Pacific Rim is a live-action mecha film directed by Guillermo del Toro; its sequel, Pacific Rim Uprising came out recently. In this write-up, let’s take a look at the setting of the Pacific Rim franchise as a constructed world – rather than examine the story or characters, we’ll look at the setting as an exercise in understanding how it fares as a fictional reality in and of itself.
The Core Concept of Pacific Rim: Colossal aliens invade through a Breach in the Pacific Ocean, which can only be effectively fought with equally massive humanoid robots. These robots made by humanity are called jaegers, and the world is protected by the courageous battles fought by their partnered pilots, who protect the coastal cities of the Pacific.
The world is one directly shaped (usually through degradation) by the kaijus’ presence. Indirectly the blood-like remnants of the kaiju, dubbed Kaiju Blue, lingers as a toxic gunk polluting whatever landscape the kaiju was killed in. The carcasses of slain kaiju are of both intense scientific interest to the world’s militaries, as well as the subject of black market sales and the material from which the gritty cyber-punk Bone Slums are built.
The worlds of the Bone Slums, the Wall of Life, and the Shatter Dome are built by people in response to the kaiju and the jaegers. In this kind of internal world-building, it’s easy to see the natural responses that people have to the elements that have been thrown into this reality, and how the different castes of society (defense forces, governments, poor masses, blue-collar workers, and outcasts) try to manage their situation in this new context. Among humanity, even those hoping to live in the wealthy Safe Zones inland or behind the Wall of Life, there is a constant sense of the approaching end of the world. In the Shatterdome is the War Clock, reset every time a kaiju has been defeated to remind people of the amount of time since the last attack. That attacks have been coming more frequently is common knowledge, and the impending (and eventual) double and triple events (when two and then three rather than only one kaiju emerges) representing the last catastrophic threshold. Even in the sequel there is a sense that eventual kaiju attacks justifies a constant vigilance, even after 10 years of time.
Despite the grit, grimness, and giants, the world of Pacific Rim paints a picture of a cosmopolitan and unified world. The jaegers were built through joint international efforts: of many countries pooling their resources to cobble together improvised and then refined systems of defense against an international threat. The setting subscribes to the “all mankind brought together by a world-wide threat” philosophy (centered around manufacturing, no less), which can be seen in both the wide range of coastal cities affected by monsters launching attacks from the Pacific ocean, and by the international cast of characters that are pilots. Australia, Russia, China, Japan, and the United States get some of the heaviest representation, but the implication is that every nation or city that touches the Pacific Ocean is in the fight.
How they choose to fight, as with humanity itself, varies: outside jaeger pilots and their logistical and scientific support, there are those who want to keep the kaiju away from cities using a massive construction project, called the Wall of Life. In the fallout from increasingly more costly battles, it is shown that most nations have chosen to build a massive barrier instead of investing in giant steel combat machines piloted by cocky hotshots. While perhaps logical to some extent, the film justifies its mecha action by dashing the strategy very quickly: early on they show Sydney, Australia, defended by a jaeger after a kaiju busts through the wall in less than an hour. In the sequel, remote-controlled jaeger drones are pushed as a replacement for older models, driving part of that story’s conflict.
The jaegers are massive mecha, piloted robots that require upkeep, repairs, and large crews to be maintained in fighting shape. The cooperative message of the setting’s world is also reinforced in the jaeger’s operation: you can’t do it alone, and need a partner, almost always producing a two-person team. This team, working through a brain-computer interface called the Drift produces a memory-sharing neural bond between compatible individuals, resulting in synchronized movements between pilots and machine. The first film shows that these pairs are often a kind of family: siblings are common, as is a father-son pair, and this notion is reinforced in Uprising. The implication is that to save the world from threats this big and scary you must collaborate with others – else the strain should kill you.
The Breach is the core target of the universe: it is not only the instigating difference that drives the development of this version of the world as different from our own, but it is also the main military target of the human characters. Although kaiju are fought as they emerge, the military has in the past smartly bombarded the Breach itself to try to prevent further attacks, to no avail. It is described as atomic in nature, and whose opening is periodic with increasing frequency as time goes on. When its interior is shown in the film’s climax, the Breach is a dimension-spanning bridge that allows the kaiju-builders (strangely called Precursors in the sequel) to deliver their biological weapons into our world as part of their conquest of Earth. It appears similar to a contracting or expanding tubular tract, like an esophagus with sphincter gates.
The Precursors’ world, and the aliens themselves.
The kaiju themselves are ranked in severity along a five-category system. They are, in fact, biological weapons, engineered by alien masters seeking to terraform Earth to be suitable for themselves. The kaiju, and likely the kaiju-builders, are perhaps ammonia-based life rather than water-based, given ammonia being mentioned a couple times in reference to kaiju anatomy.
World Type: Alternate Future. The setting timeline starts in 2013 when the first film was released, and the future history diverges from our world from there, starting with the emergence of the first kaiju from the Breach, and then all the consequences that follow.
Technology Rating: TR 5, Information Age or TR 6, Fusion Age. The jaegers make use of plasma cannons, and are powered by nuclear reactors (presumably fission, but possibly fusion; it should be noted that, realistically, reactors are normally NEVER made to work like bombs). There are also volumetric displays (so-called “holograms”) that replaced most conventional computer screens. One could assume that the existence of giant robots implies some kind of material that surpasses normal steel in weight-bearing strength, and light enough for a jaeger to be carried by a few helicopters – but that can more probably be wand-waved away by the fact that this setting plays fast and loose with physics for the sake of awesome battles. The technology level of the alien Precursors, naturally, is much higher (perhaps around TR 8, Energy Age), as in their world they are shown to have floating anti-gravity platforms and genetic engineering of massive living siege weapons, in addition to dimensional rift gate technology. The sequel has human technology being somewhat higher due to the 10-year time skip: volumetric displays are even more ubiquitous, and some kind of gravity sling was been made into a weapon for one of the jaegers.
