger detonating the Jaeger, I took that simply as narrative bookending. By that, I mean it completed parallel structuring: Becket started the apocalypse (and movie) on his own and now ends it alone as well. Again, this is just another opinionated interpretation.

    In regards to Kaidanovsky only having five lines and being quickly dispatched, I think that’s more of a function of the movie’s treatment of nationality/race/etc. than gender. I say that because it would be generous to say that the Chinese Wei Tang triplets got as many words. Of course, Mrs. Kaidanovsky was probably the victim of a double whammy of race/nationality writing.

  • I feel like you’re ignoring the racial aspect. Asian women tend to be portrayed as quiet nerd if American, sex object when foreign, and cold harpy for both. Mako gets to be human and that’s a rare thing to see. Also, you seem to be advocating that Mako should follow the example of Raleigh, a white guy who doesn’t know as much about her vs. Pentecost, her father figure who is a black man. As a black woman, it’s refreshing to see people respect black people in authority positions in popular media. Ignoring those racial aspects keeps your analysis from not quite reaching there.

  • I think you aren’t taking into account how respect and being meek is seen in the US and how it is seen in Japan. The way you analyze Mako is very western and doesn’t consider her culture being different and still valid.

  • Older post, I know but there’s a lot of focus on Mako`s passiveness and on her loss of control.
    But she is not passive. She is focused, she is controlled, she is mature. She argues with Pentecost but when it’s clear that she can’t change his mind she respects his judgement and authority (remember, he is in command). What would the options be? Yell louder? Steal a jaeger to prove herself? Would a disciplined and mature woman really do those things? Beckett makes the mistake of confusing her compliance with simple obedience and she makes it very clear to him and the audience that that is not the case.
    One thing that was missed about her episode in the drift is that the emotional break that led to her trouble was Beckett`s. He told Pentecost this which pretty clearly, to my mind, painted Pentecost`s decision as unfair. And sure enough, when Mako gets the chance she proves him wrong.
    But why risk the audience`s misperception? Why risk that they’ll just see a meek, emotional Asian girl? Because women are complicated and we should be able to be quiet and respectful of proper authority or have our emotional moments without being labeled passive or emotionally unstable. Del Toro isn’t perpetuating those stereotypes, he’s challenging them. He`s giving people another way to view “stereotypical” traits and so expanding the idea of what a female hero can be.
    He also did this with Beckett. Beckett isn’t the angsty, cocky rebel so typical of action movies. He’s a nice and mature man who deals with his emotional baggage and looks out for his partner. People keep calling him a bit boring but I almost think the way he dealt with his trauma like a grown-up and eagerly shared the limelight with Mako was pretty darn impressive as well.