A Close Reading of Pentecost’s Speech

Time to do something different. In literary criticism a close reading is, according to wikipedia “the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text.”[1] Usually this is reserved for works of literary consequence (think The Odyssey or Heart of Darkness). But because this is Essays, Not Rants! and I can do whatever the heck what I want so I’m doing a close reading of Marshall Stacker Pentecost’s speech in Pacific Rim.

Let’s do this.

Backstory, in case you don’t know which speech I’m talking about. Stacker Pentecost is the leader of the Pan Pacific Defense Corps and the fight against the Kaiju. As the film draws to the climax it’s time for their final stand. In classic movie fashion, Pentecost takes this moment to address the Jaeger crews and everyone else, to give that Final Speech.

Today, at the edge of our hope, at the end of our time…”

We’re not quite in the meat of the speech yet, this is just to set up the gravitas of it. Pentecost (and by virtue Travis Beacham, the writer) are reminding us that this is it. If this doesn’t work, nothing will. We’re at the edge. Game over, guys, game over.

“…we have chosen not only to believe in ourselves but in each other!”

There’s a choice to be made, the characters could have chosen to run for cover or to stick it out and fight. They chose this fight. But not only that, but they chose each other. One thing that Pacific Rim emphasizes is that we’re in this together. America’s not saving the day, it’s multinational effort built on trust. It could be argued that this is reflective of the growing global identity younger people have fostered by the internet, but I digress (though that is a cool idea).

Today there’s not a man or woman in here who shall stand alone!”

Something quick to point out is how Pentecost/Beacham doesn’t just say “there’s no one” but rather “not a man or woman”. It serves to emphasize that it’s not just the men leading the way, but the women too. Mako Mori, one of Gipsy Danger’s pilots, is exemplary of this and the speech does not forget her. Moving on, we’re again reminded of the bond between everyone involved. No one’s alone in this, no country or person is alone in the fight. Again, it’s reflective of a global united identity.

Today we will face the monsters that are at our door and bring the fight to them!”

Again we see the word ‘today’. The speech’s a call to action, no one’s sitting around. It’s like Aragorn’s speech in Return of the King or the St. Crispin’s Day Speech in Henry V, it’s about today. It’s about doing it now. Moving on we see a declaration that we aren’t going to run or wait for them to come at us. We’re going after them, we’re facing these monsters. Argue that the Kaiju are the embodiment of problems thrown at a younger generation or just beings of hopelessness, this speech says that we will face them and fight them head on. There’s this hope in the speech.

Today we are canceling the apocalypse!”

This might be my favorite line in the movie. It embodies the tone and feel of the movie. The end of the world hasn’t happened yet, it can be stopped. It can be canceled. It’s oddly optimistic in a movie about giant monsters destroying the world. More than that, it’s defiant. It can be read as reflecting the desire of people to see change in the world, for the seeming inevitable downward spiral to be righted. It can also be seen as a declaration that the world’s not gone yet, that we can cancel this apocalypse.

It’s easy to write off an epic speech like this as just pontificating for the sake of it, but I think that Travis Beacham and Guilermo del Toro had a bigger point to say in this speech. It’s hope in the face of tragedy, it’s defiance. Sure, it’s literally about Kaiju, but when you really take it apart it, like the movie, is so much more.

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Humanity, Hubris, and Canceling The Apocalypse

Did you ever read The Day of the Triffids? It’s by John Wyndam and was probably the first piece of proper post-apocalyptic fiction I read ten years ago. It’s typical of the genre. We’ve got the world impairing event, the monsters that begin wiping out humanity, and of course the few survivors who band together to try and find a way to continue civilization. It’s a classic.

Now, like I’ve said before, science fiction provides a great way to examine reality and the issues therein. As such, it’ll heavily reflect the world in which it was written. So let’s see what The Day of the Triffids says about culture then. It was written in 1951, six years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Post-apocalyptic fiction began to flourish then, reflecting the horrific visions of what humanity could do and how we kept looking for more ways to destroy the world. This is what happens in Triffids; nukes in space blind most of the population and genetically engineered killer plants set about, well, killing people. Humanity brought this on themselves, their hubris caused the apocalypse.

We see this in more recent (post)-apocalyptic fiction too. In The Terminator we created Skynet with our computers; in The Matrix our drive to technology created The Machines and enslaved us. Within this and, yes, Day of the Triffids and countless zombie movies too, lies the implicit fear that as society delves into technology we’ll destroy ourselves. The solutions vary. InThe Terminator our heroes destroy the evil technology. The heroes of The Matrix and The Day of the Triffids find a way to overcome their creations to create a new civilization. It could be argued that it reflects some of the sentiment we find today; the world’s so screwed up the only solution is to start over.

Yet the trend in recent fiction has been to focus less on the how of the apocalypse and more on the what now. We never find out what caused the fungal outbreak in The Last of Us, but we do see Joel and Ellie develop twenty years later. In Zombieland, Columbus mentions that no one knows where the zombies come from. No longer are we watching us destroy ourselves, now we’re figuring out what we’re doing in the aftermath. We see the relationships form, we see the recreation of a family. Fiction like The Last of Us and Zombieland presents a world where the protagonists are handed a lousy hand and make the most of it. Starting over may be rough, but there remains that glimmer of hope.

