Warning: Spoilers are like bombs. Once exploded, they can’t be undone.
When I was in fifth grade my class took a field trip, as all students in Hawaii must, to Pearl Harbor. I still remember staring at the list of 1,100 men killed on that ship and thinking that it was more than my entire family, class, grade, more than my entire school, combined. That more people died in the same place on the same day than I had met my entire life.
Twenty-two years later, while visiting the Peace Museum and Park in Hiroshima, Japan, that feeling returned, accentuated by the knowledge that this time my home was not the victim of the attack but the perpetrator of it, and that while I’ve likely by now met more than the 1,100 of the USS Arizona, I’ll never equal the 70,000 killed in one blast at Hiroshima.
These experiences are bookends of each other. And between them is an impact that may be hidden with time but will always remain.
In Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim humans attempt to combat the emergence of giant inter-dimensional monsters with the unconventional (well, unconventional in the real world sense but quite conventional for a movie) method of building gigantic robots to fight them. It’s mentioned in passing that nuclear weapons were used to bring down the first Kaiju – as the monsters are called, in reference to the genre of Japanese monster movies Pacific Rim is built upon – and to target the dimensional rift from which these monsters enter our world. However, the rift is not damaged by the weapons and one would imagine that launching multiple nukes on a regular basis wouldn’t be the preferred method of disposing of giant alien monsters, especially when there are epic battles to be had with equally giant robots armed with plasma cannons and chain swords. Movie logic aside, Pacific Rim establishes nuclear weapons as ineffective at stopping the monsters which come into our dimension, saving them instead as an ultimate option against those in their dimension. In this sense the film reflects humanity’s own careful and at times hypocritical balance with nuclear power.
The Argument Against Nuclear Power
The character of Mako Mori, other than filling the “girl” and “inevitable romantic interest of hero” boxes on Pacific Rim’s checklist of blockbuster requirements, provides a bridge into the real world reality of nuclear warfare, thus also checking off the requirement of “brilliant and skilled fighter with traumatic background that endangers her teammates and/or mission.” During one of the film’s most striking sequences a young Mori wanders through the remains of her home city, a light snow falling onto the ruined buildings and abandoned cars, carrying one red shoe in her hands. Until the Kaiju returns, she is the only living thing on screen. For anyone who has seen images of nuclear devastation, the parallel is unmistakable: total destruction, the snow of nuclear winter (although in cities it’s more likely to be soot and ash) and the child who miraculously survived stranded alone to pick up the pieces. The message of the scene is clear:
This is horrible.
This is heartbreaking.
This should never happen again.
Mori’s tale, and the lingering effect it has on her psyche, parallels those of real world survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In effect, she is forever stuck in that time, like a watch on the moment of impact. Even as she moves on with life, matures, develops passions and interests, at any second she could revert right back to that time and place, just as vivid as when she lived it. The main difference between her story and the tens of thousands of real world survivors is that she is immediately rescued and never has to deal with radiation poisoning from the attack. Both of these matters are left for Marshal Stacker Pentecost.
If Mori serves as a proxy for the 70,000 who died in the initial blast on Hiroshima, Pentecost is that for the additional 70,000 who died of cancer from the blast’s radiation. Pentecost, filling the “tough love father-figure,” “inspirational leader” and “character slowly dying and therefore a good sacrifice” roles, regularly downs pills to counteract nose bleeds, the lone visual clue of him succumbing to radiation poisoning. It’s later explained that in the rush to defend against Kaiju, the first generation of giant robots were thin on shielding from the reactors which powered them. Prolonged exposure resulted in Pentecost’s condition, much like C. Montgomery Burns’ “healthy glow,” only not funny. Here again, through Pentecost, Pacific Rim deals with the negative effect of not only nuclear weapons, but also of nuclear power itself.
The Argument in Favor of Nuclear Power
The flipside to Pacific Rim’s anti-nuclear points come in the form of the machines used to save humanity itself: the Jaegers. From the moment Raleigh Becket (“rule breaker/redemptive hero”) is re-introduced to his machine, Gipsy Danger, the audience is informed that Gipsy is now unique among Jaegers for its dual nuclear core (“foreshadowed back-up plan when initial one invariably fails”). Although Gipsy isn’t technically the lead machine it’s piloted by hero and love interest of hero so it becomes the focus of the film’s action and, as we in the audience know, the only thing that stands between humans and total annihilation. We can also tell this because it’s the most normal, i.e.: human looking, of the machines; notice how quickly the three-armed and bucket-headed “other” mechs are disposed of. Nonetheless, the symbolism is that all of human fate rests on this machine, and this machine runs on nuclear. (Pacific Rim’s relationship with “the other” is well discussed in Thomas Caldwell’s critique for Cinema Autopsy.)