Supernatural Rating: Likely SR 1, Forgotten Lore, although in this case it’s simply because the kaiju abilities are so alien. It is possible there is some connection between the kaiju hive-mind and the Drift – perhaps all kaiju are always Drifting, so to speak, or that telepathic ability is something humankind still needs complex machinery to tap into.
Realism Rating: RR 7, Fantastic World or RR 8, Unchained Fantasy. While this is supposed to be our Earth, with all its countries and history (even Barack Obama as president) the timeline diverges around the year of the first movie’s release, implying that the world is in fact a very different one. Technology outside jaegers and physics outside kaiju isn’t really explored, but the majority of the setting serves to facilitate mecha versus monster action and fights: fun and spectacle superseded realism. Of note for the tone of the setting are the names used. People have names like Marshal Stacker Pentecost, Hercules Hanson, Dr. Newt, and Hannibal Chau (though that one he picked for himself); jaegers are named Striker Eureka, Crimson Typhoon, and Coyote Tango; and there are kaiju like Knifehead and places like the Shatterdome. All of this builds a world that is larger than life in communicated significance, as well as in stature.
Culture Rating: CR 4, Poor. Globalized society has taken a hit since all the focus has been on surviving giant monster attacks. Politicians seem interested in trying maintain positions of power, even if it means cutting corners. Outside some background footage and early exposition, where life in the kaiju-ruined world is nasty, brutish, and short, most of the action focuses on the jaeger pilots, who are working on very limited resources that are about to run out. Some people are briefly shown in the Bone Slums having a religious view that the kaiju are a punishment sent from Heaven for the sins of men; it is possible that this sentiment is perhaps widespread. In the sequel, with its brighter and less gritty tone, the 10 year time skip has resulted in perhaps something closer to CR 5, Improving, as the world rebuilds itself.
The Three Consistencies of Fiction
Consistency to Real Life: As a film about giant robots fighting giant monsters, realism was not invited to this party. The square-cube law that should render both jaegers and kaiju impossible is ignored in favor of action and fight scenes. Giant humanoid robots wield flashy energy weapons: neither of these things are at all practical or realistic from a war-fighting perspective.
Consistency to its Genre: To the kaiju and real robot genres it’s fairly consistent: the jaegers require repair, supply, and support; there are no supernatural powers; and although there are some surprises here and there as part of the story they exist to maintain the fun and to flesh out the world. It builds on the premises found in such media as Godzilla, Mobile Suit Gundam, BattleTech, and Dai-Guard. The entire movie is practically a love letter written to the mecha genre.
Internal Consistency: The rules for the Drift are fairly consistent: two pilots share memories, and pilot a jaeger together. There are exceptions: Crimson Typhoon is piloted by three brothers at once, partner compatibility seems to be something an experienced pilot like Marshal Pentecost can ignore in a crunch, and there have been rare instances when jaegers were piloted solo. The kaiju are also mostly consistent as well: they are cloned genetically engineered weapons (presumably different due to epigenetic expression), but there was one instance of a pregnant kaiju, implying some kind of reproduction (possibly parthenogenic). Overall the setting is fairly consistent, but does permit exceptions to its rules.
Life in the World of Pacific Rim:
As a Regular Person/Commoner: Awful and terrifying. Life for the average civilian would be quite bad, between rationing food during wartime, living near bunkers, and the constant threat of kaiju attacks from the sea. Most major cities are port cities on the ocean, so it stands to reason that for most of humanity, life is the constant worry that an alien monstrosity is moments away from wrecking everything you know. Even if one lived far away in Europe, Africa, or far from the Pacific, the drain on international resources will still be felt around the world as the alien threat encroaches.
As an Original Character: Awesome and terrific. While being a jaeger jockey is dangerous work, it is a life of military-sponsored adventure, with a dash of competition with fellow pilots and revenge against inhuman monsters. Keep in mind: despite political red tape and dealing with military brass, your day job would be to ride around with someone you trust deeply to go punch giant monsters in the face, and get treated like a rock star.
Closing Thoughts: The world of Pacific Rim is ultimately a fairly simple one. Monsters show up, people build giant robots, and then the two fight. Humanity bands together against a common enemy. The details lend a texture of modern complexity to this very basic premise as old as dragon-slaying myth, producing a world presented in live-action film that stands among the giants of the mecha industry as a well-deserved equal. I know I’m not alone when I say that as I watch sci-fi movies I look to pick apart the scientific inaccuracies that so often appear in popular cinema (sound is space in particular persists in space sci-fi for no good reason). But for all the ridiculous, over-the-top nonsense that Pacific Rim asks me to accept, and which I might otherwise rebuke it for, the story presents it so well, with such awe-inspiring, hype-building coolness, that despite all its preposterous flaws I still willingly shout “Yes!” and accept and love it. The Pacific Rim world is one I hope to see more of in the future.
(All pictures are copyright Warner Bros. Pictures and Legendary Pictures, from Pacific Rim, directed by Guillermo del Toro, 2013.)