If anything, Pacific Rim takes that conceit and fires it at other apocalyptic fiction. Suddenly, the technology classically feared is not the root of our problems but instead a savior. As protagonist Raleigh puts it early on: “You see a hurricane coming, you get out of the way. But when you’re in a Jaeger, you can finally fight the hurricane. You can win.” Today’s culture is reflected in Pacific Rim in that technology isn’t something to be feared, but something to be used. How? To fight back against what we cannot control and to become closer to one another.

Pacific Rim introduces drifting, two people sharing a mind to control a Jaeger. The closer the pilots’ bond, the better they’ll fight. We love to deride the Internet and all as the death of true relationships, but Pacific Rim accepts this sort of digital connection and physicalizes it. With that, the film acknowledges the growing global identity facilitated by these connections. The heroes in Pacific Rim aren’t just all-Americans; we have an international coalition of Americans, Japanese, Australians, Russians, British, Chinese, and Idris Elba saving the world together.

It all culminates with where Pacific Rim goes with its story. It doesn’t matter who you are; if you’re a self-perceived failure, an egotistical jerk with daddy issues, a haunter young woman, or a research scientist you can hardly walk properly: you can save the world, you can be a rockstar. It is paramount that Pacific Rim takes place before the world ends: the protagonists refuse to accept it. When the authorities opt to cancel the resistance and to hide behind a wall instead, the heroes choose to fight on. In the traditional pre-final mission heroic speech, Stacker Pentecost declares that they will “face the monsters that are at our door and take the fight to them!”, they will stand up the end of the world because they refuse to accept that the world they’re given. We don’t need to start over from scratch, we can make a better world with what we have. Or as he says a moment later: “Today we are canceling the apocalypse!” It’s no longer important who caused the end of the world: we’re stopping it.

Jon Foreman wrote a piece for the HuffingtonPost a few years ago reflecting this dream of a better world. As he says: “Against all odds, against all that we know about this world, we could choose to hope for a better one — to hope for love, for peace, for a form of contentment and solace that we have never fully realized.” Pacific Rim is saying the same thing: no matter how bleak the world may seem, we can hope to save it, to fix it. It isn’t so much that we’re no longer blaming ourselves for the world gone wrong; it’s that we know we can make it better, with or without giant robots.

Though giant robots would be nice.

Credit where credit is due: This sort of ‘close reading’ of Pacific Rim grew out of this Tumblr post. Jon Foreman’s column can be found here.

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In Defense of Giant Robots

I grew up on Power Rangers, giant mecha anime, and Transformers. I built giant robots with my LEGO’s (and spaceships, natch). Of course, all this was just cartoons and imagination for the most part.

And now we have Pacific Rim.

It’s easy, heck, it’s natural to brush aside the movie as being simple childish nonsense. After all, giant robots are the stuff of anime and Power Rangers. The stuff you enjoyed as a kid. You’re an adult now. You have grown up tastes now. Like The Great Gatsby. You like movies that are ‘mature’ and ‘grounded’. Like how dismantling MI6 is so much better than a giant space laser or how Wayne Enterprises’ Applied Science division doesn’t give their suits of armor nipples. Giant robots are impractical, the physics doesn’t add up, and how the crap would you power something that enormous? Come back when it actually makes sense.

This movie takes all of that and merrily laughs at it. Pacific Rim is unashamedly a movie about giant robots beating the crap out of giant monsters. Like any good story, there are shades of deeper themes and ideas throughout, but its focus is purely on the childlike glee that comes from watching 300 foot tall robots doing battle with similarly sized monsters. If you’re me, it means you get to watch your childhood fantasies in a cinema.

There’s no attempt to firmly ground the story in reality like some movies do. They don’t discover some new element or power source to make the giant robots work. Creating them is summed up in the prologue as being the logical thing to do. Because of course. The monsters are referred to as Kaiju, harking back to old Japanese monster movies. The giant robots are called Jaegers and given appropriately awesome names like Striker Eureka or Cherno Alpha. The Jaeger Gipsy Danger has an elbow rocket. It’s made very clear that Pacific Rim knows exactly what sort of movie it is and it embraces it wholeheartedly.

It’s terribly easy to do this wrong. The first GI Joe movie, Rise of the Cobra, tried to serious-ify the lore. What we wound up with was a movie that was laughable in its attempts to be dark. It just didn’t work. Conversely, we have Batman and Robin, a movie that made Batman something of a punchline. Unlike Batman: The Animated Series which aired only a couple years prior, Batman and Robin decided that sense and logic could be left at the door. Both movies were trying to be something they weren’t. Batman can be funny, but a Batcard is a mockery; GI Joe is meant to be fun, not a dark thriller-esque film.

Pacific Rim does it right. From start to finish the movie runs on sheer fun. The protagonists face no crisis of faith regarding their roles and there’s no humanization of the Kaiju. All that’s not the point of the story; it’s an earnest story about good guys fighting bad guys, Jaegers hunting Kaiju, and giant robots beating the crap out of giant monsters. It’s simple, but it’s not stupid.

Despite what Revenge of The Fallen might have made you think, giant robots aren’t drivel. Pacific Rim never feels childish. Guillermo del Toro and team give the movie its due; the plot may be thin but it’s cohesive, the Kaiju do have a goal, characters have motivations. As del Toro himself said, “It has the craft of a 48-year-old and the heart of a 12-year-old.” Yes, giant robots are freaking awesome and that’d be all there was to it, except that this movie does it so well. Described as a love letter to mecha and Kaiju stories, Pacific Rim is all the defense the idea of giant robots needs.

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