Even before the initial plan which will invariably fail invariably fails, nuclear weapons are the centerpiece of salvation. It’s established that Chuck Hansen (“hotshot rival who eventually accepts hero”) will pilot his mech, Striker Eureka (“superior weapon that isn’t actually superior”), into the rift between dimensions and then detonate a warhead thus closing the connection. Although pointing out the danger of nuclear power on the individual population, Pacific Rim uses it as a solution for the entirety of humankind.
Ultimately, initial-plan-which-will-invariably-fail and backup-plan-when-initial-one-invariably-fails both result in huge nuclear blasts, one mostly destroying the targeted Kaiju, the other apparently destroying not only the rift between dimensions but all which has been built within and around that rift. Although both are opportunities for spectacular visual effects, and “cool explosions!” requirements, the inescapable message is that these weapons are capable of destroying worlds. Thus even while nuclear power may have saved the day, it could end all days.
What makes Pacific Rim’s use of nuclear energy interesting is not that it has a specific message on the subject, but that its straddled line is very real. Before the litany of sequels and spin-offs, the cult following and Americanization, the original Godzilla was a strong anti-nuclear film.
Godzilla, the earliest and most famous of giant movie Kaiju, is unleashed following a nuclear explosion, and the destruction in his wake mirrors that of war. Coming less than ten years after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts, the images of streets strewn with dead and refugees rushing from the destruction shocked audience into silence and even tears. Upon release, Godzilla was criticized for exploiting that destruction (a recent parallel would be the initial backlash against Paul Greengrass’s 2006 9/11 movie United 93, before people realized it’s an excellent, balanced thriller). Before Godzilla became a beloved, campy hero, he was a symbol for all the death and destruction wrought by nuclear weapons and war. He was every Grimm Fairy Tale’s witch in a green, rubber suit.
As those who remember the 2011 Japanese tsunami and nuclear fallout may know, one-third of all electrical power in Japan comes from nuclear energy. The irony is obvious: the same energy that destroyed the country is now used to make it function. Just as Godzilla goes from monster (Godzilla, 1954) to defender (Mothra vs. Godzilla, 1964), the fear is gone. That is, until that potential for disaster reappears, as it did at Fukushima Daiichi.
Beyond Japan, every other country in the world knows that nuclear power is enough to end a city and the two or three generations which may occupy it, yet so many seek it as a dependable source of power, both electrical and political.
Pacific Rim strikes a similar relationship of balance with nuclear weapons. It at once uses imagery which could be considered critical of their use and existence, even down to the level of destruction caused in its victory sequence, while citing them as the only viable solution to humanity’s problem. While the film is quite explicit in addressing environmental concerns, citing that the Kaiju waited for humanity to raise CO2 levels, its stance on nuclear power is considerably more nuanced. It is neither an argument for or against. Essentially Pacific Rim approaches nuclear as it does its own giant robots, it is capable of leveling an entire city but, in some cases, is the only option. In this sense, Pacific Rim provides a very subtle and strikingly accurate allegory of the on-going debate over the use of nuclear energy.
Or it just needed a convenient excuse to check off traumatized and slowly dying characters while having big-ass explosions.
Now that I’ve finally seen this movie, I think your analysis of the nuclear element is very spot on. Who knows to what extent the writer, Travis Beecham, and Del Toro intended it, but as I often say it doesn’t matter as much of art’s potential meanings come from the subconscious and with the viewer making his own connections. ‘Pac Rim’ is fun entertainment but it also definitely works as an allegory, and there’s definitely that ambiguity in that nuclear power serves as both a savior and a destroyer. Plus, I’d go further and argue that even though the Kaiju, in this movie, weren’t presented as monsters caused by nuclear radiation, historically and semantically giant monsters (and giant insects, etc.) have always symbolized the dangers of nuclear power so, by default, the Kaiju resonate that semantic connection. So here you have these semantic descendants of Godzilla (the original allegorical warning of nuclear devastation) destroying the world, and then the nuclear-powered Gypsy Danger saving the day (and even *then* there’s a price to pay). Excellent analysis.
That’s a really good point about the PacRim Kaiju being descendants of Godzilla and therefore possible inheritors of his legacy, as well as the note about the old technology vs. new. That does feel like a stand-by trope in many films. You know the newest technology is going to fail and the retro one will succeed. Another box checked off. I agree with the idea that potential meanings come from the audience’s interpretation more than the artist’s, at least unless it’s something that’s specifically meant to drive home a meaning, like a Michael Moore doc, in which case the audience receiving a different message than was sent would be the fault of the artist.
I also thought there was an interesting analog-vs.-digital sub-component in ‘PR’ in which when digital fails (the other, newer Jaegers) analog saves the day (Gypsey Danger). I appreciated this little bit because this very theme was one of the things that I enjoyed most about ‘Iron Man 3’ in which, as you know, I felt it was a major theme.